Is All Relevance “Googly” Relevance? Aka Google’s `Microsoft Moment’

I just finished reading a though provoking post from Anil Dash, about how Google’s recent Chrome OS announcement signifies an important moment

This is, for lack of a better term, Google’s “Microsoft Moment”. This is the point when the difference between their internal conception of the company starts to diverge just a bit too far from the public perception of the company, and even starts to diverge from reality. At this inflection point, the reasons for doing new things at Google start to change.

Dash gives a number of explanations for why he believes this moment has arrived.  The first observation that struck me was about Google’s attitude toward self-promotion.  For its entire company history, Google has proudly and vocally called attention to the fact that it does not advertise its own services; its products speak for themselves and are spread by word-of-mouth and by reputation alone.  That is the self-declared “Googly” way.  This was not just early days rhetoric, spoken only when the company was young.  As recently as last year’s SIGIR 2008 conference in Singapore, Googler Kai Fu Lee explicitly stated during his keynote speech the fact that Google does not self-advertise.  But this, Dash says, is changing.  Now there are slick television ads for Chrome.  There are highly promoted developer conferences for Android.  And just two days before Kai Fu Lee gave his SIGIR talk, categorically declaring that Google never self-advertises, I was at a San Francisco Giants game and saw a large, LED banner advertisement for Google Transit.  This change has an effect on the public perception of the company. Dash writes:

This would be okay, except that I doubt Google’s internal self-image as an organization has changed to reflect this new reality. “We’re not like some giant company with flashy TV ads — we’re just a bunch of geeks in Mountain View!” And while that might be true for the vast number of engineers who define the company’s internal culture, the external impression of Google being just another tech titan like Microsoft will gain footing, making the audience for Google’s messages less tolerant of ambiguity and less forgiving of mistakes…Google has made commendable steps towards communicating with those outside of its sphere of influence in the tech world. But the messages will be incomplete or insufficient as long as Google doesn’t truly internalize and accept that its public perception is about to change radically. The era of Google as a trusted, “non-evil” startup whose actions are automatically assumed to be benevolent is over.

Now, you might ask: What does all this have to do with this Information Retrieval blog? Shouldn’t I, as an information retrieval researcher, be more concerned with what is happening in the algorithms than with all the corporate games and positioning?  In an ideal world, yes. But what makes information retrieval so fascinating to me is that it does not exist in an ideal world. There are no purely Platonic forms toward which information retrieval can strive; there is only the messiness of information retrieval’s core concept: Relevance.  

These corporate games therefore intersect information retrieval when a company’s internal perspective on Relevance starts to diverge from the public’s external perspective. There is a growing disparity between internal cultural belief and external perception of that belief.  There is a “Googly” way to construct relevance that does not match the public’s understanding, and this causes problems to arise.  What evidence do I see of a widening chasm?  Two days ago, the Rosetta Stone sued Google for trademark violation in regards to keyword advertising:

In the lawsuit, the company alleged that Google is allowing third parties, including individuals involved in software piracy, to purchase the right to use its trademarks—or other “confusingly similar” terms—in Google’s Adwords advertising program…Rosetta Stone’s General Counsel Michael Wu said, “Google’s search engine is helping third parties mislead consumers and misappropriate Rosetta Stone trademarks by using them as ‘keyword’ triggers for paid advertisements and by using them within the text or title of paid advertisements.”

While this isn’t the first time such suits have been filed, this is the first time I have seen a response from Google of the following nature and substance:

[Google spokesman] Pederson said Google allows trademarks to be used as keyword triggers in AdWords because users searching on Google benefit from being able to choose from a variety of competing advertisers.  ”Just as it’s reasonable to expect a range of brands on any shelf in a grocery store, providing users on Google with more than one option when they search for a brand name or other trademark helps them to find the best product at the lowest price,” Google’s Pederson said in an email.

Last month, Google changed its policy stating that “advertisers will be allowed to use trademark terms in their ad text even if they do not own that trademark or have explicit approval from the trademark owner to use it,” Rosetta Stone said.

I find this to be incredibly significant.  Google essentially says that Relevance will no longer be defined as “what the user wants“, but as “what we think might change the user’s mind, so as to get them to want something other than what they specifically asked for“.  If the user types (for example) for [Reebok] and an Adidas ad appears because Google has allowed Adidas to keyword-target [Reebok] queries, then the user may indeed click (users do sometimes click on results that are not relevant.)  There will be cash flow.  But under no stretch of imagination would I call the Adidas ad Relevant to what the user actually asked for.  If the user used the more generic term [shoes], then it would indeed be relevant to show both Reebok and Adidas advertisements.  Otherwise, no.  Imagine querying for [Reebok] and having adidas.com come up as a top organic result.  Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?  Google has long stated that it “firmly believes that ads can provide useful information if, and only if, they are relevant to what you wish to find.”  If adidas.com should not be returned as a relevant website for the query [Reebok], then it shouldn’t appear as a relevant ad, either. And yet Google believes that it should be allowed to.

Google’s internal corporate beliefs about Relevance are therefore in the process of diverging from the general public’s understanding of the term.  And this is where it becomes important for IR researchers to understand what games are being played so that they are aware of the context in which their algorithms are being developed. Anil Dash writes that this divergence between self-perception and external-perception of Google is happening at a branding and corporate communications level.  I argue that this divergence is striking even deeper into the core of information retrieval: Relevance.  As Dash writes: “This shortcoming exists at a deep cultural level within the organization, and it keeps manifesting itself in the decisions that the company makes about its products and services. The flaw is one that is perpetuated by insularity, and will only be remedied by becoming more open to outside ideas and more aware of how people outside the company think, work and live.”  

Google has reached their Microsoft moment, though in my opinion it’s not just about corporate communication.  It is about relevance.  After passing through this moment, will Google be as open and customer-respect-filled about relevance as the previous generation wanted Microsoft to be about file formats and APIs?  Or will relevance only be done the “Googly” way?

2 comments to Is All Relevance “Googly” Relevance? Aka Google’s `Microsoft Moment’

  • It is nice to see things from a different perspective. I didn’t see the broader picture that you portrayed in your post.

    Relevance done using ONLY the ‘Google’ way = Google being Evil

  • jeremy

    Raza; I’m sure that they’re not intentionally setting out to be “evil”. But they are at high risk of creating a double standard when it comes to relevance.

    And I truly think that relevance is the new black. It’s great that Google is open with respect to software and data. But in a way, that is fighting the previous generation’s battle. The new generation’s battle centers around user control of the type and nature of information that he or she gets to see. Aka relevance. And so if Google doesn’t allow that sort of control, then there is a problem.

    Think about it this way: If Google has one definition of relevance that it uses for its organic results, and a different definition of relevance that it uses for its partners (i.e. its advertisers), how is that any different from the days when Microsoft had one set of Windows APIs for the average programmer, and a different (hidden) set of APIs for itself and its partners? If relevance is indeed the current generation’s battlefield, then I see some strong similarities in these sorts of double standards.

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