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---- Google Co-op
ronburk - 4:14 pm on May 22, 2006 (gmt 0) This is hands-down the most botched and poorly prepared roll-out of any new Google service. People are encouraged to "contribute" their annotations to "existing topics" with absolutely no clear instructions on how to do so. Google groups to support the topics are created, but after an initial "charter" message, no Google employee answers any question. Volunteers are seen wandering these groups wondering how to contribute and what the hell is going on.
It's an interesting situation. The Co-op is an umbrella for two essentially unrelated products: topics and "subscribed links". I'll talk about "topics", which can be used to offer "refined" SERPs to people who subscribe to your view of the world.
The user interface for refinements... sucks pretty bad. Define as many refinements as you want, but if the user's search term triggers your refinements, only the first three of the first three categories (which Google wants to call "facets" for some reason) will display. It is not visually obvious that more categories/items exist. It is not real clear that clicking on the "refine your [whatever] search" link will display your complete list of refinements. And if all your refinements fit nicely in the 3x3 list, then clicking on the "refine your [whatever] search" link will simply display the same refinements. If you click on any refinement, the refined search shows the complete set of refinements, but now with the category titles displayed. You also now see a "Clear refinements" link; it's hard to guess what the typical Google user might think clicking on that link will do.
The documentation claims that your Co-op results will appear "immediately" for you (a lag for your subcribers) after you upload your URL annotations and context file (an XML file of specifications). In fact, they don't appear immediately at all, leading to much initial confusion. Indeed, even days after your topic has been defined, subscribers may see your results only some of the time (for no apparent reason that Google has documented). For example, this morning I went to look at a topic I have defined refinements for. I had to hit the Search button 4 times before my refinements finally appeared. Maybe one has to go around hitting every datacenter once to get them "primed" to avoid this effect. Maybe Google deliberately turns them on and off even for the same client to do some kind of relevance testing. Who knows?
Some of the confusion comes from the fact that some "topics" are special because Google is "developing" them. They ask for contributors to these topics, but don't say how to contribute, how they'll decide which contributions to accept, etc. These "special" topics display differently in Google. People don't have to subscribe for them to appear, and there is no "remove" link.
People have to manually "subscribe" to you (which is to say, all topic refinements associated with your account) in order to see anything different.
The granularity is bizarre. If you're an expert in both Chinese cooking and astrophysics and develop "topics" for both, other people can only subscribe to both your topics or none.
You're limited to 1,000 "annotations" (URL patterns that you can identify as worthy of moving up or down in the SERPs). Sounds like a lot, until you realize that's only 200 URLs with 5 different categorizations each.
The only visible solution to the annotation limit and to the inability to offer separate subscriptions to unrelated topics in your account is... to just use up lots of Google accounts, where the purpose of each is simply to be a container for a separate topic or to add additional URL annotations to one of your other topics. In the latter case, you'll have to somehow convince your users to subscribe to your multiple accounts if you want them to see the results you've defined. And, like so many things with Co-op, the effect of the order of account subscription in the face of conflicting annotations is not documented.
Your annotations can only be used to "refine" the SERPs, or to remove specific URL patterns from them -- you cannot add new URLs to existing search results. This means, for one example, that if your "widgets" website is sandboxed, you won't be able to construct a refined search that is the same as searching for "widgets", except with URLs from your website appearing at the top. refinements can only reorder SERPs or remove URLs from SERPs -- they cannot add URLs to SERPs
To be clear, I use the mythical concept of "sandbox" here to simply mean "not appearing anywhere in the top 1,000 (that is, visible) SERPs". There is no sandbox conspiracy here, and the effect can be seen in most any website for some term. For example, dmoz.org is not believed to be sandboxed, yet I cannot use a Co-op refinement to move dmoz.org/Computers/Software/Backup/ to the top of the SERPs for the search query "abc". The reason is, even though that PR6 page does contain the word "abc", it does not rank for it in the visible SERPs (the top 1,000). You can't use refinements to inject URLs into the SERPs that aren't already there.
