Testing the Limits of Google Translate

Google Translate is an amazing thing.  You can take a chunk of text in just about any language, paste it into Google Translate, and it is instantaneously (if imperfectly) translated.

Since I can’t speak anything other than English, I’m not in a great position to say how good or bad the translations are, but my multi-lingual friends generally turn their noses up at Google Translate, saying it doesn’t do that great a job.

My response is that compared to any other alternative I know (like trying to track down someone who speaks Croatian, or going word by word through a Croatian-English dictionary), it seems like a miracle.  I love it.

But even Google Translate has its limits.

Is the "Bing It On" Challenge Lightweight?

Microsoft has now responded, with a blog post and a letter, to my post about an experimental study that I coauthored with Yale Law School students Emad Atiq, Sheng Li, Michelle Lu, Christine Tsang, and Tom Maher.  Our paper calls into question the validity of claims that people prefer Bing nearly two to one.

In response to several commenters: I do not work for and do not have any consulting relationship with Google.

Microsoft claims that our study is flawed because it relied on their own blind comparison website.  They now say that "Bing It On" is meant to be a "lightweight way to challenge people’s assumptions about which search engine actually provides the best results."  To be sure, companies often use fantastical or humorous scenarios for free advertising. However, Microsoft’s television commercials present the site as a credible way that people can learn whether they prefer Google or Bing.  These commercials show people who discover that they really prefer Bing to Google.  The challenge site that they created is either sufficient to provide insights into consumer preferences or it isn’t.  The advertisements give the impression that the challenge site is a useful tool.  Microsoft can’t have it both ways.  If it is a sufficient tool to “challenge people’s assumptions,” then it is sufficient to provide some evidence about whether the assumed preference for Google is accurate. 

Challenging the Bing-It-On Challenge

Did you find this blog post through Bing?  Probably not—67% of worldwide searches go through Google, 18% through Bing.  But Microsoft has advertised in a substantial TV campaign that -- in the cyber analog to blind taste testing -- people prefer Bing “nearly 2:1.”  A year ago, when I first saw these ads,  the 2-1 claim seemed implausible.  I would have thought the search results of these competitors would be largely identical, and that it would be hard for people to distinguish between the two sets of results, much less prefer one kind 2:1.

When I looked into the claim a bit more, I was slightly annoyed to learn that the “nearly 2:1” claim is based on a study of just 1,000 participants.  To be sure, I’ve often published studies with similarly small datasets, but it’s a little cheeky for Microsoft to base what might be a multi-million dollar advertising campaign on what I’m guessing is a low six-figure study. 

To make matters worse, Microsoft has refused to release the results of its comparison website, Bingiton.com.  More than 5 million people have taken the Bing-It-On challenge – which is the cyber analog to a blind taste test.  You enter in a search term and the Bing It On site return two panels with de-identified Bing and Google results (randomly placed on the right or left side of the screen).  You tell the site which side’s results you prefer and after 5 searches the site reveals whether you prefer Bing or Google. (See Below)

Microsoft’s soft ads encourage users to join the millions of people who have taken the challenge, but it will not reveal whether the results of the millions are consistent with the results of the 1,000.

How Google Fights Obesity

Last year, Google realized that its employees were eating too much free candy -- M&Ms, specifically.  So the company conducted a little experiment, and carefully tracked the results. Cecilia Kang, writing in the Washington Post, summaries:

What if the company kept the chocolates hidden in opaque containers but prominently displayed dried figs, pistachios and other healthful snacks in glass jars? The results: In the New York office alone, employees consumed 3.1 million fewer calories from M&Ms over seven weeks. That’s a decrease of nine vending machine-size packages of M&Ms for each of the office’s 2,000 employees.

The company has conducted similar experiments in an effort to reduce consumption of sugary drinks and encourage employees to consume less calories in the company's cafeterias.  “With a company as big as Google, you have to start small to make a difference. We apply the same level of rigor, analysis and experimentation on people as we do the tech side,” says Jennifer Kurkoski, a member of Google's HR team.

