Live Blog: Head Of Google Search Amit Singhal Keynote At SMX West 2014

smx-logoGood evening/afternoon (or early morning for our European readers!) from sunny San Jose, Calif., where day one of our SMX West conference is almost finished. We’re wrapping up the Marketing Land Digital Marketing Summit with a keynote conversation between Google’s Amit Singhal and Danny Sullivan, founding editor of both Marketing Land and Search Engine Land.

Singhal has overseen Google’s search engine ranking algorithms since 2000. From the Knowledge Graph, to Google Voice Search, to Google’s new “Hummingbird” algorithm update, no one has better insight into Google’s many methods of trying to make sense of the world’s information than Singhal.

We’re due to begin at about 5:00 pm PT, so stay tuned for our live blog coverage of today’s keynote Q&A.

Okay, a little bit late but we are now getting underway. Matt Cutts hops on stage to bring Danny a t-shirt that says “I heart great content” and then he takes a selfie with Danny and Amit.

Now Google is showing a video detailing some recent Google search products and features. As the Q&A starts, I’ll refer to Amit as AS and Danny as DS.

DS: Let’s talk about Hummingbird. It’s like you took a car engine apart and then re-assembled it but you brought in new technologies. Talk about what’s gone in to Hummingbird.

AS: Hummingbird is a complete rewrite of our search system. The last time we did that was shortly after I arrived at Google in 2000. Over the last decade, numerous new technologies have been built — like Knowledge Graph.

To serve the future, you have to change everything — you have to question every belief you had. One of the old beliefs we had was that people would type two-word queries and you have to give them 10 blue links. Google moved away from that years ago, but the mobile revolution forced us to change how we think.

Hummingbird is about understanding natural language queries, long queries. It’s a ground-up rethinking of how people search in the future. Hummingbird is the foundation that we can build our search on for the future.

DS: Follow-up about Hummingbird.

AS: Hummingbird was like designing our foundation again so you can build a skyscraper on top of it, rather than just adding one extra floor to the top.

DS: Is Google understanding each word as an entity or a concept? If you see “Obama” on a page do you know it refers to the president?

AS: That’s been a huge advance in recent years. With the Knowledge Graph, we started understanding things, not just strings. We built KG to understand documents and things better.

DS: Google was built on an analysis of links. Seems like the rules are more complicated now about what gets counted. Do links still work as a ranking signal?

AS: Links are clearly an important signal about the importance of your content. They’re still very valuable. At the end of the day, we take a holistic look at the value of your site. We’re looking to build algorithms that give users what they want.

DS: Let’s talk about social signals. You’re not using any social signals from Twitter or Facebook, right? If something gets a lot of tweets, it doesn’t matter?

AS: That’s right, we’re not using those right now. We don’t have access to the Twitter data, so you can imagine how hard it would be to build a system that relies on those signals.

DS: You do have access to Google+, but you’re not using that for impacting the unpersonalized results?

AS: Right. We think about it from a user’s perspective. They’re looking for high quality content generated by reputed people. We have the authorship program that allows that to happen. They’re also looking for content from people they know, and we have the personalized results for that.

DS: Why don’t you use more signals from Google+?

AS: We have found that use of social signals in personalized mode is far more positive than using in non-personal results?

DS: Are there other things you would look at to determine a page’s relevance?

AS: (points at Danny) What do you find valuable as a user. We look at it as a human problem. What is relevance? What is high quality? And you figure out what signals produce relevant and high-quality signals.

DS: On authorship, there is no author rank, but could that become a signal?

AS: Possibly it could.


DS: Last time we talked, Knowledge Graph had just launched. How’s that going?

AS: It’s been great. When you have the Knowledge Graph, we are able to answer users’ questions. The answers give people what they want in the circumstance that they need it. KG has been a great addition to our user’s experience.

DS: Are we gonna get to a point where every search gives a direct answer?

AS: If you look at a search engine, the best analogy is that it’s an amazing Swiss Army Knife. It’s great, but sometimes you need to open a wine bottle. Some genius added that to the knife. That’s awesome. That’s how we think of the Knowledge Graph. Sometimes you only need an answer.

