Google Co-op was announced by Google, along with other announcements, in May of 2006. Google Co-op represents Google’s efforts to embrace social web and social search concepts in a major way to help improve Google search results. Google Co-op 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. Users will also get to “vote” on what content they find to be valuable by subscribing to the content of various web sites that they value. An additional benefit to end-users is that Google Co-op allows them, through their subscriptions, to alter their own Google search results so that the provided information better meets their needs. It further helps end-users to filter out spam content, or content of little or marginal 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”. The documentation is somewhat limited and lacking, making it a little difficult to understand and implement Google Co-op. 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. Subsequent papers on the topic will delve more into the “nitty-gritty” of how to implement it.
At its most basic, “social web” (aka 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. A good example of this is del.icio.us where users share links to their “favorite” information on the web (for example, favorite articles, or web sites about a topic etc.). Other examples of “user-vetted”, or user-contributed information, would include Wikipedia (the open, user contributed, 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 two things:
- Subscribed links
Topics is simply Google’s way of saying “area of interest”. 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, 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. Users may also develop labels for their own topics (for example, if a user has an interest in “wine” they may develop labels for the topic wine, which may include “wine_regions”, “wine_types”, etc.).
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 clearer picture of what sites are authoritative on a topic or topics. It is not hard to come to the conclusion that with time, Google will start to use this data so that sites with a lot of votes will start to appear much higher in appropriate search results.
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 search results.
As a site gains more subscribers, Google will most likely, with time, come to see it as more authoritative. As has already been mentioned earlier in this article, it is not hard to jump to the conclusion that such a site will appear higher up in Google search results for relevant search terms over time.
Google Co-Op Will Improve the Content That Users See
The whole process of labeling and subscribing 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 label 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 three ways:
- 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.
- 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 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”.
- “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 do nothing will see search refinements for the health and destination guides topics areas 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. Users will also see relevant labels from these two topics below search results for sites that have been annotated by users or publishers.
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.
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 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.
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 labels and subscribed links grows, as well as user “votes” by going through the process of labeling sites 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.