Google Co-Op Overview

By Eric Enge and Rob Pirozzi

Article Abstract

This article provides a high-level overview of Google's new service, Google Co-op. The purpose of the article is to help individuals better understand what Google Co-Op is, how they can use it, and what they will see. This article is intended to be overview in nature. Other articles go into more detail about particular aspects of Google Co-op:

  1. Google Custom Search Engines Overview
  2. Google Co-Op Subscribed Links
  3. Google Co-op Topics - Annotating Web Content

Google Co-op was announced by Google, along with other announcements, in May of 2006. The program was then expanded to include Google Custom Search Engines on October 24, 2006. In addition, the Google Co-Op Topics program was de-emphasized with this annoucement, but is still available to those who want to invest time in this direction.

Google Co-op represents Google's efforts to embrace social web and social search concepts to help improve Google's search results. Google Co-Op provides several benefits to end users, including:

  • Google Custom Search Engines allows subject matter experts (SMEs) to adjust Google search results in a custom version of the Google search engine that can be promoted on the SME's web site.
    1. Users can choose to use the Custom Search Engines (CSEs) published on web sites they trust.
    2. Users can discontinue using these CSEs if they do not provide better results for them than core Google search, or continue to use these search engines if their results are superior.
  • Google Co-Op Subscribed Links allows users to push search results from web sites they trust to the top of the results for related queries.
    1. Google Co-Op allows users to "vote" on what content they find to be valuable by their subscriptions to the content of various web sites that they value.
    2. Subscribed Links allows users, through their subscriptions, to alter their own Google search results so that the provided information better meets their needs.
    3. Subscribed Links also helps end-users to filter out spam content, or content of little or marginal value since subscribed content will take precedence.
    4. Google Co-Op Topics allows users to benefit from the labelling efforts of subject matter experts who have taken the time to provide advanced labelling (categoriation) information of weh sites.
      1. Google Co-op Topics will allow users to contribute context, knowledge, and expertise. In essence, Google Co-op allows users to tell Google what web content really is by providing labels (categories) for that content.
      2. Google Co-Op Topics allows users to "vote" on what content they find to be valuable by their subscriptions to the content of various subjsct matter experts that they value.

Google Co-op is currently in beta test. As with any new service that is being beta tested, there are still some things being "worked out", and new features are being implemented all the time. The remainder of this paper will provide a high-level overview of Google Co-op to help individuals better understand what it is, how they can use it, and what they will see.

At its most basic, "social web" (also known as Web 2.0) is a process whereby users provide information and opinions, and share them with others. It is the sharing that provides the social aspect. Users can share information about what they find to be valuable. Other users can make use of that information, correct it, or vote on it.

A good example of this is del.icio.us where users "tag" and share links to their "favorite" information on the web (for example, favorite articles, or favorite web sites). Other users can search based on the tags used by others, and the sites that have been tagged the most times for a particular search term will come up first. Other examples of "user-vetted", or user-contributed information, would include Wikipedia (the open, user contributed, user edited encyclopedia), and DMOZ (the open directory). There are many other examples.

"Social search" is the same process of humans providing and sharing information to help improve the results that a search engine presents to various queries. Google Co-Op would appear to be a strong move by Google into the social search arena.

Google Co-Op Components

Google Co-op consists of three things:

  1. Custom Search Engines
  2. Subscribed links
  3. Topics

Google Custom Search Engines

Google Custom Search Engines is a program that allows SMEs to provide corrective input to Google's search results. These results are not incorporated into Google's main index. They are instead made available to the SME for publication on the SME's web site. The input from the SME is typically a list of web sites, with some additional parameters. Once an SME has selected a list of sites, one of the most significant choices an SME can make is:

  1. Provide search results only from their list of sites and exclude the rest of the Google index.
  2. Include the rest of the Google index, but adjust the rankings of the list of sites provided by the SME

One of the most important things to understand is that Google does not go out and crawl the list of sites put together by the SME. This list is simply used as a filter on the existing Google index.

The other thing that an SME can do is to take the sites in their list and provide them with different levels of positive or negative weightings. Positive weights move their rankings up, and negative weights move their rankings down.

One of the most important facets of Custom Search Engines is that they include Google ads, and Google shares revenue from the ads with the SME through the SME's Google Adsense account. So the SME can earn revenue for their work.

Subscribed Links

Subscribed links provide several very beneficial features to both users and web publishers. Subscribed links provide:

  • End users a means of altering or tailoring their search engine results so that they receive more relevant search results as well as results from sources that they "trust"
  • End users a potential means of saving time since the results that they need may actually appear in the search results, negating the need to click through to the site
  • End users another mechanism to "vote" on sites that they find to be valuable or authoritative by going through the process of subscribing to those sites
  • Publishers with another means to make content available to end users

With subscribed links, publishers can make a subset of their information available to end users by submitting their subscribed links via an XML file to Google, and letting users know how and where to subscribe. Users who value the content of particular publishers will subscribe to their subscribed links. In so doing, the content for subscribed sites will appear at the top of search results when the users searches on relevant terms. In essence, the user alters their own search results by subscribing, so that content that they find to be more valuable appears at the top of their search results.