More on the Google AdWords Controversy

A reader named Desmond Lawrence writes from London with further commentary on our "How Much Does Your Name Matter" podcast -- specifically, about Harvard computer scientist Latanya Sweeney's research which found that online searches for people with distinctively black names was 25% more likely to produce an ad suggesting the person had an arrest record – regardless of whether that person had actually been arrested:

So when I was listening to your podcast on “How Much Does Your Name Matter?” I was surprised to hear about Latanya and her story about these Google Ads that were being served.
Now as much as the company Instant Checkmate would like to say that they are not at fault here, I can guarantee that I know what has happened with their AdWords campaign.
When you set up an AdWords campaign you tend to do a fair bit of research. From there you will build a campaign around Broad match, phrase match or even exact match.
You can also do a thing called Dynamic keyword insertion. Now this is where I would suggest that Instant Checkmate went wrong. If you place the Dynamic keyword call code into an ad, it will place the keyword that has called the ad into the ad, thus increasing the effectiveness of the ad.

Who Owns a Link? Google Vs. European Publishers

The New York Times published an interesting article last week about an ongoing dispute in Europe between Google and European newspapers (and their supporters in government). The issue is whether Google must pay for the privilege of linking to those sites, or should be able to link for free. Of course, at stake is who gains the revenue that comes from aggregating and compiling links.

As the Times notes:

Google got rich by selling a simple proposition: The links it provides to other Web sites are worth a lot of money, so much that millions of advertisers are willing to pay the company billions of dollars for them.

Now some European newspaper and magazine publishers, frustrated by their inability to make more of their own money from the Web, want to reverse the equation. Google, they say, should pay them for links, because they provide the material on which the Web giant is generating all that revenue.

Why It Pays to Pay Employees More

We blogged a while back about how some retail firms succeed by hiring more, not fewer, floor employees, and by treating them particularly well. Among the examples: Trader Joe's and Whole Foods; among the counterexamples: Michael's.

This prompted an e-mail from Hal Varian, Google's chief economist. (If you don't know of Hal you should, as he's an impressive and fascinating guy -- check out the Q&A he did here a few years back.) His e-mail reads:

Saw your piece about Trader Joe's et al.  Here's one reason to pay people more than their market wage (from my textbook):

Gabor Varszegi has made millions by providing high-quality service in his photo developing shops in Budapest. (See Steven Greenhouse, "A New Formula in Hungary: Speed Service and Grow Rich," New York Times, June 5, 1990, A1.)

Varszegi says that he got his start as a businessman in the mid-sixties by playing bass guitar and managing a rock group. "Back then," he says, "the only private businessmen in Eastern Europe were rock musicians." He introduced one-hour film developing to Hungary in 1985; the next best alternative to his one-hour developing shops was the state-run agency that took one month.

Can Google Searches Predict Stock Price Performance?

A recent study in the Journal of Finance by Zhi Da and Paul Gao of the University of Notre Dame shows that data from public Google searches can be used to beat the stock market by up to ten percentage points per year. Similar findings were released last month by researchers at the University of Kansas.

The Notre Dame authors argue that the frequency of Google searches received by a stock (its SVI number) is a better, more direct method of measuring investor attention (a precursor to buying the stock) than traditional, indirect methods of measurement, such as news and advertising expense.

FREAK-est Links

This week, why being a king is the most dangerous job in history, an etiquette group in Germany wants to ban workplace air-kissing, Jonathan Stark's social experiment with a Starbucks card, anti-technology terrorists attack in Mexico, and why Google and Wikipedia are bad for our memory.

Our Daily Bleg: Looking for the Best Online News

A reader named Chuck Amos writes:

My bleg is for a list of reliable, unbiased, and intelligent news sources that present general information in a readable and user-friendly way.

This seems like a very simple problem to solve, but my efforts over the years have been unsatisfactory. Sites like CNN.com are presented reasonably well, but the actual “news” is way too fluffy. Sites like Huffington Post are so miserable to look at that I’m not willing to sift through the train-wreck presentation and look for articles that might be interesting. Sites like Salon.com are willing to dig deeper than many of the mainstream news sites, but the politics are biased and therefore fail the test of what I seek.

To make my search more difficult, I don’t care about video (I have limited time, and I’d rather spend 20 seconds skimming/reading a written article than 90 seconds watching a newscast), and the amount of garbage that comes across Twitter feeds makes that outlet of limited use to me.

I’ve had reasonably good experiences with the Economist, Christian Science Monitor, and Guardian sites, but none of them leaves me completely satisfied.

My perfect news site would simply be a list of headlines that link to well-written, well-researched articles on a broad variety of topics. Sort of like an AP feed, but with articles that contain more than 2 poorly written paragraphs.

Can anyone point me in the right direction?