PageRank, EdgeRank, PeopleRank : secret algorithms lead your attention

“Attention is the cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things. Attention has also been referred to as the allocation of processing resources.”

PageRank is part of Google`s software that decides what will be shown as a result to your search.

EdgeRank is a name used for Facebooks algorithm that decides what will be shown on your news feed after you login.

Quora , a new and currently hot question and answer site still has to finish the development for its PeopleRank software to rank user and content on its site.

Obviously algorithms are needed  because they provide the automation to filter and prioritize the massive amount of information on the web  and in the proprietary databases of those companies.

But all those algorithms share one aspect: the details of how they work are kept secret.

There are several arguments for that, but one specifically is important: People/web site owner/content providers would know otherwise precisely what to do  to get high values for their content from those ranking algorithms. The higher you content is ranked the more likely it is that people will see it, click on it and access your content and that is the precondition to get recognized, be important, make money etc. This is a strong incentive “to cheat” on ranking algorithms and if they are kept secret it seems to be more difficult to do so.

Video from : Google Ex-CEO Eric Schmid about Google secret ranking

The fundamental drawback is that there is no transparency at all about why some pieces of content appear on a first page of Google, Facebook etc  and others not. Google and Facebook are companies to make money. Currently only Google is under investigation if their ranking methods prefer Googles own content.

Googles most recent response says:

One misconception that we’ve seen in the last few weeks is the idea that Google doesn’t take as strong action on spammy content in our index if those sites are serving Google ads. To be crystal clear:

  • Google absolutely takes action on sites that violate our quality guidelines regardless of whether they have ads powered by Google;
  • Displaying Google ads does not help a site’s rankings in Google; and
  • Buying Google ads does not increase a site’s rankings in Google’s search results.

These principles have always applied, but it’s important to affirm they still hold true.

Closing comments:

We agree with the “The Google Algorithm” article of  ”The New York Times”, but its tone seems to be a little to soft (and in our view it is not only about Google):

“With these caveats in mind, if Google is to continue to be the main map to the information highway, it concerns us all that it leads us fairly to where we want to go.”

As long there is enough competition one could argue that the ranking alorithm as the secret sauce of success of a start up (example: Quora) not necessarily needs to be publicly available (and should not).

But the situation is different if a company is getting a dominant global player. Let us repeat so that we are clear about what is at stake:

Attention is the cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things.”

If a company is close to  have a  global monopoly for essential attention leading information access (like today Google for search, Facebook for social network news today and maybe soon for search too) it seems reasonable to ask:

How long to can we accept that the attention of hundred of million people world wide on a daily basis is driven  by some secret algorithms that are owned by a hand-full of companies?

And how fit attention leading global monopolys -powered by secret algorithms- together with the concepts of freedom and democracy in the information age?


There is not yet a ranking algorithm known that would continue to work efficiently (and could not be cheated)  if it would be publicly explained and documented.
In the past we had in another field of information processing a similar challenge to solve: in cryptography (great overview also here).

Today we have crypto-algorithms that are openly documented. One excellent example: CrypTool is a free, open-source e-learning application, used worldwide in the implementation and analysis of cryptographic algorithms.

This enables that those algorithms are permanently reviewed and because of that they are considered to be me more secure.

Sure that we can not achieve something similar for ranking?


1st February 2011: Today’s news is that Microsoft is secretly using  Google´s ranking as an input for its ranking algorithm of its own search engine Bing. Google sees that as Microsoft is cheating: Google: Bing Is Cheating, Copying Our Search Results. In case of you can not believe this please find Microsoft´s official response here.

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Januar 22nd, 2011 at 2:54 pm and is filed under Issues explained. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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