As we all know search is fiendishly hard to do and is run by all seeing all knowing algorithms which are as close to deities as is reasonably possible given current limitations. It’s that dedication to anonymous selection which lets the search engines fend of constant assaults over censorship, monopoly and privacy such as they are experiencing in the EU and US currently. Yet as the recent Register.co.uk story once again points out Google in facts has armies of part time out sourced workers whose task it is to rank results sets flagging the best as “vital” all the way down to “Porn” and “harmful.” These QA folk certainly don’t build the algorithm and Google says they don’t drive relevance (in which case why bother at all if you don’t listen to the results?) but the smart money is on that they have some kind of impact.
Evidence of potential human intervention might be seen in the recent waves of algorithmic attack on thin or “over SEO’d” content frequently means that pages with next to no links at all do extremely well…the skeptical might suggest that at least to a point some level of human intervention is helping these high quality pages with almost no traditional search juice. We in search have known for a good while that a measurably large number of important search results are most likely either hand crafted or at least carefully vetted and guarded against assault by the over enthusiastic or unscrupulous.
So which is it?…or is it both?. If search is indeed heavily influenced by human editorial ‘opinion’ even in the form of rigorous QA some will argue that the search engines move from a legal safe harbor of hands off neutrality, to a place of suspicion and maybe corruption. As Google in particular acquires more sources of “answers” to compete with other content providers, and if there are many thousands of people focused on the “best” end user experience isn’t there the possibility that “best” might even informally be conflated with the “in house” or “our” content. If that were true we’d have an interesting monopoly situation to pick through…exactly as the FTC is currently doing.