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Google has a problem with “long-tail” searches, and it needs Quora to help fix it

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The queries we type into Google can be broadly classified into two groups: head queries, or general keyword searches of less than three words; and long tail queries, or specific searches using a phrase or several words. The latter long tail queries account for a significant portion of the searches on Google (with many sources claiming as much as 70 percent).

Google’s search algorithms are excellent at surfacing relevant content for basic keyword style head queries, but when we search for something specific using a long tail query, the answers aren’t consistently relevant. I would submit that this isn’t so much an issue with Google’s search algorithm as it is a content problem; that is, a large number of content sources that attempt to service long tail queries simply do a poor job of it. For Google to improve its search relevance for long tail queries – which it must, as those continue to become a huge chunk of its searches – it should integrate a high-quality QnA service like Quora with its search.

Google’s long tail problem

To better understand the differences between the two types of search, and the dilemma Google now faces, do a quick search using any or all of the following, pretty straightforward long tail queries and check the quality of search results:

“diet plan for diabetics and high blood pressure”
“how to get rid of acne”
“what do turtles eat as pets”
“how to train your parrot to talk”
“important things to consider before purchasing a house”

You will quickly discover that the results are mostly identical or slightly rehashed versions of other articles scraped from multiple sites across the web, many of them originating from content farms like Demand Media and Associated Content. Those sources are among many that specialize in trying to corner the market on servicing long tail queries. However they all suffer from two major problems:

Poor quality The army of low-paid freelancers who manufacture the “content” for these sites get paid essentially by volume. They are almost never experts in a given topic (or even passingly familiar, one could argue). They simply crank out 500-word article as quickly as possible so that these networks can embed three adsense ads in between and then move on to the next topic.

Bias toward popular keywords Despite intending to service long tail queries, in fact many of these services tend to produce content around keywords that are popular enough that they can reliably generate advertising revenue.

A source of reliable long tail query content

Clearly there is a demand for reliable long tail query content queries. Now consider a practical one like “how to get a passport faster,” and how massively helpful it would be to get the answer from a person who has actually gone through the process, rather than the person who designed the process. Wouldn’t it be logical for Google to implement a source of content that is produced by generally passionate, informed people –  a source like Quora?

Unlike Wikipedia, which is best at answering head queries, Quora is all about long tail. So integrating Quora with search would provide Google’s users more reliable and useful results for long tail queries. It would also contribute to a virtuous cycle by allowing users to help produce reliable content, too, as searches prompt further contextual content that may need answering. This will help Google get knowledge from content sources (such as those who contribute to Wikipedia) who do not own a website but have valuable knowledge.

Here’s a rough mockup of a Google search results page for the long tail query “diet plan for hypertension and diabetes” but with Quora integrated:

As another example, for a more task-based query like “how to file taxes,” you might also end up with relevant contextual content in the right pane of the search results:

  • How do I calculate taxes?
  • What is the last date to file taxes?
  • What are the tax changes for 2013?
  • What are the important things I should know before I file my taxes?
  • What is the best software to file taxes?

Integrating Quora will enable Google to serve far more relevant answers for a much broader range of queries even though a smaller percentage of people will be actively producing the content. And it’s worth noting that in the process, Google will be effectively replacing dollars other networks pay to content churners with upvotes and follows to passionate users instead (talk about virtuous cycles!).

This is social search, where content will be produced in the context of social, but consumed in the context of search.

Narendra Reddy is chief product officer for the educational software developer Wignite. Follow him on Twitter @naren.

19 Responses to “Google has a problem with “long-tail” searches, and it needs Quora to help fix it”

  1. Quora? You mean the North Korea of the Internets? The North Korea of the Internets where every post has to be read and approved by Chairman Marc? No thanks.

    • Narendra R

      There would definitely be challenges associated with getting a flood of users to Quora after integration..But these challenges can be handled with a bit of thinking and tweaking the incentives around the product

      The utility that we get by the integration to these two services far outweighs the challenges!

  2. Alan Wolk

    Would I be far off the mark if I suggested that this could also be called “How Google Could Make Narendra’s Long Tail Searches Better?”

    I suspect most people are quite happy with the answers they get from and would find the answers on Quora long-winded and confusing. The same way most people prefer to get their news from USA Today rather than the NY Times.

    Google is a mass-market product and they have to serve the mass market.

    • Nope. Not happy at all. As a matter of fact I now don’t even bother googling specific queries. I tap social networks, etc.

      I agree this area is rife for disruption… Most likely social networks will fill the gap. Don’t know about quora.

  3. Yahoo is doing exactly what you propose for ages. It’s called Yahoo Answers.

    Google, can’t get directly into direct content creation because of the conflicting interests. When they own the content listed high in the search results they’ll face immense scrutiny over unfair competition.

    • Narendra R

      Aardvark was one-to-one QnA community.Your question will be pushed to a single person who is knowledge about the topic.I believe the concept of “asking the question to the community”(..which Quora is based on) is a better model

  4. AJ Wilcox

    Google doesn’t need to buy Quora. they’re already under fire for taking traffic away from the content providers they link to. this would just be one more anticompetitive move. Also, if you think Google is bad at long tail queries, try Bing :) Google released an algorithm update back in ’09 that made more authoritative sites ( the same that control the head terms) rank better, and steal traffic from the little guys that ranked for long-tail. it hurt its long-tail query quality, and it’s still light years ahead of Bing.

    • Narendra R

      I have mentioned Quora as they are the best QnA site in terms of quality…

      Are you talking about this change –>
      When a person has typed in a longtail query..he is looking for something very specific..showing general content which is sorto f related to what he is asking doesn’t make any sense.It is a bad experience for the user.To get the specific answer he is looking for he will have to search more by tweaking his query multiple times..

  5. washdcblazin

    I agree, focusing so heavily on the need for Quora is a bit ridiculous. Although it’s not as trivial a matter as Andreas suggests, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility without the need for limiting itself to such a small subset of content.

    • Jack Schofield

      It’s not hard to implement the software. It’s much harder to get millions of people to invest their time in creating the content. I doubt Google could do that.

      For example, Google Answers and Knol both flopped horribly, and Orkut was massacred by Facebook. It’s true that Google could easily do cheap knock-off of Quora, but that doesn’t mean it would be successful.

      • Narendra R

        +1 to Jack..

        @Andreas: Google sure can build & launch a knockoff,but they will 2-3 years behind Quora in terms of having a community which churns out quality content.It is also hard to build a team like Quora which have been passionate about QnA market for a really longtime..