01 March 2011

Google shouldn't copy Blekko.

Ranking the best content for a given search query has always been a difficult task. I have no quarrel with those who note that search engine optimization techniques have allowed inferior content to overshadow the good stuff to a certain extent. It's definitely not easy to run a search engine -- part of the job is staying one step ahead of all those people who would like to manipulate search results for their own ends and they are legion. However, I don't consider ignoring wide portions of the Web to be part of the job...if anything, it's an abandonment of a search engine's fundamental duty. If a search engine no longer indexes the accessible Web, it is partially blind. It doesn't itself really know what is out there and so it can't possibly be trusted to direct its users to the best content.

Thus, when the search engine Blekko opted to ban a slew of sites accused of being spam by its users, I was frankly appalled, and my consternation only grew as I read through the list of the banned sites. Freewebs (rebranded Webs now) was one of the victims...it is a free web space provider, for goodness sakes! Just as they did on GeoCities back in the day, people use Freewebs/Webs today to gain experience building and maintaining web sites for free. Kids, Internet novices, and cheapskates, listen up: Blekko doesn't think you deserve a chance to be seen. Somehow, an online dictionary and a petition site made the list, too. That many of the banned sites do host rather poor content is undeniably true -- there is a reason so many Blekko users branded content on these sites "spam." However, many of these same sites host good and useful content as well. Rather than seeking to rank individual pages on their own merits, Blekko decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Should this idea catch on, it will place a target on the back of every site that dares to allow its users to contribute content...every article archive, every free web host, and every blogging host is at risk because these sites by design cannot guarantee an across the board consistency to their content. Blekko at the moment is a rather insignificant player in the search world, but I know a dangerous idea when I see it, especially a dangerous idea that can be linked to a noble idea like fighting spam and worthless content. Search engines at their best encourage free expression because they allow every writer a spot in the index...perhaps any particular individual's voice is hard to hear amidst the din of the crowd, but heard it can be if only that right, magical set of keywords is entered into a search engine. That's why I love writing on the Web: no matter how obscure a blogger I may be, I'm still just a few words in a search box away from being read. At least until Blekko takes over, that is.

Google has recently responded to the demands of its users for better search results with a significant algorithmic change. When Google talks about reducing "rankings for low-quality sites," it's difficult not to see the influence of Blekko at work. For now, though, Google seems to be trying to do things the right way -- it isn't banning low-quality sites but rather just trying to rank them more appropriately. However, even this mission isn't quite right...Google should be able to find the good content hosted on ANY site. Branding a particular site "low quality" may be convenient, but if the high quality content hosted on a low quality site appears below the low quality content hosted by a high quality site search engine results will still be bad. Certainly some content does indeed deserve to be sent to the Void -- sites that intentionally host malware, for instance -- but "low quality" (ultimately a rather subjective valuation) sites may still be useful and certainly do not deserve invisibility. Hopefully Google will not forget that its users count on it to keep track of the entire Web, even those neighborhoods some consider to be on the wrong side of the tracks.