How Google and Matt Cutts make the internet useful

Last week, Jen and I had dinner with our friends Sarah, Matt, and Sarah’s parents. Sarah’s father Roger is a mathematics professor in Morehead, Kentucky and has a keen interest in computers. As we loaded the dishwasher, he asked me a bit about the work I’ve done in development and interactive marketing. He then started to tell me about a friend’s son who was highly regarded in his field. Roger began by stating that this individual was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina but left before completing his PhD.

I cut him off mid-sentence. “Are you talking about Matt Cutts?”, I asked. Roger beamed in affirmation.

I would venture to say that anyone working in search engine marketing has probably heard of Matt Cutts, and if your search marketing team hasn’t, you might want to hire someone else. Matt is a senior engineer at Google and is in charge of web spam: preventing it, not creating it. Matt joined Google very early in the company’s history and has helped it develop and continually refine its search algorithm. So how has this changed your life and what’s an algorithm?

An algorithm is a logical procedure for accomplishing a calculation or a task. When a user types search terms into, Google web servers use the search algorithm to sift through Google’s catalog of billions of known internet pages and then display the most relevant results back to the user in ranked order.

A friend once told my wife and I that she was “the best” at Google searches because no matter what terms she typed in, the most relevant website always came up first. And that’s the beauty of the Google search algorithm: in virtually all cases, it will return the most relevant results to match the meaning and specificity of your search query.

The search algorithm is really the secret sauce behind Google’s success. Personal finance is a perfect example. For every authoritative website on personal finance, credit scores, or investment, there are thousands of spam sites trying to sell you credit cards, discount mortgages, or trying to take your money in phishing schemes. The algorithm programatically determines which sites to include in the rankings, how to rank them, and which sites to exclude altogether.

A reputation for meaningful, credible results differentiated the Google search engine early on and allowed it to leap ahead of its competitors, even those that existed before Google. In fact, Google now dominates search engine use with roughly a 48% share of total search volume, to Yahoo’s 26% and MSN’s 13%.

Does anyone remember what the internet was like before search engines became really sophisticated? In the past, you might have heard about a new website by word of mouth, email, or by visiting a site that linked to another site. You could certainly visit known websites, but you couldn’t quickly and easily search billions of pages to find the answer to a specific problem, such as “ankle pain after snowboarding accident” or “toyota corolla burns oil“. 10 years ago, you would’ve found the answer to those questions by asking friends and seeking the help of experts: doctors, mechanics, experienced snowboarders, or long-time corolla drivers. You might have gone with the first authoritative explanation you received, or you might have sought several opinions over the course of days, weeks, or months. With today’s relevant internet search, however, you can aggregate numerous authoritative opinions within a matter of seconds.

In other words, the internet and our modern paradigm for gathering information work because search has become so relevant, so powerful, and so ubiquitous. Deep stuff.

So thank you Matt and thank you Google.

(Footnote for the Kentucky people: I don’t know what this “Ale 8” stuff is that you all drink, but apparently Matt Cutts likes it too.)

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