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Google's Norvig: After The Top Result, There's No Right Or Wrong

In light of this week’s news that Google Wave has crashed, plus Danny Sullivan’s follow up piece about Google’s other failures, it’s somewhat ironic that Slate magazine this week published an interview with Peter Norvig about … being wrong.

Norvig is Google’s Director of Research and has been with the company for almost ten years – including three years as director of search quality. (You may also have seen him keynote our SMX West conference earlier this year.) With all that experience behind him at Google, Norvig has some interesting thoughts on tolerance toward search results being wrong.

If you’re doing a Web query and some of the computers break in the middle and you don’t get exactly the same result as someone else doing the same query, well, OK. You don’t want to drop the top result; if I do a search of the New York Times, I want nytimes.com to be the top result. But what should the 10th result be? There is no right answer to that. If a hardware error means we dropped one result and somebody had a different result at No. 10, there’s no way of saying that’s right or wrong. Whereas if I’m a bank, I can’t say, “Oh, one out of every million transactions, I’m just going to lose that money.” I can’t have that level of failure. But at a search company, you’re more tolerant of error.

Norvig says that about half of Google’s search-related ideas actually work — i.e., they make Google search better. And he says some Google ideas end up in Google Labs because they don’t fit anywhere else, or because there’s a “brand-image issue” with them. He also shares an interesting comment about wanting diversity in Google’s search results:

We haven’t figured out any way to get around majority rules, so we want to show the most popular result first, but then after that, for the second one, you don’t want something that’s almost the same as the first. You prefer some diversity, so there’s where minority views start coming in.

The entire interview, while not groundbreaking, offers an interesting glimpse into Google as a whole and the company’s approach toward what’s right and wrong.

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