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How Google Applies Science to Search (Part 1)

Dr. Craig Nevill-Manning is a New Zealander who joined Google in 2000 as a Senior Research Scientist to develop more precise search techniques. Previously, Craig was an assistant professor at the Computer Science Department of Rutgers University, where he conducted research in data compression, information retrieval and computational biology. Before that, he was a post-doctoral fellow in the Biochemistry Department of Stanford University, where he developed a software suite used by pharmaceutical research laboratories to identify the role of particular proteins within cells.

A scientist at heart, Craig is probably best known as the developer of Froogle (recently re-named Google Product Search) and the founder of Google’s software engineering center in New York City.

This article is a summary of his presentation at Webstock 2008.

Google’s Spelling Bee

Craig started his presentation by talking about one of his first challenges in his job at Google: the spelling correction tool. As the popularity of the search engine grew, Google needed to be able to spell-correct lots of obscure words. So his solution was to take a sampling of content from the entire web. Craig’s team came up with a algorithmic model and ran it over the web. He discovered that there were several correct answers to the same question. For example, words like “kofee” could mean either the searcher is seeking a cup of java or information about Kofee/Kofi Anan.

To combat this, Craig came up with an interesting solution: the “Did you mean?” alternative spelling option, based on predictive examples of searcher spelling patterns. You can see this in action if you type in “kofee anan” in Google. Above the search results is a line that reads: “Did you mean: kofi annan” and links to the search results for this spelling variation too.

But the research went even further. Craig’s team worked out how to take into account the context of the search query by studying the two or three other keywords surrounding the query, for example “kofee cup” or “kofee anan”. The research used the science of bigrams and trigrams to better understand how people search. Bigrams are groups of two written letters, two syllables, or two words, very commonly used as the basis for simple statistical analysis of text. So Craig and his team applied this knowledge to Google’s spelling correction system and now, Google’s algorithm can determine the searcher’s intent with much more accuracy, based on the context of the search query.

As an example of the spelling challenges that Google faces, Craig showed the audience the huge number of ways “Britney Spears” is misspelled on the web. He said it’s encouraging to see that the most popular spelling is also the most correct one. Scale is important!

Google Maps Lead to Apps

The Google team wrote the code for Google Maps many years ago but the code was actually built into your browser. When Google maps first launched, people took the dense data-script and worked out how to reverse engineer it for their own use. Google engineers decided to release an API key to make these mash-ups easier after seeing so many people reverse engineer Google Maps without Google’s help. Now people can mash-up Google maps within minutes to create their own applications.

To show how easy this is to do, Craig took the audience through the steps to create an interactive application with Google Maps. In the space of about two minutes, he signed up for an API key, grabbed the HTML code and pasted it into his page. He then hacked the map to show Wellington Town Hall (our location) and made the point how easy it is to create really useful tools out of technology that is already available.

As an example, Craig showed the audience Seattle Bus Monster. This site uses an API key for Google Maps to make Seattle bus data and tracking available 24/7. Anyone who needs to catch a bus can look online and instantly find their nearest bus location and run to the bus stop in time to catch it. It’s these types of interactive applications that add value to both corporate and government sites.

Craig referenced Rodney Brooks from MIT whose provocative paper “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control” offered new logic and a completely different view of machines. The idea is that there is no center of control among robots so you should make lots of them; don’t treat them so precious. Craig said developers should use this logic to create lots of small apps that you can replicate and tweak, rather than one big expensive app that can go horribly wrong. Scale trumps smarts every time!

Experiments in Scale That Have Impacted Google’s Operations

Precision vs. Recall

Back in the early 90’s, information retrieval on the web was limited to things like Lexus/Nexus. So at that stage, Google would take queries and apply it to the broadest possible search. This was great recall at the cost of precision. But Larry and Sergey wanted something better so they decided to use Boolean search. At the time it was heresy because everything was focused on recall. But the Google founders knew that things had to be super relevant so they developed an algorithm – the core algorithm. It was very simple and relied on Boolean search to determine relevancy.

Genomic Sequencing

In the mid 90’s a large project – the Human Genome Project – was underway. The race was on to sequence the genome. Scientists decided to feed this out to a bunch of different people. They chopped up the genome for researchers everywhere and allowed it to replicate. The researchers mapped each chunk with genetic markers and computed a tiling path of tiny fragments.

Sequencing was very expensive, so the data was computed based on a minute number of chunks – very labor intensive. The sequencing took forever and reassembling was a long way off. But then a company came along that said they could do it faster. Sequencing becomes cheaper by automating the job using machines rather than individual people so this company used a clever computer algorithm to conduct the sequencing. This reduced the cost and the researchers were therefore able to reassemble more fragments and achieve a rough draft of the genome in 2000. This sequencing approach was the shotgun approach, where accuracy is lower, but the larger scale allowed the impossible to become possible.

Web Definitions

Google used to do a terrible job of defining terms. Craig noticed people were searching for “definition of…”, or “what is a….” etc so he wanted the search engine to provide better results for these searches. He found lots of web pages that contained glossaries and definitions, so he hacked up a Perl script to get the glossary formats.

The first recall results were only 50 percent accurate. He wanted to improve this rate, so he did some experiments with the data. But he could never reach an accuracy level he was happy with. It was later he realized that most of the questions people actually needed answers to could be answered with his crappy little Perl script. He concluded that 100 percent accuracy is not important, that scale is much more important.

Now Google allows you to use the “definition:” query and the question format to get definitions from around the web. Type in “what is a blog?” and you’ll get lots of results from Craig’s original script.

Protein Sequencing

In biology, Craig says, you’re constantly producing proteins. The proteins fold up with particular sequencing. Within computing, you can use this knowledge to do amazing things. You can conduct computations with this type of data but it’s time consuming. Somebody at Stanford University noticed that proteins spend a lot of time moving about before folding into an alpha helix. So it was suggested they start the computations with lots of configurations. In this way you can parallelize the data by scale and one will be magically close to a folded protein. So they worked out a way to reduce the problem to a simple process based on mass scale. This is why Google uses maximum scale to conduct algorithmic computations.

Chess vs. Go

You can now compute the value of any potential move in chess. Based on that information, you can compute your projected probability of winning the game from any move. Chess grand masters put a lot of time into this knowledge. But the opposite is true for the game Go, because there is more randomness to the game play.

(Stay tuned for Part 2)

About The Author
Article by Kalena Jordan, one of the first search engine optimization experts in Australia, who is well known and respected in the industry, particularly in the U.S. As well as running a daily Search Engine Advice Column, Kalena manages Search Engine College – an online training institution offering instructor-led short courses and downloadable self-study courses in Search Engine Optimization and other Search Engine Marketing subjects.

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