Exclusive Interview Amit Singhal: “People often confuse context with personalization”

Exclusive Interview Amit Singhal: “People often confuse context with personalization”

23rd April 2012

For some Larry Page or Sergey Brin might be the big mind when it comes to Google. Others believe its Matt Cutts who holds all the knowledge. But ask any Googler who has the most influence on what actually happens with the search engine Google and most probably 99% of them will answer: Amit Singhal.

Amit Singhal is the Senior VP at Google, a “Google Fellow”, and the head of Google’s core ranking team. There are not many issues with Google Search which do not go past him. Amit Singhal and his team are responsible for the Google search algorithms. The video from the Search Quality Meeting which we showed before and is also placed at the end of this post shows just that: it is Singhal who makes the decisions and it is Singhal who knows the most. Anyone who looks at leaderships will also notice that the way Singhal leads the meeting is like a natural leader.

In a few weeks time Singhal will make a rare appearance on the stage of a major search conference. And even rarer: that appearance will not be in the US, but in Europe: at SMX London 2012. We talked to Danny Sullivan about that show earlier and now we have the exclusive chance to talk to Amit Singhal who was kind enough to answer some of our burning questions. We tried to ask him questions on different topics: Search Plus Your World, the Panda Update, Google and Europe and some of the privacy issues Google is running into. Enjoy!

A bit on Google Search Plus Your World and Panda

A year after the first ‘release’ of Panda, do you feel it has worked? And will we be seeing more of these kind of updates?

“Taking a step back–looking more generally at search–our goal is simple: to give users the most relevant answers to their queries as quickly as possible. As new content comes online, some good and some not-so-good, we need to tune our algorithms constantly (last year, for example, we made over 520 improvements to our algorithm). We heard from our users that they want to see fewer low quality sites in our results. Panda was one of our more significant updates which aimed to improve the quality of our results, and we’ve been happy with the response we’ve seen. Users are indeed finding higher quality sites in their results. In addition, Google’s success is built on an ecosystem of high-quality publishers, so we’ve been very pleased that these changes help high-quality publishers get more traffic in search.”

Google SPYW now is ‘live’ in the US for a few months. Are you happy with the way it is rolled out at the moment?

“The user response to Search plus Your World has been really positive, and we’re working to expand it in a variety of ways.”

Can you tell us something about the timeline for roll out in the rest of the world?

“We intend to roll this feature out internationally but we don’t have firm timelines to share at present.”

There are people who feel that if Google personalizes their search results they won’t be able to see any ‘regular’ results anymore, what you could call the ‘filter bubble’. They feel that if they will only get results focussed on their needs they will ‘miss out’ on a lot of good information. What would you like to tell these people?

“People often confuse context with personalization, and these are different things. Context includes factors such as language, location, and time of year. Having results tailored to you helps you find answers that are more relevant to your life and needs, whether it’s a restaurant right up the street, or search results in your language. Regarding personalization, our users value serendipity in search as well, so we actually have algorithms in place designed specifically to limit personalization and promote variety in the results page. With our recent launch of personal results we’re providing unprecedented control over personalization in search, with a toggle switch right on the results page that allows you to see unpersonalized results with a single click. We are also providing an opt-out in search settings.”

It seems as if Google is a lot more ‘open’ than it was a few years ago: a monthly updates, even a video showing us part of a Search Quality meeting. What are the thoughts behind the openness?

“Actually I think the whole thing about Google not being transparent is a bit of a myth. We’ve always communicated with webmasters and users about how we rank sites and why. We’ve published hundreds of research papers on search and even the ‘secret sauce’–PageRank–is not really a secret, as you can see here. The search quality meeting we filmed was a bit of an experiment to see what people thought, and it seems to have gone down quite well. We want to continue finding new ways to show how much we care about the problems in search and what we’re doing to try to improve them. So we’ll definitely think about doing more of these types of projects future to take transparency even further.”

A bit on Google and Europe

Google has a world wide focus and a world wide dominance when it comes to search. If you look specifically towards Europe Google has a market share which can hardly be any higher. What are challenges for Google when it comes to Europe?

“We may be a popular choice as a search engine, but we are far from dominant. We face significant competitive pressure from a range of websites, social networks and apps. That’s why we continue to innovate in search so hopefully users will continue to use our products.”

It seems as if a lot of things concerning Search Quality and specific Google features are not working in a lot of European countries. Why is that?

“We generally test potential algorithmic changes extensively before releasing them because we want to make sure they’ll help people get better results. In some cases testing looks better in some languages and regions than others, so we decide to release to some of our users before others rather than holding up the entire launch.”

What is your view on the European regulators? Are they more ‘difficult’ than the US ones, and how is Google approaching this issue?

“We are continuing to have productive conversations with both the European Commission and the FTC as part of their ongoing investigations.”

A bit on privacy matters

Does Google know what will happen with Google Analytics once the new Cookie laws are put in place by the EU?

“As with all Google products, transparency and control have always been at the heart of our commitment to respect the privacy of our users. The ePrivacy directive encourages all websites to embrace these important values, and we’re working actively with industry associations and other stakeholders to ensure that the rules are applied in a consistent and user-friendly way.”

What should Google’s role be in the privacy debate?

“We know that our business is entirely dependent on earning and keeping the trust of our users. We work hard to ensure that we lead the industry in providing people with clear information about what we do with data and tools to control how their data are used. We’re committed to engaging in public discussions on this issue, because we know how important it is.”

Take a look at the video of the Search Quality Meeting we published a few weeks ago:

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Written By
Bas van den Beld is an award winning Digital Marketing consultant, trainer and speaker. He is the founder of State of Digital and helps companies develop solid marketing strategies.
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