As a site gains more subscribers, Google will come to see it as more authoritative. Google will be able to use this information to present high-value, authoritative sites higher up in search results. It is not hard to imagine that this impact on search results will be felt once Google Co-op has enough "critical mass" of labels, subscribed links, and subscribers.

Topics

Topics is simply Google's way of saying "area of interest". Topics allow users to perform two very useful functions:

  1. Topics allow users a way to provide labels (or tags, or categories) for information on the web. A user does this by associating a URL with a label (for example, http://www.citytowninfo.com might get the label "destination_guide"). These labels simply tell Google what a particular URL is all about. Users may use labels for topics that Google already has under development, which include: health, destination guides, autos, computer & video games, photo & video equipment, and stereo & home theater.
  2. Users may also develop their own topics and their own labels for web content. For example, if a user has an interest in "wine" they may develop their own wine topic, with categories (Google calls these facets) and labels, which could look something like this:

    Sample Labeling Scheme for Wine

    Wine Type Audience Information Type Information Source
    Desert wine Wine consumers Wine articles Trade/government organization
    Red wine Wine trade Wine education Vineyard/winery
    Sparkling wine Wine events/tastings Wine publication
    White wine Wine reviews/ratings Wine retailer
    Rose wine Wine sales/marketing

The process of labeling content will benefit everyone in several ways. Labels will provide Google with a vast amount of information about what web sites are all about, potentially down to a very granular, or individual page level. In addition, by taking the time to label a site, users are essentially "voting" on what sites are valuable to them. As these votes accumulate over time, Google will have a more clear picture of what sites are authoritative on a given topic or topics. With time, Google will start to use this data to provide better search results.

Google Co-Op Will Improve the Content That Users See

The whole process of building CSEs and subscribing to Subscribed Links, or Topics, has the added benefit of being self-vetting. This means that spam sites, advertising sites, and sites that provide marginal or useless content will be pushed down in search results. Social web dynamics in action means that users simply will not bother to use CSEs that provide poor results, or subscribe to poor quality sites in high enough volumes for them to be seen as authoritative and useful. The end result for all should be better and more useful search results.

What Users Will "See"

At this point you may be wondering how users actually see Google Co-op search results. Google Co-op content appears to the end user in one or more of four ways:

  1. As Custom Search Engines on third party web sites: This will simply look like a Google search box. The user enters their search query in the box, and gets their results, either on the third party web site or on the Google site (a choice that the SME can also make).
  2. As "Subscribed Links": A Subscribed Links results box that presents the results from one or more of the authoritative sources to which a user has subscribed at the top of Google's search results. For example, if the user were subscribed to http://www.citytowninfo.com, and they searched on "Boston", they would see an "About Boston, MA" subscribed links box at the top of their search below the "Refine results".
  3. As "Refine Results": Refine results are search refinements for the topic. This is a set of predetermined categories that can be used to refine a search for a given topic. For example, a search on "Boston" will yield a "Refine results for boston:" box at the top of their search results with the following categories: Dining guides, Lodging guides, Attractions, Shopping, Suggested itineraries, and Tours & day trips.
  4. "Labels": Labels appear for result items within a search. A label is a tag that appears below a search result. For example, an item after the title and brief description might say "Labeled Dining guides". These labeled sites show up below the subscribed links, but above Google's organic search results.

Users who subscribe to the subscribed links of web sites and search on terms that are relevant to those authoritative sources will see items from those sources at the top of their search results. The end-user's search results are altered from what they would "normally" see and they will see the "Refine Results", "Subscribed Links Boxes", and "Labels" for the sites with which they have subscriptions. By subscribing, the user alters their own search experience so that it is more relevant and tailored to their own needs.

Subscribed Link Example

Subscribed Link

To see this in action go to Google's directory and subscribe to one or more of the listed subscribed links, or try subscribing to http://www.citytowninfo.com's subscribed link. If you subscribe to citytowninfo.com, a quick search on "Boston" yields both the "Refine results" from Google as well as a "Subscribed Links" "About Boston, MA" box from citytowninfo.com.

You can easily see example of Google Topics in today's search results. For example, search refinements for the health and destination guides topics areas are visible at the top of any relevant set of Google search results (try a quick Google search on "Boston" to see "Refine results for boston"). This is because Google subscribes everyone to those topics by default. In fact, there does not appear to be any way to unsubscribe from these two topics. Here is an example:

Refine Results Example

Refine Results

Quick Links to Google Co-Op Information

Following is a collection of links to information referenced in this article for easy access:

Conclusion

While still in its infancy, and going through the growing pains that are normal for services that are in beta test, Google Co-op clearly has a lot of promise to enable Google to provide much more powerful and relevant search results to users. As the volume of Custom Search Engines and subscribed links grows, as well as user "votes" by going through the process of using CSEs and subscribing to sites, Google Co-op will become a very powerful and important force impacting both how people go about searching, as well as what search results actually appear.

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