Q&A With Google On SearchWiki (Don’t Expect An Opt-Out Soon)
Four days after it launched, Google SearchWiki continues to attract much attention from critics and fans alike. Meanwhile, there remain questions on how it all works, under the hood. Below, a follow-up to my Google SearchWiki 101: An Illustrated Guide article from last week, answering some of the remaining questions. Oh, and for those looking for a SearchWiki opt-out, the short answer is don’t expect one anytime soon.
I’ve organized this article as a Q&A, though the questions and answers are paraphrased from the conversation I had today with Cedric Dupont, Google’s SearchWiki product manager; Johanna Wright, Director of Product Management at Google and Google software engineer Corin Anderson. Any exact quotes are noted and cited.
SearchWiki should now be showing for everyone who searches at Google and has their language set to English, correct?
Yes. There are a few cases where people are using proxies or older browsers and not seeing SearchWiki. In a very tiny number of cases, some accounts might not have been SearchWiki-enabled. Those still having problems should post a report to the Google Web Search Help Group.
What happened with SearchWiki disappearing during some of this past weekend?
That was a hiccup, and we apologize to those users who couldn’t have their SearchWiki on Saturday afternoon. We restored it so folks could SearchWiki to their heart’s content by Saturday night.
Some people are being quite vocal online about wanting an opt-out from the feature. Once it is enabled, you’re stuck with it. Is an opt-out coming?
Dupont said he’s noted that some people want to turn it off citing “visual clutter” as being a potential problem. However, he said that’s this seems far from a universal complaint:
“Before we launched SearchWiki, hundreds of thousands of people tested it and the feedback was positive. We’ve also used this feedback to improve SearchWiki along the way.”
But why not just let people opt-out if they want to, as they can opt-out from other Google products — or how they can use the search preferences page to control number of results shown, popping-open search listings in their own windows, enabling subscribed links and other options.
“While users don’t have the option of turning off SearchWiki, they do have the option not to use the feature. By turning off the feature entirely, people will never get used to the new offering or see how it might be useful to them. We encourage people to try it out,” Dupont said.
I suppose. To some degree, we saw this after Google Universal Search rolled out last year. Some people kept asking for a way to turn it off. Today, I rarely hear that voiced.
Google personalized search is a better example. Some people — especially search marketers — wanted a way to toggle it on or off. Google didn’t care. At best, it advised a way to hack out the URL as a way to do it. Various third party tools are out there that allow this, as well.
Google recently rolled out search customization notices, which allow you to “toggle off” results when they are tailored to previous queries or geographic data. But when it comes to personalized search — something where some people have been actively requesting a similar on/off toggle — that’s not provided. As I wrote in my story about the search customization notices:
I wish next to the More Details option that Google would have also just placed a “Pause” button, so that personalized results could be paused and “normal” results viewed easily, without requiring a log-out.
I can understand the logic in forcing people to use something rather than letting them immediately opt-out, if you’re convinced it’s better for them. As I joked with Google on the call, it’s the kind of argument I’ll do with my kids when they say they don’t want to go to something like ski school. I send them anyway, despite the complaints, and in the end, they’re glad they know how to ski.
But that’s also the public relations problem Google faces, in not offering an opt-out to those who want it. Google comes across as some type of parent telling its children that it knows best. But its users (mostly) aren’t children, and no one want to be treated like one. Google should offer the opt-out, both to solve the PR issue and because I think it would be the right thing to do for even those few users out there who don’t want this.
All hope isn’t lost. Dupont said that Google will watch usage closely. If they detect many people might want an opt-out option, then it still might come down the line. “Based on a few days of feedback, we don’t want to rush into changing this.”
What type of measurements will indicate this need — a mass increase in people staying signed out of Google? Google simply said it had a wide variety of “user-happiness metrics” that it monitors.
FYI, those who want a third-party solution can use the SearchWiki On/Off Greasemonkey script for Firefox to toggle SearchWiki on and off.
It looks like it would be easy for people to flood a public SearchWiki notes page with submissions of pages all from the same web site. Are you considering clustering results similar to web search, where only one or two listings from the same domain will show?
We’ll take a look at that.
Are you considering a browsable guide to all the SearchWiki notes? Perhaps a way to drill into pages by topic or see the most popular SearchWiki notes by views or save activity?
No “table of contents” style page like that exists today. That sounds like a fun feature to have, but we wanted to focus on getting the core functionality launched. But a “What is the world doing with SearchWiki” page might come in the future.
How come I cannot see all comments that have been made even when clicking on the comments link?
Currently we only show a limited number of comments, and it will take a bit of time before we provide a way to browse all of them.
Is it me, or was the delete comment option not working?
It wasn’t you. It’s working now.
Can you explain more about how the thumb-up / thumb-down icons work with comments?
