Tag Archives: Google

UKeiG Article: New Google, New Challenges

From "Introducing Spot", Boston Dynamics, Introducing Spot - YouTube  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8YjvHYbZ9w
From “Introducing Spot”, Boston Dynamics, Introducing Spot – YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8YjvHYbZ9w

My article on major changes at Google, “New Google, New Challenges”, is now available in UKeiG’s latest issue of eLucidate at http://www.cilip.org.uk/uk-einformation-group/elucidate-ukeigs-journal/elucidate-current-issue/new-google-new-challenges

As well as the general dumbing down and relentless removal of search options, it covers the new technologies that Google is experimenting with: artificial intelligence, driver-less cars, robotics, home environment sensors and controls. Some of this is already being integrated with search and “mobile”.

I am running  a “New Google, New Challenges” workshop for UKeiG this autumn in Manchester and London. It concentrates on search, how the changes at Google are impacting the way it manages our search and presents results, and how to use what is left of the advanced search techniques and specialist databases for more relevant research results.

Google dumps Reading Level search filter

It seems that Google has dumped the Reading Level search filter. This was not one that I used regularly but it was very useful when I wanted more serious, in-depth, research or technically biased articles rather than consumer or retail focused pages. It often featured in the Top Tips suggested by participants of my advanced Google workshops.

It was not easy to find. To use it you had to first run your search and then from the menu above the results select ‘Search tools’, then ‘All results’, and from the drop menu ‘Reading level’. Options for switching between basic, intermediate and advanced reading levels then appeared just above the results.

Google Reading Level comparison
Slide showing Google Reading Levels from one my search workshops

More details of how it worked are in the blog posting I wrote when it was launched in 2010 (http://www.rba.co.uk/wordpress/2010/12/13/x-factor-web-pages-are-advanced-says-googles-reading-level/).

So another tool that helped serious researchers find relevant material bites the dust. I daren’t say what I suspect might be next but, if I’m right, its disappearance could make Google unusable for research.

And you thought Google couldn’t get any worse

We’ve all come across examples of how Google can get things wrong: incorrect supermarket opening hours (http://www.rba.co.uk/wordpress/2015/01/02/google-gets-it-wrong-again/), false information and dubious sources used in Quick Answers (http://www.rba.co.uk/wordpress/2014/12/08/the-quality-of-googles-results-is-becoming-more-strained/), authors who die 400 years before they are born (http://googlesystem.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/google-knowledge-graph-gets-confused.html), a photo of the actress Jane Seymour ending up in a carousel of Henry VIII’s wives (http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/09/23/google_henry_viii_wives_jane_seymour_reveals_search_engine_s_blind_spots.html) and many more. What is concerning is that in many cases no source is given. According to Search Engine Land (http://searchengineland.com/google-shows-source-credit-quick-answers-knowledge-graph-203293) Google doesn’t provide a source link when the information is basic factual data and can be found in many places. But what if the basic factual data is wrong? It is worrying enough that incorrect or poor quality information is being presented in the Quick Answers at the top of our results and in the Knowledge Graph to the right, but the rot could spread to the main results.

An article in New Scientist (http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22530102.600-google-wants-to-rank-websites-based-on-facts-not-links.html) suggests that Google may be looking at significantly changing the way in which it ranks websites by counting the number of false facts in a source and ranking by “truthfulness”. The article cites a paper by Google employees that has appeared in arXiv (http://arxiv.org/abs/1502.03519) “Knowledge-Based Trust: Estimating the Trustworthiness of Web Sources”. It is heavy going so you may prefer to stick with just abstract:

“The quality of web sources has been traditionally evaluated using exogenous signals such as the hyperlink structure of the graph. We propose a new approach that relies on endogenous signals, namely, the correctness of factual information provided by the source. A source that has few false facts is considered to be trustworthy. The facts are automatically extracted from each source by information extraction methods commonly used to construct knowledge bases. We propose a way to distinguish errors made in the extraction process from factual errors in the web source per se, by using joint inference in a novel multi-layer probabilistic model. We call the trustworthiness score we computed Knowledge-Based Trust (KBT). On synthetic data, we show that our method can reliably compute the true trustworthiness levels of the sources. We then apply it to a database of 2.8B facts extracted from the web, and thereby estimate the trustworthiness of 119M webpages. Manual evaluation of a subset of the results confirms the effectiveness of the method.”

