Google’s TrustRank Trademark

By Dan Thies

As has been widely reported and discussed, Google has registered a trademark for “TrustRank.”

Behind the trademark, we find a research paper from the usual suspects at the Stanford Digital Libraries project. This paper discusses a method of weeding out spam from search results by using a “seed set” of trusted web sites.

TrustRank, as described in the paper, uses a method similar to the PageRank algorithm to determine how trustworthy a given web site is, or put another way, how likely it is that the site can be trusted.

There is always interest in the SEM community when a search engine files for a patent or trademark, acquires a company with interesting technology, or when an individual remotely associated with the search engine publishes a research paper.

It’s important to retain a sense of perspective about these things, because all of the major search engines pay a lot of people to do research and invent stuff. Just because a patent has been applied for or granted, that does not automatically translate into the search engine implementing the patent within their primary search results.

TrustRank appears to be a bit different, because trademarks actually have to be used in order to be maintained. I’ve heard the argument made that Google must plan to use TrustRank if they’ve registered a trademark. Does this mean that Google will implement something like the TrustRank algorithm described in this research paper? Possibly, or they may just be playing it safe while they decide what to do.

In any case, innovations like TrustRank are going to play a strong role in the future of web search. Whether search engines use a manually edited “seed list” of “good” web sites, user feedback, or other means, the search engines all have a strong incentive to reduce the amount of spam in their search results.

Since everyone else is speculating about how Google might implement TrustRank, I’ll toss out one idea. It may be a bad idea, of course. I’ll let those who actually have to deal with the practical implementation decide…

As discussed in the SitePoint SEM Kit (you can read about it in the sample chapter), the PageRank algorithm models a “random web surfer,” who occasionally gets bored with his random clicking and starts over at a new page. The chance that our random surfer will ‘get bored’ is represented in the PageRank algorithm as a “damping factor.”

One possible way to implement TrustRank without throwing away PageRank would be to adjust the damping factor based on the “trust” we have in a certain web page. If you have a low degree of trust, then adjust the damping factor, increasing the probablility that our random surfer would ‘get bored’ by that page. This would mean that less trusted pages would pass less PageRank along to the rest of the web – not penalizing the sites they link to, but simply reducing the benefit of such links, including internal links within the site itself.

What will Google actually do? Your guess is as good as mine, unless you’re one of the folks who believes they actually implement every process that they patent.

Stay tuned, watch this space, for more fun and games with patents, algorithms, research papers and other puzzling evidence.

  • http://nathanwwong.com someonewhois

    I started a thread at SPF about this, though I don’t know if you saw it — so I’ll go slightly off topic and say that your analogy/description of the PageRank and random web surfer was excellent. I was only reading the first few pages, but now I’m cosnidering actually buying it. You have a great style of writing, too.

    Anyway, back on topic. I don’t think Google can afford to implement TrustRank. It’ll really mess up the rankings, and it’ll just mess things up in general. For Google News, on the other hand, I say go for it.

  • http://www.seoresearchlabs.com DanThies

    It’s unlikely they’d implement anything quickly, if at all. I don’t think it’s something Google or any other search engine could just roll out without a lot of testing. Testing it against today’s database would be one thing, but they also need to anticipate all the possible scenarios where folks would try to game the system again.

    The implementation I described could have a very low impact on current SERPs – if d were only allowed to vary between .84 and .85 for example you’d see only a very subtle change in the PageRank landscape. The more you allowed d to shift based on “trust,” the more it would shake things up.

    All of the search engines seem very willing to “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” as long as they still have plausible search results. Yahoo switched from Inktomi to Google to their own engine without going out of business. Google rolled out a huge change in November 2003, and although it was a big deal to SEOs, it mattered little to the average user.

    I agree that News, Gmail, or Froogle would probably be a better testbed than the primary search results. :D

  • http://trademarks.smiglaw.com/ lothar97

    Google actually does not have a registered trademark. They filed an “intent-to-use” trademark, and may start using the mark in the future. More discussion on my blog at smiglaw.com

  • http://www.seoresearchlabs.com DanThies

    Thanks, Trademark Guy! Good info.

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