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How you and Google are losing the battle against spam in search results

A look at some of the major deals the Web giant has made or attempted in an effort to expand its reach.

"I have a hard time believing they are losing this badly," O'Reilly said. "I look at more and more categories of searches that are clearly spam" - medical information, product reviews, technology help, restaurant tips.

As for content farms, Google engineers said the company must come up with better ways to keep that content from showing up so high in search results.

"We are hearing the complaints about this type of shallow content, and we are going to address it," said Amit Singhal, the most senior engineer on Google's page-ranking team. "We have to make sure our users are getting the best information, and if they are not, we have failed."

The company, in its blog post, said it recently launched a new internal technological tool that makes it harder for "spammy" content to rise in results. Other tools and strategies are forthcoming, executives said.

But many Internet analysts wonder whether the new spam-fighting effort, although needed, is beside the point.

"We have kind of stretched the usefulness of search engine algorithms for surfacing the kind of specific content we are looking for," said William Tancer, general manager of global research for Experian Hitwise.

The future, many believe, is social search. Microsoft, which is a major investor in Facebook, can scour a searcher's own Facebook account on every query. Facebook, noting an increase in users who ask for information in their status updates, is testing a new function called Facebook Questions.

"If we notice a lot of people using a feature in a particular way, that's when we consider specializing a product for that need," said Bret Taylor, Facebook's chief technology officer.

"Anyone can answer your question, which means you can tap into the collective knowledge of the millions of people on Facebook," the company says on a Web page explaining the new tool. Answers that users rate as high quality can then be highlighted beyond a user's own social network, pushing answers from one network of people to many, many others.

A hot start-up called Quora is following a similar question-and-answer model. Meanwhile, Google is also working on social search, with co-founder Sergey Brin reportedly heading up the effort. He recently said the company has scratched just one percent of what social search could be. Google already searches Twitter alongside classic Web page searches. Users signed in on a Google account will also see results such as images or status updates from their contacts. Some information from Facebook is included, but nothing from a user's account.

Google spent $50 million last year to buy a company called Aardvark that lets users send questions to people in their social networks. If those friends can't answer the question, it is sent on to friends of friends. Answers are delivered, often immediately, via instant message or e-mail. I gave it a try last week.

I have a nasty case of sciatica and might need to start walking at my desk while I work. I asked Aardvark: "What is the best way to set up a treadmill desk? I want to put a treadmill under my desk sometimes." One smart aleck quickly answered, "Does your desk need some exercise?" But a few minutes later, I got an instant message from someone named Adam K. in Cranberry, Pa., offering a collection of Web links.

"Was Adam's answer helpful?" Aardvark asked.

I clicked yes.

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