If this is implemented in some way, and based on Google’s track record so far, I dread to think how much more time we shall have to spend on assessing each and every source that appears in our results. It implies that if enough people repeat something on the web it will deemed to be true and trustworthy, and that pages containing contradictory information may fall down in the rankings. The former is of concern because it is so easy to spread and duplicate mis-information throughout the web and social media. The latter is of concern because a good scientific review on a topic will present all points of view and inevitably contain multiple examples of contradictory information. How will Google allow for that?

It will all end in tears – ours, not Google’s.

Google gets it wrong again

Yesterday, on New Year’s Day, I came across yet another example of Google getting its Knowledge Graph wrong. I wanted to double check which local shops were open and the first one on the list was Waitrose. I vaguely recalled seeing somewhere that the supermarket would be closed on January 1st but a Google search on waitrose opening hours caversham suggested otherwise. Google told me in its Knowledge Graph to the right of the search results that Waitrose was in fact open.

Waitrose New Years Day Opening according to Google

Knowing that Google often gets things wrong in its Quick Answers and Knowledge Graph I checked the Waitrose website. Sure enough, it said “Thursday 01 Jan: CLOSED”.

Waitrose New Year opening hours according to Waitrose

If you look at the above screenshot of the opening times you will see that there are two tabs: Standard and Seasonal. Google obviously used the Standard tab for its Knowledge Graph.

I was at home working from my laptop but had I been out and about I would have used my mobile, so I checked what that would have shown me. Taking up nearly all of the  screen was a map showing the supermarket’s location and the times 8:00 am – 9:00 pm. I had to scroll down to see the link to the Waitrose site so I might have been tempted to rely on what Google told me on the first screen. But I know better. Never trust Google’s Quick Answers or Knowledge Graph.

The quality of Google’s results is very strained

I recently received an email from a friend asking about whether it was acceptable for a student to cite Google as a source in their work. My friend’s instinct was to say no, but there was a problem getting beyond Google and to the original source of the answer. The student had used the Google define search option to find a definition of the term “leadership”, which Google duly did but failed to provide the source of the definition. My response to citing Google as a source is always “No” unless it is an example of  how Google presents results or a comment on the quality (or lack of it) of the information that has been found. The results that appear at the top of the results, such as the definitions or the new quick answers, have been created and compiled by someone else so Google should not get the credit for it. In addition, what is displayed by Google in response to the search will vary from day to day and in creating these quick answers Google sometimes introduces errors or gets it completely wrong.

There have been several well documented instances of Google providing incorrect information in the knowledge graph to the right of search results and in the carousel that sometimes appears at the top of the page (see http://googlesystem.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/google-knowledge-graph-gets-confused.html and http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/09/23/google_henry_viii_wives_jane_seymour_reveals_search_engine_s_blind_spots.html). The same problems beset the quick answers. For a short time, a Google search on David Schaal came up with a quick answer saying that he had died on April 11th, 2003! (As far as I am aware, he is still very much alive).

No source was given nor was there any indication of where this information had come from. Many have questioned Google on how it selects information for quick answers and why it does not always give the source. Google’s response is that it doesn’t provide a link when the information is basic factual data (http://searchengineland.com/google-shows-source-credit-quick-answers-knowledge-graph-203293), but as we have seen the “basic factual data” is sometimes wrong.

Quick answers above the Google results have been around for a while. Type in the name of a Premier League football club and Google will give you the results for the most recent match as well as the scores and schedule for the current season. Not being a fan myself I would have to spend some time checking the accuracy of that data or I could, like most people, accept what Google has given me as true. Looking for flights between two destinations? Google will come up with suggestions from its Google Flights; and this is where it starts to get really messy. I’ve played around with the flights option for several destinations. Although Google gives you an idea of which airlines fly between those two airports and possible costs, the specialist travel sites and airline websites give you a far wider range of options and cheaper deals. It is when we come to health related queries, though, that I have major concerns over what Google is doing.

Try typing in a search along the lines of symptoms of [insert medical condition of your choice] and see what comes up. When I searched for symptoms of diabetes the quick answer that Google gave me was from Diabetes UK.