These are ways to give us feedback about a comment, separately from the extreme option of reporting a comment as inappropriate. Thumbing up doesn’t mean a comment will go to the top of the list for you or anyone; thumbing down doesn’t mean a comment will be removed. However, thumb voting is used as part of many signals in determining the order of comments.
So clicking thumbs down doesn’t report a comment for review?
No, it only makes a separate “Flag as inappropriate comment” link appear. To then report a comment, you have to click on that link and fill in a form.
So what’s considered an inappropriate?
Things might include spam, unauthorized copyrighted content, abusive or objectionable content, illegal content or advocating hate or violence. However, people can also note other reasons. If enough people flag a comment, we may remove it.
What determines the top comment shown? Is it most recent, as it seems to be?
There are many different signals that come into play.
There are already concerns about comments, such as this spam comment that made a TV sex station’s URL that showed up under the TechCrunch listing on the SearchWiki public notes page for TechCrunch. What are you doing about this?
We’re no longer displaying any comments by default, which we think will help.
How about issues where people might pretend to be other people and make recommendations in comments, such as here where it looks like Google’s Matt Cutts is endorsing a particular web site when in reality, it’s just someone with a Google account using his name.
I’d emailed this one to Google after our talk today, and they sent back:
This is a lot like what you see on the web already: anyone can choose to sign a comment “Danny.” It’s up to the reader to decide how to interpret this source.
And as Matt responded to this in the comments section of this specific blog: “That’s pretty funny, but it’s not unique. I’ve also seen fake blog comments, fake MySpace pages, and fake MyBlogLog people where people pretended to be me.”
Note that “Matt Cutts” comments twice in that post. The first one probably is him; the second isn’t. And agreed, it is possible for anyone to imitate anyone else. But then again, Google made an exceptionally large issue in launching Knol that it wanted to help people know the “real” people who stood behind content.
With it now allowing comments to be associated with search listings — on pages that might have more circulation than Knol itself — perhaps its worth a rethink in allowing unverified comments to exist. At the very least, the names of those commenting should be hyperlinked back to the Google user profile pages. At the moment, they are not.
It feels like for all the benefits to SearchWiki, you’ve created something of a new online PR reputation nightmare for people to worry about. Anyone can comment about anything, and there’s no real filtering that seems to go on. Any thoughts, advice or comments to those who are concerned?
This was another one I sent after the initial interview, and Google emailed back:
In terms of advice, the need for websites to be vigilant about what people say about them – and on them – long precedes SearchWiki, and is as old as the web itself.
We’ve always been supportive of tools that allow people to better express themselves online, and SearchWiki is no exception.
At the same time, in cases where people express themselves improperly or illegally against websites, we’ve made simple tools readily available for websites so they can take action appropriately.
Are there plans to make it easier for people to delete items they’ve voted on or commented on in SearchWiki rather than having to individually “restore” or “delete comment” for each item?
We’ll look at actual usage, and if it looks like many people are trying to erase what they’ve done this way, we’ll take action to make it easier.
Right now, you show what someone searched for if they comment on a URL, even if that URL is showing up for a different search. As I wrote, there might be a privacy issue with this. Might this change?
The problem is, in these situations, if we don’t show the original query, the comment might not make sense in context.
What determines the order of how things are listed on public SearchWiki notes pages? It doesn’t appear to be most voted items come first. Instead, it feels more like things are ordered so that the first thing voted on has a better chance to be at the top of the list.
Much like the main search results page, we’re not talking much about how ranking works. However, voting is a key factor. You can see results at the top of these pages are the ones that many people have voted to the top of their own results and those not as high may have been removed.
We’re also still looking at the quality of the signals we use. Over time, we think the results in the public SearchWiki pages will get much cleaner, and quality will improve.
Why not show the names of those voting up certain pages, to help make it clear if there’s vote gaming going on?
It’s an interesting idea, and we thought about that early on. We’ve tried to strike a balance between privacy and sharing. I’m sure we’ll continue to explore the idea.
I appreciate the ability to save items I spot within search results. But why not give me a “Save” feature or make Google Bookmarks enabled in the search listings. It feels weird that I have to make something shoot to the top of the search results when I only really mean to remember it.
We did consider a save feature, and both saving and voting up are valid. We choose to go with the voting up for SearchWiki. But again, we are definitely listening to user feedback to help improve the feature.
How are people using it so far? Are they going to the public SearchWiki notes pages or more using it to keep a personal record?
The overwhelming majority of the use is on the [personal] search results page rather than the “All SearchWiki edits page”.
What’s Google’s goal in offering this?
“It’s a new way to empower users. You can remember answers to repeat queries. It lets you add your personal touch to our algorithms,” Wright said.
How about the community aspect?
We expect to see a few new things happening and some of them may involve communities that could evolve around certain topics or searches. Right now, we’ve given out a tool and are letting people use it in the way that makes the most sense for them,” said Dupont.
(Some images used under license from Shutterstock.com.)
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