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February 13, 2007

Google Tries to Establish My Worth As A Person

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I’ve been following the discussion on the Google’s Agent Rank Patent application lately and the more I read, the more questions I have and the more it creeps me out. If you haven’t been following along, Patent King Bill Slawski covered the story at Search Engine Land on Friday, explaining the patent application as follows:

"Imagine a system that instead of ranking content on a page level, breaks those pages down and looks at smaller content items on those pages, which it associates with digital signatures. Content creators could be given reputation scores, which could influence the rankings of pages where their content appears, or which they own, edit, or endorse."

This is quite different from the ways things currently work. Today when a user searches on Google, their query is matched based on what Bill refers to as query-dependant data (keywords) and query-independent data (site authority, links, etc). The new application signals a system where the engines won’t look at trust solely on a site level (i.e. who links to you, etc), but on a personal level as well, tying a page to a specific author.

Of course in order for that to work, Google needs to be able to identify who’s writing the content and how many authors are involved. It sounds like this will be done using some sort of digital signature capable of identifying that Bruce Clay’s BloggerX is the same BloggerX who posts at two other blogs and on the SEOblog Forums. Once in the system, if BloggerX has a Google-determined high reputation, then the content she creates will be considered more expert than content written by others, and will consequently rank higher. If BloggerX is instead a big troublemaker with little authority, then her blog posts won’t rank.

There’s also some talk that this may be targeted to a specific niche so that just because BloggerX is an expert on search engine optimization, doesn’t mean she’s an expert on fixing vertical blinds. [However, if you are an expert on fixing vertical blinds, I'd really appreciate you dropping me an email. I seem to have tweaked mine and now they are permanently and annoyingly stuck. It's Jack Jack's fault.]

I’ll adjust my tinfoil hat, but remember the old days when search results were based on keywords and everyone got the same results for a given query? Aren’t you kind of missing those days now? I am. I’m not comfortable with this for a myriad of reasons.

First, let’s recap some of the news stories we’ve read recently, shall we? There was the one about Google tracking all of your searches unless you opt out, the news that you now get personalized search results whether you want them or not, the rumor that your past blackhat indiscretions may be held against you in the court of search engine results, and now you’re telling me Google is going to rank my pages based on my own personal authority and worth? How much longer until my Web site gets buried solely because Google doesn’t like me. They studied my search history, decided I’m ultimately a big jerk who searches for inconsequential things (which isn’t entirely untrue), and then banned me from their index for blatant stupidity.

Second, can authority or reputation even be broken down into a quantifiable scale? What factors are going to be used to determine my worth as a blogger? And reputation according to whom? Google? The search engine optimization industry? Other bloggers? Are you telling me that every post Rebecca Kelley writes will automatically rank higher than mine simply because she’s the more popular one? Totally unfair, I say!

Third, can users opt out or "turn off" these digital signatures? What if I don’t want every blog post I write to be tied to me? What if that makes me think twice about writing about a certain topic in case it’s seen as "unpopular" and therefore not-authoritative? I wouldn’t want the Friday Recap to detract from my blogging worth.

And how about when the work day ends? The Bruce Clay blog isn’t the only blog I write at. I certainly wouldn’t want the blogs I enjoy writing in relative anonymity being tied to this one. You don’t need to know that before I started writing this entry I had Kix for breakfast, half a banana and apple juice (yes, I’m five.). Unless you do and then we can discuss that privately, preferably with law enforcement present.

I don’t understand how this is designed to help users find relevant information. The authority system Google uses now works for me. All this does is turn my search results into a boys-club-style popularity contest. The high authority inner circle will rank for everything Wikipedia style and the rest of us will be buried in obscurity.

The Web was based on a system of relative anonymity. It was what you produced that mattered, not who you are. I miss those days. I don’t want Google watching me in order to give me personalized search results and I don’t want to rank higher because Google likes me. Judging the trustworthy site of the Bruce Clay site is one thing, judging the trustworthy of me is entirely different.

[And seriously, if you know anything about vertical blinds...]





11 responses to “Google Tries to Establish My Worth As A Person”

  1. Bill writes:

    Nice post, Lisa.

    Great to read an deep and thoughtful analysis and opinion of this Agent Rank patent filing.

    I think that if this is developed, and it is presented right, it may be something that people will want to happen. Maybe not in all circumstances (like the details of your breakfast), but in many of them.

    - anonymous

  2. Michael writes:

    Bold statements, considering the topic. ;)

  3. Jennifer writes:

    I’ve been out of the loop a bit this week and was catching up on this topic. I’ve got to say, kudos to you on this post, you’ve totally changed my mind on the subject. When I first read about the idea from Bill I thought it sounded intriguing…after all, it’s not all that difficult to manipulate the current system.

    On the other hand, you do an excellent job of pointing out the problems with this type of system, especially in terms of pre-defined individual popularity impacting rankings…that sort of takes the “no personal judgement” benefit of computer algorithms out of the mix adn pushes us back toward human edited listings. Lots of problems with those as humans are biased.

    Off to blog on this with some generous quotes from your post. ;) Again, very well done!