Google Quick Answer - symptoms of diabetes

At least Google gives the source for this type of query so that I can click through to the site for further information and assess the quality. In this case I am happy with the information and the website. Having worked in the past for an insulin manufacturer I am familiar with the organisation and the work it does. It was a very different story for some of the other medical conditions I searched for.

A search for symptoms of wheat intolerance gave me a quick answer from an Australian site whose main purpose seemed to be the sale of books on food allergies and intolerances, and very expensive self-diagnosis food diaries. The quality of information and advice on the topic was contradictory and sometimes wrong. The source for the quick answer for this query varied day by day and the quality ranged from appalling to downright dangerous. A few days ago, it was the Daily Mail that supplied the quick answer, which actually turned to be the best of the bunch, probably because the information had been copied from an authoritative site on the topic.

Today, Google unilaterally decided that I was actually interested in gluten sensitivity and gave me information from Natural News.

Google quick answer for wheat intolerance

I shall leave you to assess whether or not this page merits being a reliable, quick answer (the link to the page is http://www.naturalnews.com/038170_gluten_sensitivity_symptoms_intolerance.html).

Many of the sources that are used for a Google quick answer appear within the first three results for my searches and a few are listed at number four or five. This one, however, came in at number seven. Given that Google customises results one cannot really say whether or not the page’s position in the results is relevant or if Google uses some other way of determining what is used. Google does not say. In all of the medical queries I tested relevant pages from the NHS Choices website, which I expected to be a quick answer in at least a couple of queries, were number one or two in the results but they have never appeared as a quick answer.

Do not trust Google’s quick answers on medical queries, or anything else. Always click through to the website that has been used to provide the answer or, even better, work your way through the results yourself.

So what advice did I suggest my friend give their student? No, don’t cite Google. I already know who Google currently uses for its define command but a quick way to find out is to simply phrase search a chunk of the definition. That took me straight to an identical definition at Oxford Dictionaries (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/), and I hope that is the source the student cited.

Top ten Google search tips from Oxford

Training room with a view

These Top Ten search tips comes from an advanced workshop I recently ran for a group in Oxford. If this is the first Top Tips that you have read on this blog, a few words of explanation as to how these are generated. These are not my own personal tips but are nominated by people who have attended my full day workshops and tried out the various commands and techniques during the practical sessions.

The participants on this particular workshop were experienced, heavy duty researchers so I was keen to see what they came up with.


1. Verbatim
This is a regular in the Top Ten lists on this blog. It is an essential tool for making Google behave and forcing it to run your search the way you want it run but is well hidden. Google automatically looks for variations on your terms and sometimes drops terms from the search. To make Google carry out your search exactly as you have typed it in, first run your search, then click on ‘Search tools’ in the menu above your results. In the second line of options that appears click on ‘All results’ and from the drop down menu select Verbatim. This is very useful when searching for an article by title and Google decides to ignore the double quote marks, which it sometimes does if it thinks you don’t have enough results. If you are carrying out in-depth research it is worth using Verbatim even if your “normal” Google results seem to be OK. You may see very different content in your results list.

2. site: search and -site:
Use the site: command to focus your search on particular types of site, for example site:ac.uk for UK academic websites, or to search inside a large rambling site. If you prefer you can use the Advanced search screen at http://www.google.co.uk/advanced_search and fill in the site or domain box. You can also use -site: to exclude sites from your search.

3. filetype:
Use the filetype: command to limit your research to PowerPoint for presentations, spreadsheets for data and statistics or PDF for research papers and industry/government reports.

4. Asterisk * betweem terms
Use the asterisk between two words to stand in for 1-5 words. This is useful if you want two of your keywords close to one another but suspect that there may often be one or two words separating them. For example solar * panels will find solar photovoltaic panels, solar water heating panels etc.

5. Numeric range search
This command is unique to Google. Use it for anything to do with numbers – years, temperatures, weights, distances, prices etc. Simply type in your two numbers separated by two full stops as part of your search. For example to limit your search forecasts covering a future time period.