The world has gone mobile. In a mobile world, there are times when you cannot read 20 pages, but you need something — an extra tool on your Swiss Army Knife. When you build a better tool, you use it more.

DS: Asks about the Dan Barker tweet and Google scraping content, and how it has 35,000+ tweets. Danny asks how you get the balance right in terms of using other’s content.

AS: It’s a great question and we think about it all the time. We built Google to fulfill user’s needs. Somewhere along the way, people started debating if web traffic is more than users. But keep in mind that we need to keep our user’s trust. We’re part of an open web system. If we lose our user’s trust, the open web would lose its strongest ally (sorry readers, I’m paraphrasing here). If people stop trusting us, then a sinking tide sinks us all.

DS: What about publishers, though?

AS: We deeply care about this. I’ve been in this field for 20 years. The relationship between publishers, Google and users is all one of mutual benefit. We work hard at getting that balance right. You guys (the audience) have been great contributors to the web. The world is changing, and SEO is all about change. Users dictate how the world changes. We are changing so that our users get a lovely product, and publishers get access to our users. (paraphrase again)

(I missed a question/answer here.)

DS: How is search handled within Google? Search doesn’t seem to have a single home — it’s tied into Android and Google+ and Maps. Who’s the boss of search?

AS: As with any real company, you have to collaborate across lines to make beautiful products. Google Now is a strong collaboration between Android and Search, along with voice recognition.

DS: Google has been good with church/state divide between search and ads. But your shopping search engine got turned into paid ads. There are ads in Knowledge Graph? How do those discussions happen about layout and such?

AS: There is a separation between ads and search. You cannot pay Google to improve your rankings in organic search.

The second principle we feel strongly about is labeling, so you “sponsored” and other labels when there’s a paid relationship.

The only way this works is if the head of ads and I get together in a room with our design leads and we decide how we go forward.

DS: Asks about latest SERP display experiment.

AS: We are always testing things. We need to experiment to improve the product. Rest assured there’s a team of PhDs gathering every piece of data we can about our experiments and if it doesn’t benefit users, we don’t do it.

DS: Asks about Google facilitating American Idol voting recently.

AS: It was an awesome experience for our users. (Doesn’t have stats to share, but calls it a “huge success.”)

DS: Asks question from Twitter: Is there a real competitor for Google? Who is it?

AS: Great question. All companies have to ask this. What you observe as your competition today may change. Things change very quickly. We clearly have to keep our eye on the ball, which means build products that users love. If we don’t, we won’t succeed. Competition may come out of somewhere you don’t expect.

DS: Another audience question, asking about “not provided” on search and paid ads.

AS: I’m glad you asked. Over time, we have moved to secure searches. Referrers are not passed to webmasters, but they are passed to advertisers. But webmasters get a lot of information in Webmaster Central.

But over a period of time, we’ve been looking at this issue. We’ve heard from our users that they do want their searches secure — this is really important to users. We like how things have gone on with the organic side of search.

So, in the coming weeks and months, we’re looking at better solutions for this. We have nothing to announce, but we have discussed with the ads side about how we should handle this in the future.

(I missed a question or two here.)

DS: What’s search going to look like in five years?

AS: As the world goes more mobile, and new devices come online, search is going to adapt.

DS: What should marketers be thinking about to survive these changes?

AS: The proliferation of devices will change everything. Technology and information are an equalizer. Devices will get smaller and reach the next five billion people. How will you serve those people on devices? I’m an eternal optimist. It’ll be a world that we will love to live in.

Audience Q&A time.

First question about Google being implemented in car systems.

AS: Nothing to announce here, but it will look like our users want it to look.

DS: What are you most proud of with Google’s search features?

AS: Voice recognition and conversational search. I’m really proud of that.

Audience question asks why Google ranks 5th for “search engine.”

AS: I think people searching for that term are probably looking for something else. They don’t want to find Google.

DS: Do Larry or Sergey ever come in and ask why they can’t find something?

AS: Larry sends me bugs late at night — “why can’t I find it??!!” I say the user is always right, so we must’ve failed you.

And with that, we are finished. Thanks so much for reading along.