Google Co-op: Add Your Own Vertical Search To Google

Google said
it would have a health-related announcement at today’s Google
Press Day
— but no, it’s not Google Health. Instead, it’s
Google Co-op, a way for people to create
specialized search engines by tapping into the main Google index or the option for searchers to pick preferred vertical search
providers to show up in Google
OneBox results. Yes,
health information is one of the new features — but this is more than Google
Health. This is Google making a giant and somewhat perplexing leap into mass
tagging.

Subscribed Links

Let’s start in with the specialty or
vertical search providers, what Google calls
subscribed links. Many are probably familiar with how for some queries, Google
will show what it calls a OneBox result at the top of the "regular" results. For
example, a search on
san francisco
hotels
brings up a section like this at the top of the page


Local results for hotels near San Francisco, CA


San Francisco Marriott
– 1.0 miles NE – 55 4th St, San Francisco, 94103 –
(415) 896-1600

Hyatt Hotels & Resorts: Park Hyatt San Francisco
– 1.7 miles NE –
333 Battery St, San Francisco, 94111 – (415) 392-1234

Hyatt Hotels & Resorts: Hyatt at Fisherman’s Wharf
– 2.2 miles N –
555 N Point St, San Francisco, 94133 – (415) 563-1234

Those results are powered by one of Google’s own vertical search engine,
Google Maps (formerly Google Local). The
new subscribed links service lets people choose other non-Google vertical search
engines to show at the top of the page, if they want to.

It’s a very cool idea. For example, say you are regularly searching for
information about search engines and would like to know if Search Engine Watch
specifically has any matching info along with searching the entire web for that
topic. If we get our act together (and we’ll try soon), you could make us one of
your subscribed links. Then the next time you search for something where we have
content, you might see our matches right at the top of Google.

Where do you find providers? Google’s got a currently very small directory of
them here to choose from.
Preferred partners are already listed, partners that Google thinks people will
be especially interested in, not those who have paid. No money is exchanging
hands in either direction to be a subscribed link provider, Google says.

Digg is the only news provider listed at the moment. I subscribed to see how
it works. Not too well. Perhaps not at all. Searches for Google, Playstation,
Nintendo — all topics on Digg right now — brought nothing up. Hmm. I tried
subscribing to People. Searches on Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie gave me nothing.

Frankly, I don’t think the system is working right just yet, as I’ll get to
further below. I also have a note out to Google about this. In the meantime,
let’s just pretend it’s working. How do we at Search Engine Watch or anyone else
get to be in that directory or a subscribed link partner in general.

Here’s the
guide
that allows anyone to get started. I had to laugh at the intro:

The API was designed to be as easy to use as possible, and requires only
basic XML skills. This guide will show you how to create subscribed links, with
plenty of examples along the way.

I laughed because in short order, I was lost! Barry Schwartz, who is a
programmer, still felt lost himself and said he’d through it at "one of his XML
guys" tomorrow. In contrast, making a
Google Toolbar
Button
is a heck of a lot easier. I sure wish making subscribed links were,
because they are potentially going to be an important new way for people to
ensure they are getting traffic from Google.

Anyone can make a subscribed link to offer on via their own site (though the
developer guide doesn’t go into details about this, such as how to place it).
Naturally, what you really want is to be in the directory that Google itself
offers. Again, the developer guide doesn’t cover this. But
this appears to
be the submission page.

As for who gets in, Google told me that those included and featured in the
directory will be based on user uptake. Get a lot of people subscribing to your
results, and you’ll more likely be featured to users.

Two last things on Subscribed Links:

First, another OneBox! Just how much can Google shove above the "regular"
results. Google tells me that they are currently trying not to show more than
two of their own — so potentially, you might be looking at three in all on the
page. You’ll never see more than on Subscribed Links OneBoxes, and these will
come before Google’s own.

Second, if the entire idea feels familiar, you might be recalling
Yahoo Subscriptions. That
launched last June and is explained more in our
Yahoo Search
Subscriptions Brings Premium Content Into Web Search
article.

I’ve no idea how popular the service is, but I’m guessing not much, given
that most people seem never to have heard of it. Unlike the Google system, the
number of partners is very small and there’s no API allowing anyone to jump in.
Instead, you’ve got to go the
contact form
route
. I suspect Google’s system will be far more popular, since it should
have a much wider range of providers.

Labels, Google Health & Vertical Search

A second part of Google Co-op is the ability to allow people to label URLs
into different topic areas. You mean tagging! Google
still prefers
the term label, while I’m still a hold out for saying categories. But whatever
the name, it’s not like the idea of tagging you might be used to at other
places. This is industrial-strength tagging.