6. Incognito/private browsing
Even if you are not signed in to a Google account, Google personalises your results according to your search and browsing behaviour using the cookies that are stored on your computer. If you want to burst out of the filter bubble, as it is often called, use a private browser window or incognito (Chrome). Google will then ignore tracking and search cookies on your machine. To call up a private browser or incognito window use the following keys:

Chrome –  Ctrl+Shift+N
FireFox – Ctrl+Shift+P
Internet Explorer – Ctrl+Shift+P

7. Public Data explorer
The Public Data Explorer is one of Google’s best kept secrets. It can be found at http://www.google.com/publicdata/ and allows you to search open data sets from organisations such as the IMF, OECD, IM,  Eurostat and the World Bank. You can compare the data in a number of ways and there are several charting options.

8. Repeat search terms
If you are fed up with seeing the same results for a search repeat your main search term or terms. This often changes the emphaisis of your search and the order in which the results appear.

9.Change order of terms
Changing the order in which you type in your search terms can change the order of your results. The pages that contain the terms in the order you specified in your search are usually given a higher weighting. This is another useful tip for when you are stuck in a search rut and are seeing the same results over and over again.

10. Different country versions
The country versions of Google give priority to the country’s local content, although it might be in the local language. This is a useful strategy when searching for research groups, companies and people that are active in a specific country. Use the standard ISO two letter country code, for example http://www.google.fr/ for Google France, http://www.google.it/ for Google Italy. It is also worth trying your search in Google.com. Your results may be more international orUS focussed and Google usually rolls out new search features in Google.com before launching in other country versions. If Google insists on redirecting you to your own local country version, go to the bottom right hand corner of the Google home page and you should see a link to Google.com.

Google to stop ramming Google+ down our throats?

UPDATE: Reports of the death of Google+ may have been premature. See http://www.seroundtable.com/google-sticking-around-18465.html. There are now all sorts of stories and rumours doing the rounds so we’ll just have to wait and see.

Well, here’s a turn up for the books. It seems that Google may no longer force us to create Google+ accounts if we want to use certain Google services such as managing videos on YouTube. The full story is at http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2014/04/report-google-to-end-forced-g-integration-drastically-cut-division-resources/. This is a major change in Google’s approach to Google+ and will be welcomed by many people, including myself.

I have several Google accounts used for different purposes. I set up the first in the very early days of Google -long before even Gmail arrived on the scene – in order to manage analytics and what I then called “serious stuff” related to my business website. I subsequently used it for managing my YouTube videos. I set up a second account when Google Labs and Gmail came along and regarded that as my experimental acccount. Gradually, I used the second one more and more as my main account but kept the first for my business website applications. When Google+ came along I “upgraded” the second account and set up a profile.

Everything was fine until one day I tried to access my YouTube videos that were linked to my first, non-Google+ account. YouTube encouraged me to set up a Google+ profile for this account but I declined. YouTube responded by making my videos invisible to everyone, including myself! So I gave in and set up a second Google+ profile.

If only that had been the end of it. People started adding this new profile to their circles rather than my main one. I tried to find ways around this but in the end decided to just abandon the YouTube videos and delete the superfluous Google+ profile. It is easily done via your Google+ settings page but of course there are numerous dire warnings of all the wonderful things that you will no longer be able to enjoy (not a lot actually!). Despite what has been implied in the past deleting or what Google calls “downgrading” your Google+ account does NOT delete your ordinary Google account.

Do read the ars technica article mentioned above and also Google+ Is Walking Dead | TechCrunch. Both make an interesting read.

Google makes ads more obvious

This is a feature which I have been seeing on and off for a few months so I’m not sure if it is one of their experiments or if it is being rolled out gradually. It’s very simple: advertisements that appear at the top of your results lists and in the panel to the right are marked with a little yellow box with ‘Ad’ written inside.


Over the years it has become harder to identify ads at the top of results as the pale pastel backgrounds to them became more subtle. It has been suggested that the more obvious marker is a consequence of discussions between Google and various regulatory authorities.

Google workshop – top tips

Last week’s workshop on Google had a wonderful mix of participants from the academic, government, public, NHS and legal sectors. And true to form, Google decided to change a few things on the day. The link to the Google News advanced search completely disappeared (it wasn’t that good anyway!) but now seems to have reappeared. The search options that appear at the top of the results pages had changed compared with screen shots that I had taken 2 days previously; they options now seem to change according to the type of query so we suspect that this is an example of Hummingbird (Google’s new algorithm). The Google custom search engine interface has changed yet again and presented challenges to even those of us who are regular users. And then there was the new Google log-out/log-in interface which had us all flummoxed until the end of the day. (That merits a separate blog rant).

