Google.com is such a sacred cow in the search business that I hate to be anything other than worshipful. But its beginning to appear that Googles results pages have developed a problem with relevance, based on my experiences and those of my readers.
In coming to this conclusion, Im most indebted to John Meyer, the president from 1985 to 1990 of Ventura Software, the maker of Ventura Publisher. Hes tested many more examples than I can possibly print here.
Meyer and I compared the results at Google.com against those of Google Groups (the archive of Usenet posts that Google acquired in 2001) and Teoma.com, the technology launched in April 2002 that now powers the Ask.com search engine.
Lets say an executive at your company has copied files from a Mac to a PC. Then you get a phone call. You learn that several files on the PC cant be deleted because they bear characters that are illegal in Windows file names.
Looking for a fix, you type the following words into a search engine: windows delete mac files illegal names.
The top results at Google.com include links about moving Eudora mailboxes, renaming Mac files using various utilities and fixing FTP directories that have blank names. Strangely, theres little or nothing about the actual problem at hand.
Its a different story after jumping over to Google Groups (an easy leap, since a Groups tab is at the top of every Google results page). Most of the top 10 links include at least something useful about the situation you face. (In some posts, you may need to click on the Complete Thread button to see all the related comments.)
Teoma is even more helpful. Its first link is to Experts-Exchange.com, where several knowledgeable people provide solutions. (Visit www.bri.li/4071 to see the answers.) And the other top links are, at a minimum, partially relevant.
Lets look at another example. This time, another exec wants to change Windows XPs File Open dialog boxes so they always default to the so-called Details view. Can you do it?
Type this string into Google: xp open dialog default details.
The first link in Google is an Office XP macros article that has nothing to do with the immediate task. Other links go to tips on Office file management, how to print a calendar from Outlook and other off-topic hits.
Once again, Google Groups scores better than its big daddy. Most of its first 10 links are directly relevant to the query. Teoma is also on the mark, with links to Experts-Exchange, Annoyances.org and other helpful references. (See www.bri.li/4072 for one resource page.)
The indexes of each search engine may have changed since I tested the examples above. If so, select a tech support search of your own and let me know the results.
So whats gotten into Google? Its true that some queries will always work better on one search engine than another, as one Google executive pointed out when I asked him about it.
"These are the types of questions that have always been best answered on Google Groups—there are more good technical answers there and fewer unrelated pages," said Peter Norvig, Googles director of search quality. "I think this has always been the case and is not due to any recent changes to Google or the Web."
But Im convinced that several changes introduced by Google over a period of months have led to unintended side effects in its rankings.
Googles reliance on link popularity may have finally hit a wall. Past a certain point, link counting rewards "optimized" sites rather than lesser-known sites that may contain exactly what you need.
By contrast, Teoma last year introduced something it calls "Subject-Specific Popularity." More weight is given to links between authoritative sites than to other links. This approach looks to me like a winner.