  4. Lisa writes:

    Mr. Anonymous — When you say “people” are you talking about search people or regular folk? Your point of view very much interests me, perhaps because is completely opposite of my own. :)

    Michael — I also mix whites with colors when doing laundry. Oh yeah, watch out.

    Jennifer — Thanks so much for the comment! I’m pretty sure that will be the highlight of my entire Valentine’s Day. :)

  5. Anna writes:

    Great post and examples as to why this would present a load of troubles.

    I tried to get you a little help w/your blinds, hehehe:
    http://www.blaawg.com/2007/02/14/lisa-needs-help-with-her-vertical-blinds/

  6. gabs writes:

    me no likey ..
    hmmm..
    Off to register author-ads .com
    Buy my author tag for $10 a month hmmm
    ;)

  7. Bill writes:

    Hi Lisa,

    I mean regular folk – bloggers, site owners, SEOs, published researchers.

    The patent application doesn’t go into a lot of details about how this would be ideally implemented, and there is some serious potential for abuse. Your words of caution, and your questions are good ones.

    There are a number of issues involved. I’m going to just look at one with this comment. If you want to discuss other parts of it, I’d be happy to comment on those, too.

    One of the things that this might do is make it more likely that the original author of a work is more likely to get credit for it.

    Here’s how the same content might be distributed around the web:

    a) You spend a week working on an article, and sign it digitally as you publish it to the web.

    b) You republish (syndicate) the article on another site, which might be a collaborative news source. You digitally sign it.

    c) Someone comes along, and reads it, and decides to quote a couple of passages while writing about the topics it covers, which they can do under fair use. They digitially sign their blog post about it.

    d) Another person comes along, reads the article, thinks it’s brilliant and copies it while crediting the original author with a link at the bottom, but doesn’t digitally sign it.

    e) A different reader copies the whole article, posts it on the web, and digitally signs it as their own.

    f) Your full RSS feed is published on the web at someone else’s site, with the use of a server side aggregator, so that a search engine can index it. It is unsigned.

    g) Someone uses scraping software, which pulls snippets from your article onto a page with other snippets about the same subject. There is no digital signature.

    Someone performs a search with a query that might return your content. Which page do they show? The content is distributed around the web in a number of places.

    While Google will rank the pages that they present based upon query-dependent factors such as the frequency of terms that appear on pages, and query independent factors such as pagerank, they now have some additional information to look at, such as digital signatures.

    Those signatures might have associated meta data such as time stamps, and an indication of whether someone is the original author, if the author wants the article to be syndicated to another site (and which site), if the person using the content is reviewing and quoting the material, or if the use of the material might be unauthorized.

    Associating an author with the original content may make it more likely that the original article shows up in a search result over an unauthorized copy.

    The person who quoted the article (and digitally signed that) may also show up in results, but since their action regarding the content was to “review” it, they wouldn’t receive as much “reputation” for it.

    - anonymous :)

  8. Lisa writes:

    I’m okay with all that as long as digital signatures are optional and content producers can pick and choose when they use them. I don’t necessarily like the idea of Google ranking Danny Sullivan’s blog posts higher than someone elses just because he’s Danny Sullivan. Like I said in my original post, the Web used to be anonymous and I’d be careful to turn it into a medium where celebrity matters.

    For me, it all comes down to providing value to the user. If Google can work out this system where it really does make things “better” and “more relevant” without encroaching on my space, then I’ll give it a shot. If not, I’m turing off my computer and not coming back. :)

  9. Ray writes:

    Hmmm… That makes me think of John W. Campbell, the great science fiction editor. He had a great reputation, and published some wonderful stuff. Then, his brain turned to mush and he started publishing a lot of garbage about a “science” called Dianetics by a science fiction author considered by his peers to be a lying loser, L. Ron Hubbard. That was the start of Scientology, by the way. So John W. has a good reputation, so posts on Dianetics would get a high ranking. Ugh. For a less drastic example, take Robert A. Heinlein. He wrote some really great stuff, then his later work got a bit, well, odd. Not too bad, nothing like L. Ron, but still… Any system should do its best to judge each bit of content on its own merits, period.

  10. Jones writes:

    Does this means that example a person is good at SEO and has established his authority then if he will create 100 other SEO sites using his digital signature than all will rank well?
    People are again going to exploit the system..
    Big companies are going to bribe the high ranked authors to get their pages ranked !!
    DMOZ, WIKIPEDIA and NOW GOOGLE !!

  11. Vincent Goldsmith writes:

    Honestly, I don’t care how good the programmers at Google are – I think this is a disaster waiting to happen. If it even does happen.

    I agree with everything mentioned so far.

    And do you know what the biggest problem is?

    99% of the world (the non-SEO, non-Google-Patent-reading crowd) wouldn’t even know this was going on.

    Google has become a trusted brand by at least 50% of internet users.

    Google changes things in the background in the interest of returning “more relevant” information – and to stop people from gaming search results – and in some instances the results become less relevant. Or at the very least less useful.

    And 99% of their users have no idea.



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