Google Explores Fundamental Topicality Frameworks

  • July 1, 2024
  • SEO
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In the latest episode of Google’s Search Off the Record, John Mueller and Lizzi Sassman held an in-depth discussion with Elizabeth Tucker, Director of Product Management at Google. The conversation revealed numerous insights into the complex systems Google employs to rank web pages, particularly highlighting the concept of topicality.

Understanding Topicality in Google Search

Topicality, in a search context, refers to the alignment between a user’s query and the content of web pages. While the common meaning of topicality is about relevance to the present moment, in search, it entails accurately matching search queries with corresponding topics on web pages. Google leverages advanced machine learning models, such as BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers), to understand search intent and context effectively.

Elizabeth Tucker exemplified this with BERT, explaining how it helps Google grasp the meaning of words based on preceding and following words in a query—fundamentally improving Google’s understanding of user intent.

Emphasizing the need for topically relevant content, Tucker connected this concept with the broader goal of user satisfaction, pointing out that search results must meet the users’ expectations for relevance.

During their conversation, Lizzi Sassman delved deeper into the topic of user satisfaction, prompting Tucker to discuss the multiple dimensions of search, among them the importance of topical relevance, especially for complex or vague queries.

At around the 4:20 mark, Lizzi asked:

“In terms of the satisfaction bit that you mentioned, are there more granular ways that we’re looking at? What does it mean to be satisfied when you come away from a search?”

Elizabeth responded:

“Absolutely, Lizzi. Inside Search Quality, we consider many important dimensions of search with various systems. Our goal has always been to present content that is topically relevant to a search query. While this was more challenging in the early days of Google, our systems have significantly improved and can now handle even complex, spoken, and vague queries such as ‘Hey Google, who is that person who, years ago, did this thing, and I don’t remember what it was called.’”

The Complexities of Search Biases

John Mueller brought up the issue of biases within search results and asked for Tucker’s insights. Tucker acknowledged that Google is acutely aware of several types of biases and continually works to mitigate them. This includes balancing different kinds of search results (e.g., evergreen vs. fresh content) to ensure a diverse range of voices and sources are represented.

At the 05:24 mark, John asked:

“When you look at the data, I assume biases come up. Is that a topic that we think about as well?”

Elizabeth answered:

“Absolutely. We are concerned about various biases like disproportionately showing certain types of sites and balancing evergreen versus fresh content. Our aim is to surface the best content from a diverse mix of sources, whether they are large institutional sites, small blogs, or social media platforms.”

Core Topicality Systems and Beyond

Tucker explained that her role involves working with a multitude of systems in search, far beyond what the public typically knows. She emphasized the importance of not fixating on a few well-known factors such as Authority or Helpfulness, as many other dimensions contribute to search rankings.

She highlighted that resolving ranking issues requires considering a broad spectrum of factors and explained how different systems, including core topicality systems, interconnect to improve search outcomes.

John asked (at the 11:20 mark):

“When people speak up loudly, is the initial step to do some kind of a demotion where you say ‘Well, this was clearly a bad site that we showed, therefore we should show less of it’? Or how do you balance the positive side of things that maybe we should show more of versus the content we should show less of?”

Elizabeth answered:

“That’s a great question. In Search Quality, we employ numerous systems and signals to create an effective search result page. While some systems, like webspam filters, are demotative to prevent harmful content, most systems aim to highlight the best content by effectively matching search queries with relevant topics using advanced algorithms and machine learning models.”

Tucker clarified that the focus is generally on finding and showcasing valuable content rather than merely demoting poor content, stressing the difficulty in understanding natural language but also noting how technological advancements help meet this challenge effectively.

Google’s Evolving Focus on Topics

Reflecting on the evolution of search, Tucker noted that Google’s focus has shifted from merely keyword matching to an emphasis on understanding topics contextually. This shift underscores the importance of topicality in delivering relevant search results.

She elaborates at the 13:16 mark:

“Google used to be very keyword-focused. Complex queries often posed challenges, but we have made significant progress by focusing on the context and meaning behind words. This focus helps in answering queries accurately, such as “how tall is Barack Obama,” thereby improving user satisfaction. This area, known as the topicality space, continues to be a critical focus, leveraging technological advancements to understand and align with user searches better.”

The Importance of Thinking in Topics

Tucker’s insights invite a deeper understanding of Google’s ranking algorithms, emphasizing the significance of topics over mere keywords. SEO practitioners are encouraged to adopt a multi-dimensional approach, focusing on overarching topics rather than isolated keywords. This aligns better with how Google matches search queries with content, reinforcing the notion that topicality plays a crucial role in ranking web pages.

For further details, you can listen to the Search Off The Record podcast, starting from approximately the 4:20 minute mark and later resume at the 11:20 minute mark:

Featured Image by Shutterstock/dekazigzag

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