Services & Software

Google SearchWiki brings custom search results

Company gets a taste for collaborative search: SearchWiki lets people promote Web sites they like, delete ones they don't, and share comments.

Disagree with Google's search results? You'll be able to do something about it with a change the company plans to release starting Thursday.

Google's SearchWiki is a feature that lets people elevate, delete, add, and annotate search results. Google remembers the changes a person made to search results, so repeat searches will show the same customizations and notes.

Google has been offering SearchWiki as an experimental feature to some people for months, but starting Thursday it will become available to anybody who's searching while logged in with a Google account.

"This is a search feature that gets a user more control over their search results," said Cedric Dupont, Google's SearchWiki product manager.

SearchWiki shows an up arrow for promoting Web sites, an X for deleting them, and a 'note this' speech bubble for adding comments.
SearchWiki shows an up arrow for promoting Web sites, an X for deleting them, and a 'note this' speech bubble for adding comments. Google

There's also a collaborative element: people can show the collective wisdom of the masses by clicking a "See all notes for this SearchWiki" link at the bottom of each search results page. That shows notes and how people have promoted or deleted pages in aggregate.

Google isn't alone in its customization work. With a research project called U Rank, Microsoft has been testing the user-tuned search results idea. Mahalo presents search results created by humans. And Wikia Search, an open-source search engine, is open to user suggestions. "Today, search undervalues the human touch," argues Wikia Search.

Feedback for ordinary search?
Where things get interesting is whether Google will use people's voting behavior as an input to the regular search algorithm that determines the order of search results. Google already employs human judgment in its algorithm by virtue of its PageRank technique, which judges a Web site's merit in part on how many other Web sites link to it, but people promoting or deleting specific Web addresses could be another signal.

Dupont was noncommittal about whether the company planned to build in that feedback loop, either directly as a signal to influence search rankings or indirectly as extra data that could help the company judge the relevance of its search results. But he certainly didn't rule the idea out.

"We don't close any doors. We constantly evaluate signals" that are incorporated into the search results algorithm. "Search is adapting to the Internet as it becomes a more participatory medium. Now you have people telling us specific things about how they'd like to see their search results."

Certainly people's collective behavior could be useful. For example, Dupont said, "You could imagine if we do see a particular site (about which) people have a unanimous opinion, that might trigger external things. Like maybe we should check out our spam control," he said. In other words, if a lot of people deleted a particular page from search results, perhaps Google should check why its system isn't flagging that page as a problem.

Another narrower possibility could be to use SearchWiki customizations to influence the personalized search results people can get through Google by signing up for the Web history feature. Dupont seemed cooler on this idea.

With SearchWiki, Google produces "customized search results in a very granular and precise manner," adjusting only specific Web addresses and not broad influencers on search results. "At this point we don't have anything to say about how to combine these two features."