Google has a Heisenberg problem. In fact, all search engine algorithms likely have this problem.
The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle
What is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle? The scientific version goes something like this.
The act of measuring one magnitude of a particle, be it its mass, its velocity, or its position, causes the other magnitudes to blur. This is not due to imprecise measurements. Technology is advanced enough to hypothetically yield correct measurements. The blurring of these magnitudes is a fundamental property of nature.
The quantum mechanics that go into the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle are hard to follow. That’s probably an understatement. It is fascinating to read about the verbal jousting Heisenberg, Schrödinger and Einstein on the topic. (I’m envisioning what the discussion might look like as a series of Tweets.)
Yet, some of the mainstream interpretations you get from the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle are “the very act of measuring something changes it” and, by proxy, that “the observer becomes part of the observed system”.
These two interpretations can be applied to Google’s observation of the Internet.
Google Changes the System
Not only does Google observe and measure the Internet, they communicate about what they’re measuring. Perhaps quantum theorists (and those looking at comments on YouTube) would disagree with me, but the difference is also that the Internet is made up of real sentience. Because of this, the reaction to observation and measurement may be magnified and cause more ‘blur’.
In ancient SEO times, meta keywords were used in the algorithm. But the measurement of that signal caused a fundamental change in the use of meta keywords. This is a bit different than the true version of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle where measuring one signal would cause the others to blur. In this case, it’s the measurement of the signal that causes it and the system to blur.
Heisenberg and the Link Graph
Today the algorithm relies heavily on the link graph. Trust and authority are assigned based on the quality, quantity, location and diversity of links between sites. Google has been observing and measuring this for some time. The result? The act of linking has blurred.
The very act of measuring the link graph has changed the link graph.
In an unmeasured system, links might still be created organically and for the sole purpose of attribution or navigation. But the measured system has reacted and links are not created organically. The purpose for a link may be, in fact, to ensure measurement by the observer.
Nowhere is this more clear than Demand Media’s tips to driving traffic.
Clearly, the observer has become part of the observed system.
Social Search Won’t Help
There are those who believe that moving from document based measurement to people based measurement will solve algorithmic problems. I disagree.
In fact, the people web (aka social search) might be more prone to blur than the document web. Documents can’t, in and of themselves, alter their behavior. The raft of content produced won’t simply change on it’s own, people have to do that. And that’s precisely the problem with a people based algorithm.
Think links, social mentions and other Internet gestures are perverted by measurement now? Just think how they’d change if the measurement really were on people. The innate behavior of people on the web would change, as would their relation to documents. Do I have to mention Dr. House’s favorite mantra?
No, social search won’t help. Is it another signal? Sure. But it’s a signal that seems destined to produce a higher amount of blur.
Does Google Measure Blur?
Does Google have an attribute (meta data) attached to a signal that determines the rate or velocity of blur? I have no idea. But those folks at Google are pretty dang smart. And clearly something like that is going on since signals have gone in and out of favor over time.
At SMX Advanced 2010, Matt Cutts made it clear that the May Day algorithm change was made, primarily, to combat content farms. These content farms are a form of blur. The question is what type of signals did they trace the blur back to? Were they content based signals (e.g. – quality of content based on advanced natural language processing) or link based signals?
Should Google Shut Up?
Google has always been somewhat opaque in how it discusses the algorithm and the signals that comprise it. However, they are trying to be better communicators over the last few years. Numerous blogs, videos and Webmaster Central tools all show a desire to give people better guidance.
You’ll still run into stonewalls during panel Q&A, but more information seems to be flowing out of the Googleplex. On the one hand, I very much appreciate that, but a part of me wonders if it’s a good thing.
In this case, the observer is clearly acting on the system.
Should Google tell us meta keywords are really dead? Or that they don’t process Title attributes? Or that domain diversity is really important? Sure, we’ll still have those who postulate about the ranking factors (thank you SEOMoz), but there would be a lot less consensus. It might produce less homogeneity around SEO practices, or in other words, the blur of other signals might lessen if the confidence in signal influence weren’t as clear.
It’s not that the algorithm would change, but perhaps the velocity in which a signal blurs beyond usefulness slows.
Well, there really isn’t a solution. A search engine must observe and measure the Internet ecosystem. Acknowledging that they’re part of the system and working on ways to minimize their disturbance of the system would be a good start. Hey, perhaps Google already does this.
The number of signals (more than 200) may be a reaction to the blur produced by their measurement. More signals mean a distribution of blur? But I somehow doubt it’s as easy as a checks and balances system.
Google could maintain very different algorithms – 2 or even 3 – and randomly present them via their numerous data centers. However, they’d all have to provide a good user experience and it’s been difficult for Google to maintain just the one thus far.
I don’t have the answer, but I know that the rate in which the system blurs as a result of Google’s observation is increasing. I believe Google must account for this as they refine the algorithm.
What do you think?