Google opens up a little on its search algorithms

The search engine company has kept its search formula a closely guarded secret

After years of closely guarding the formula for its search algorithms, Google is opening up a little.

The search engine company has kept its search formula a closely guarded secret for two reasons: competition and to prevent abuse, said Udi Manber, Google's vice president of engineering, search quality, in post on the corporate blog. Manber said the blog post is the first part of a renewed effort at the company to open up a bit more than we have in the past."

Manber said Google, like other companies, didn't want to share its secrets with competitors, nor did the company want to make its search ranking formulas too accessible, making it easier for people to "game the system."

"The details of the ranking algorithms are in many ways Google's crown jewels," Manber said. "We are very proud of them and very protective of them. But being completely secretive isn't ideal," he said.

Manber said the most famous part of Google's ranking algorithm is PageRank, an algorithm developed by Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. While PageRank is still in use, it is a "part of a much larger system," he said.

"Other parts include language models (the ability to handle phrases, synonyms, diacritics, spelling mistakes, and so on), query models (it's not just the language, it's how people use it today"), time models (some queries are best answered with a 30-minutes old page, and some are better answered with a page that stood the test of time), and personalized models (not all people want the same thing)," he said.

Given the scrutiny it faces in the market as the dominant search provider, Google may be feeling a need to make a greater effort to be more transparent, said Greg Sterling, an analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence.

Sterling said because Google's position in search is relatively secure, at least in the near term, the company might feel it doesn't need to provide the same level of secrecy to its algorithm any longer.

Or, Google may be trying to address an image problem, said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group in San Jose.

"I think the irony that what we've seen with Google is that as time goes on, even though it's positioned itself as the anti- Microsoft, it's kind of been reading out of Microsoft's playbook," Enderle said.

"In many ways, Google is much more proprietary than Microsoft is, and they actually used open source software to get there. So unlike Microsoft, which started off proprietary and has gradually been opening its stuff up, Google starts off getting other people's open stuff, turns it proprietary and then makes money off it. It kind of redefines 'pirate.' I think Google is feeling a little bit of the heat because people are starting to focus on that a bit."

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Linda Rosencrance

Computerworld

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