For example, with
Yahoo My Web 2.0,
I can tag any page with any words I prefer. The system is really designed for me
to tag on a one-by-one basis. If I do a search, see something I like, I can
click the Save button, add a tag, some notes and have that individual page
stored for easy recall.

Yes, I can import many pages and assign them all tags en masse. But that
doesn’t seem to be the case for most people. The system currently has only 1.1
million pages tagged, hardly double the amount I recall it having not long after
launching last year. If there were massive tagging imports, I’d expect the
number to be higher.

In contrast, Google’s label system is initially designed as a more mass
tagging system for those who want to create vertical search engines. Google’s
now rolled out a number of these:

Let’s dive into the health area. Sure, call it Google Health if you want —
though Google says a more full-fledged Google Health is coming and definitely
doesn’t call this Google Health itself. Whatever you all it, this health thing
lets you search against pages that have been labeled with the help of
contributors such as the Mayo Clinic or the Harvard Medical School as being
health-specific.

Ideally, it means that I should be able to do a search and get back only
stuff related to health issues. Here’s an example. Say I search for
cold on regular Google. The
first link is for the musical band Cold, and the third link is for Cold Stone
Creamery. That’s great place for ice cream, but the only health connection is
that it might make you fat! Midway down, Macromedia shows up because of its
ColdFusion product, then there are two links on the Cold War followed by two
links on Cold Mountain.

For regular Google, this variety is fine. Who knows what you want when you
search for the word cold? It could be any number of things. But for a health
search, you want to get rid of all that junk. Google Health’s labels ideally
should do this. But go
there
, then

search
and what happens? Pretty much nothing. The off-topic stuff I
mentioned is still there!

I suspect there’s a bug in the system right now. Google Co-op didn’t go live
when announced, and then it slowly came up. I’ll check on this, and the better
test will be in a day or so, especially when some of these new topical areas are
pitted against existing verticals in various areas. But conceptually, hopefully
you’ll understand what’s happening. In each of the topic areas above, either
contributors have helped label content or Google’s worked behind-the-scenes to
get some of these going.

Keep in mind that for any top level label/topic/category, there are also
sublabels/subtopics/subcategories. So for health, you’ll see further narrowing
options such as:

  • Symptoms
  • Treatment
  • Drug Uses
  • Support Groups

What about for the more individual user that wants to label? Good luck. Here
are a bunch of
instructions
. They make my head spin. Maybe it will spin less when I read it
many more times. But compared to tagging elsewhere, it’s a nightmare.

Heck, it’s a nightmare compared to trying to make a vertical search engine
period versus a place like Rollyo. Want to make
a health vertical search engine there? Give it up to 25 web sites and you’re
done.

Google told me it does want to make the process easier for anyone to take
part, so hang in there, if the programming stuff makes you feel excluded as it
does me.

The downside to Rollyo, compared to what Google’s doing, is that you won’t
have all the refinement and subcategories. But I find it difficult to understand
how well these will work, anyway. There’s no controlled vocabulary for new
people coming in. Moreover, it seems like some of these refinements could be
done through clustering. My
Yahoo My Web
Tagging & Why (So Far) It Sucks
article goes into some depth about these
types of issues from when Yahoo rolled out My Web 2.0. They seem just as
applicable to the new Google label system.

When Yahoo launched My Web 2.0, my gut felt like we were making a big step
backwards, using humans to do stuff where technology actually could work. I
wrote
similar things when Google Base went up, pushing people into tagging content
when it might not be necessary.

Don’t get me wrong. I want humans involved in the search process. If
anything, I’ve also
written about
how the growth of crawlers and automation has pushed human help sadly — and
perhaps harmfully to relevance — to the side.

Certainly it’s a big positive that Google’s letting humans more in the door
this way — a huge jump for the service that has pretty much looked to
technology to solve everything, as it acknowledges.

"We’ve never given our users this much
control and access into our system," said
Marissa Mayer, Google’s vice president of search products & user experience.
"We
have an advantage with machines and how we crawl, but if we can turn
our users into a network, that will yield better results."

Still, I think the idea of humans sharing and swapping what they like such as
with Yahoo My Web or via the
recent change
with Google Reader might be the better way to go rather than manually tagging up
millions of pages of content. But we’ll see how it goes. As for the idea of
subscribed links — I’ve got a big thumbs-up for that part of Google Co-op.

Postscript: Google Blogoscoped has a nice
guide to
how Google Co-op also works for publishers, though most of the examples shown
are more static than dynamic data draws.

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