Humans Get Bigger Role in Search

Just a few days after the introduction of a search engine that works primarily using human labor, Google Inc. says "me too."

"People think of Google as pure algorithms," said Matt Cutts, search quality engineer at Google, speaking at the Search Marketing Expo in Seattle on Monday. "We've recently begun trying to communicate the fact that we're not averse to using some manual intervention."

Cutts' comments follow the launch Wednesday of an early version of Mahalo.com, a new search engine that operates using people who dig through the Internet manually looking for quality sites. Mahalo.com currently can deliver results for 4,000 popular search terms with plans to reach 10,000 terms by the end of the year. Workers weed out spam sites, sites with overbearing advertising, pages that regurgitate information without giving appropriate credit to the source and sites of unknown origin.

Over the last couple of months, Google has altered some explanations on its Webmaster Guidelines pages to reflect changes it may make in how much human interaction affects its search results, Cutts said. Google has changed the wording in places from saying that certain functions operate 100 percent using the company's search algorithms to now saying more vaguely that the company uses scalable and robust techniques, he said. "We're trying to make the distinction that humans are a wonderful way to improve search quality but we have to do that in a way that is scalable and robust. Our Webmaster Guidelines have changed to reflect this possibility," he said.

Some Google functions do fully work using the algorithm. For example, the algorithm designed to prevent Google bombing, where people cause certain sites to rank, usually for an obscure or humorous search term, uses no human intervention, Cutts said. "The Google bomb algorithm is completely automatic," he said. It runs once every three or four months, he said.

Google uses human interaction for a variety of different functions such as acting on spam, he said. "Google does reserve the right to use humans in a scalable way," he said.

Additional human interaction might come if Google decides to allow anyone to report people who buy links in order to try to improve their search rankings. "I wouldn't be surprised if we add something on the Webmaster console to report that," Cutts said.

He also said that Google may re-write its guidelines to include more detail about the types of techniques that could get sites banned. Currently, the guidelines include often vague instructions, such as to avoid link schemes designed to boost a site's popularity. That can include a number of different tactics, which Google doesn't spell out. "It would be great to start giving more examples," Cutts said.

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