The man responsible for Google's ranking algorithm reveals how the search engine is 'getting human'
When Amit Singhal started writing Google’s search algorithms in 2000, little did he know that, a few years later, millions of people across the world would be literally ‘living off’ his work. “I just did it for the love of it,” said Singhal, who is the reason you can find everything, from the latest movies screening in your neighbourhood, to log cabins you can rent in the North Pole, to how many endangered tigers are left on the planet, to the most obscure details archived on the Web.
Singhal, who acquired an engineering degree at IIT Roorkee and pursued his education in the US, was in Mumbai to speak at a conference hosted by TiE. The search guru moved to Google Inc in 2000, where he now heads the company’s core search quality department and is responsible for the world’s No 1 search engine’s raison d’etre its search algorithms.
“In 1990, I fell in love with search and pursued a PhD under Prof Gerard Salton, the father of digital search. After sticking with academics for a decade, I joined Google and felt the need to practice what I preached. I hated reading other people’s books and so I started developing Google search algorithms,” remembers Singhal, who is Senior Vice-President at the company and also a Google Fellow.
He shares a secret “The secret behind Google’s success is that its employees ‘do it for the love of it’. We were offered 20 million dollars for banner advertisements on the home page. But we refused it because ‘dancing monkeys’ on the home page were not good for anybody. We have always considered our users first.”
Future of Search
Singhal offers an interesting example to explain the future of search. “In the world of search, there is a pyramid called the DIKW (data-information-knowledge-wisdom) pyramid. At the base, there is data. Once you can do something useful with the data, it becomes information. For instance, you spent Rs 29 on X and Rs 500 on Y. This is data until the end of the month, when you add it all up and realise you spent more than you should have. You take data and get some information out of it.”
In the same way, Singhal explains, Google has taken data littered all over the web in the form of web pages and made billions of links between them. “There was a mess of data and we converted it into information. You type out a few words and we give you largely what you should be reading.” He continues with his analogy. “After you keep getting information for a while, that information makes you knowledgeable. So you stop spending impulsively, become wise and actually make a decision. From 1998, to 2000, Google was in the business of transforming data into information.”
Information Versus Knowledge
Singhal says when Google realised the need to evolve, the company started distilling information into knowledge. “When you distil information or data, you get to see the magic of page ranking. We are moving towards giving you knowledge. If a user says, ‘what’s the height of Eiffel Tower’, we can answer that instead of a couple of links to figure out the answer. Also, for enquiries like ‘what’s $500 in Euros’, we offer a direct answer,” he reveals.
Unspooling some of the magical feats Google performs for millions of people, a million times a day, Singhal says, ”Using IPGO, we get to know where you are located and so we are able to give better information. For instance, if you type ‘Chinese restaurants’, you get a list of Chinese restaurants close to where you are searching from.”
Google ‘Gets Human’
All searches are keyword-based. But we don’t live in a world of keywords, we live in a world of real things. Google is now headed towards making a search system based on the way the human mind thinks as opposed to responding to mere words. Through its knowledge graph, it is starting to show how humans think about words. For instance, when you search for Taj Mahal, it not just shows some basic information in a small column on the right but also a list of what ‘people also search for’ when they search for ‘Taj Mahal’. “We can anticipate what you need because there have been wonderful Google users before you who told us what the world wants to know about.”
Friend, Philosopher and Guide
And, finally, the fourth and final step ‘wisdom’. “If Google knows through the alerts on your calendar or confirmation of your flight tickets on your gmail that you’re taking a trip to London, it will tell you what the weather will be like in London. It may also tell you that you appear to love cricket. Since, there is a match at Lord’s, why not go for it? Thus when knowledge starts arguing with information, we become wise,” he says, with a philosophical touch.
“The destiny of search is to become the Star Trek computer, a perfect assistant by my side whenever I need it. I can ask it things and it will also tell me what I need to know. That is where search is going.”
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