You can also modify SERPs by appending new terms to the user's original search term. For example, if you search for "widget" and then click on the refinement named "repair", I can arrange for the following SERPs to be displayed: "widget (repair OR damage OR fixing)".
You can also create refinements that display a specific web page instead of refined SERPs. A possibly unintended consequence of this feature is that I can construct a "refinement" that turns into a fetch of www.google.com/search?q=newterms. If those new terms also trigger some of my other defined topic refinements, then you get the effect of "chained-together" or hierarchical refinements -- even though the system is really not set up to offer any hierarchy of topics.
You don't get to a priori modify the results of your subscribers. Only if they type in a search query that matches one of your patterns will a "teaser" be displayed that invites them to "refine" that search. Only if they then click on one of the links in that (limited to 9 items) box will you then get a chance to display some modified SERPs for them.
It's very easy at all times for anyone to "unsubscribe". So folks who try to get people to "subscribe" to "refinements" that essentially just make their personal website the top of all SERPs are likely to find those hard-won subscribers dropping like flies.
The interaction between subscribing to multiple publishers of "topics" is poorly defined. It appears that if two different publishers (on purpose or by accident) use the same labels for their URL annotations, then the annotations of one publisher may be applied to the SERPs-rearranging rules of another. However, there is no mechanism for multiple publishers to note that they are sharing labels. There is no mechanism for a group of coordinated publishers to let users subscribe to them as a group.
People's initial response seems to invariably be "OMG, spammers will be all over this." What they miss is: nobody sees your SERPs refinements unless they have a Google account, are logged into their Google account, and have manually subscribed to your Co-op account. About the only real opportunity for vicious spam (as opposed to subtle, very gray-area spam) that I can see is to use spyware to auto-subscribe people to your Co-op spam view of the world. Even then, all a spammed subscriber has to do is click that "remove" link when they see your spammy refinements appear. The spammer could combat this by creating 1,000 different Co-Op accounts and subscribing each victim to all of them. Wouldn't be too hard for Google to automate detection of this though (e.g., when you get a burst of "removes" for an account, suspend it until a human can glance at it and decide whether it's bogus or not).
It's easy to accidentally create really bad refined searches. For example, until very recently, you could search on "bird flu" and see refinements offered by the "special" topic of "health", which is being supported by bigwigs like the CDC. Unfortunately, if you then clicked on the "alternative medicine" refinement, you would see a page dominated by the CDC -- but where none of the results had anything to do with "alternative medicine". They've fixed that particular case now, but it goes to show that it's difficult to examine all the possible implications of a set of rules for matching search queries combined with a set of labels for scoring URLs.
As a subscriber, you get to peer into the annotations of any particular publisher. You can see the URLs that publisher has attached labels to, and what the names of those labels are. However, you don't get to see the "score" (used in rank ordering) for each URL, nor can you see the "context file" that defines what search patterns will be matched and how those annotations will be applied to which searches. That means that I could see that the refined results for "Alternative Medicine" were bogus, but I had very little ability to detect whether that was an accident or a flat-out deliberate spamming attempt. In the case of the CDC, I'm sure it was accidental. In the general case, I might want the general public to be able to scrutinize the details of a set of refinements that Google is considering rolling out into their "normal" SERPs.
The holy grail here is Google's tease that, perhaps, someday, maybe, if you construct topic refinements that lots of people sign up for and love, Google may use your refinements in the SERPs they show to everyone, not just your subscribers. Some problems there include: are they going to display the refinements defined in your account from that point on? In that case, you can now start doing some subtle spamming now that your results are "live". If it's the reverse case, then Google gets a "frozen" copy of your refinements that slowly drifts towards irrelevance.
It seems to me there was a lovely opportunity to tie Co-op into the AdSense search boxes in order to give AdSense publishers the ability to offer something more compelling than the current weakly "themed" search. Maybe that will happen in the future.
Bottom line for webmasters: This is a tool for promotion. If you can create refinements that are useful enough to garner and keep subscribers, and that still generate more traffic for you than the normal SERPs, then this could be worth the effort for particular niches. That assumes that Co-op is going to become popular among users, which is far from certain. Do consider how many people in your target audience have a Google account, or even know what one is.
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