About a month ago, on the morning of September 10th, millions of people in northern California woke up under an orange sky after the smoke from a fire had spread like a thick layer on the West Coast. For many people, that was the first time they had seen something like this and the situation lasted for a few days.

What does this have to do with Google and Search? Well, a lot of those people have been looking for answers on the search engine to figure out what was going on, leading to a SERP revolution for the query “why is the sky orange“, as Danny Sullivan recounts, starting from this case to explain how time and geographical location can influence and transform the ranking of results on Google.

The queries’ time and location factors

As you can see from the Google Trends chart, also taken from the blog post on The Keyword, the query Why is the sky orange was not completely new to Google and had its own SERP, made of many pages “with general scientific explanations of what can turn the sky orange”.


I trend di ricerca per

In the weeks of the Californian event, the research reached its historical peak in the United States, but there was an important difference: “people wanted to know why, at that time and place they were, the sky was dyed of a tangerine color”.

The responsiveness of Google algorithms

The Public Liaison for Search explains that Google has managed to correctly respond to a peak of queries like this through language understanding, (brought to an even higher level thanks to the BERT algorithm) that is “at the center of research, but it’s not just about words”.

Even the critical context, such as time and location, helps algorithms understand what the user is really looking for. This “is especially true for featured snippets, a Search feature that highlights the pages that our systems determine are probably a very good match for your search”, where in the last year “improvements have been made to better understand when fresh or local information, or both, are crucial to providing the Search with relevant results,” the googler clarifies.

What critical context means

The expression used by the Googler, critical context, is very interesting. As noted by Roger Montti on the Search Engine Journal, it derives from literary criticism and describes the process of understanding the meaning of a literary piece, including the search for hidden relationships, allusions, metaphors and references to past or present events at the time of writing.

The aim of the literary critical context is to better understand a particular written work, and these concepts have found application also in the research of the algorithms of Natural Language Processing, where critical context analysis is defined as important in understanding semantic meaning.

Why the sky is orange there and at that time

In the case of the orange sky phenomenon for people in northern California, “the time and place was really important to understand what these queries were looking for: our freshness indicators identified that a stream of new content was being produced on this topic that was both locally relevant and different from existing evergreen content”, says Sullivan.

These signals led the systems to “ignore most of the specifications they had previously understood on the orange sky topic – such as the relationship with a sunset – but to maintain wider associations, such as air and ocean, which were still relevant“. And so, in a few minutes, “our systems learned this new model and provided fresh results in featured snippets for people looking for such relevant information locally in the Bay Area”.

La nuova SERP sul perché il cielo è arancione

Appropriate answers based on local context

Simply put, instead of “providing general information about what causes a sunset, when users were looking for why is the sky orange during that time period our systems automatically acquired current and location-based information to help people find the timely results they were interested in”.

During the following weeks there have been other examples of these systems at work: in particular, as a residual effect of the fires, on New York City and Massachusetts appeared a foggy sky, which was not present in other American states. Thus, for a query as why is it hazy “the local context was just as important to provide a relevant result“.

La SERP sul perché c'è nebbia

For this query, Sullivan concludes, “people in New York have found an explanation of how the smoke of the fire was caught in a jet stream, which caused the fog to shift eastward; people in Boston have found a similar featured snippet, but specific to the conditions of that city, and those in Alaska, area not affected by the phenomenon, have not seen the same results”.

Google’s commitment in giving relevant and customized results

Google’s algorithms then established that those searches were trending in specific geographic areas, and this information provided a context to those queries. Whenever an algorithm uses geographic or temporal information to determine search rankings, it means that Google is customizing search results, also taking advantage of freshness indicators to provide the most appropriate answers.

And these “are just two examples from the billions of queries we receive every day” that demonstrate concretely what relevance of results means. As new searches arise and information changes around the world – promises Danny Sullivan – Google will continue to deliver fresh and relevant results at these times, thanks to its understanding of the context.

Cover image from: https://globalnews.ca/news/7325802/in-photos-san-francisco-sky/

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