In the time honoured tradition, at the end of the day the group was asked to come up with their top 10 tips for searching Google. Here is what they came up with.

  1. Verbatim Several people shouted out this one as the number 1 tip for searching Google. Google automatically looks for variations on your search terms and sometimes drops terms from your search without telling or asking you. To make Google run your search exactly as you have typed it in, first run your search. Then click on ‘Search tools’ in the menu above your results, in the second line of options that appears click on ‘All results’ and from the drop down menu select Verbatim.
  2. site: command Use the site: command to focus your search on particular types of site, for example site:ac.uk, or to search inside a large rambling site. You can also use -site: to exclude sites from your search.
  3. Advanced search commands and search options Learn how to use the search commands (for example intext:, filetype: and site:), Many of these can be used on the advanced search screen that can usually be found under the cog wheel in the  upper right hand area of the screen, but that link sometimes disappears so learning the commands is a better bet.  A list of the more useful Google commands is at http://www.rba.co.uk/search/SelectedGoogleCommands.shtml
  4. intext: Google’s automatic synonym search can be helpful in looking for alternative terms but if you want a term to be included in your search exactly as you have typed it in then prefix the word with intext:.
  5. Country versions of  Google. The country versions of Google give priority to the country’s local content, although it might be in the local language. This is a useful strategy when searching  for industries, companies and  people that are active in a particular country. Use Google followed by the standard ISO two letter country code, for example http://www.google.de/ for Google Germany, http://www.google.no/ for Google Norway.
  6. Google.com Apart from presenting your search results in a different order Google.com is where Google launches new features and search options first. As well as seeing pages that may not be highly ranked in Google.co.uk you will get an idea of how Google search may look in the UK version in the future. It also has some unique search options such as recipes!
  7. Google Scholar http://scholar.google.com/ Google Scholar collects all the versions of an article under an ‘All versions” link.

    All Versions in Scholar
    Click on the link to see the full list, which might include free or open access copies of the paper.

  8. Search by image Click on the camera icon in the image search bar to upload a photo or link to an image on the web. Google will then try and find similar images. There were comments from some of the workshop participants that this does not seem to always work as well as it used to, which reflects my own recent experience of the option. It is still worth a go, though, if you want to find different versions of an image.
  9. Hummingbird Keep an eye out for new layouts and ways of searching that are now appearing since Hummingbird was launched. For example, you can now compare the properties of two similar items: compare cabbage with spinach will show a table comparing the nutritional value of the two vegetables.
  10. Google Custom Search Engines (CSE) Several of the participants had a go at setting up their own CSE. Ideal for bringing together websites that you search individually on a regular basis.

Edited highlights of the presentations can be found on authorSTREAM at http://www.authorstream.com/Presentation/karenblakeman-1975041-make-google-behave-techniques-better-search-results/ and http://www.authorstream.com/Presentation/karenblakeman-1975022-google-scholar-citation-indexes/

Compare Google and Bing results with Bingiton

Bingiton comparison results

Just over a year ago Bing launched a website called Bingiton (http://www.bingiton.com/), which enabled you to compare search results from Google and Bing side by side and then decide which set was best. You had to run five searches and then Bingiton told you which search engine you had chosen for each. After a couple of weeks the site was restricted to US users but it has now been relaunched in the UK.

The principle remains the same: you type in five searches, Bingiton displays the two sets of results side by side, and you decide which you prefer or go for the draw option (“can’t decide”).

I ran several batches of searches through Bingiton and Google won 4 of the rounds. The fifth, which consisted of searches for cake and jam recipes, was a draw with me being unable to decide. Two other rounds had to be declared null and void because “Scholarly articles” links (Google Scholar) appeared at the top of one set of results indicating that they were from Google. Another included what was obviously a Google map!


For me Bing seemed to be better at recipes and shopping enquiries than research oriented queries. Google consistently came out on top for local information and current news. Phil Bradley has also blogged about Bingiton (http://philbradley.typepad.com/phil_bradleys_weblog/2013/10/bings-bing-it-on-challenge-returns-to-the-uk.html) and invited people to comment on their own results. It is an interesting mix and Google does not always win or win outright. Take the Bingiton challenge yourself at http://www.bingiton.com/.