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Claire Cain Miller, "Google Tweaks Algorithm to Push Down Low-Quality Sites", NYT 2/25/2011:

Google said Thursday that it had made a major change to its algorithm in an effort to improve the rankings of high-quality Web sites in its search results — and to reduce the visibility of low-quality sites. While the company did not say so explicitly, the change appears to be directed in part at so-called content farms like eHow and Answerbag, which generate articles based on popular search queries so they will rise to the top of the rankings and attract clicks.

This is obviously not the sense of tweak that the OED glosses as "To seize and pull sharply with a twisting movement; to pull at with a jerk; to twitch, wring, pluck; esp. to pull (a person) by the nose (or a person's nose) as a mark of contempt or insult", but rather the sense "To make fine adjustments to (a mechanism)".

For the "fine adjustments" sense, the OED's first citation is 1966

1966 Punch 16 Feb. 233/1   He has been running a Morris 1100 ‘tweaked so it'll do nearly 100’.

and involves adjustments that might be a bit beyond "fine"; but the Jargon File entry makes it clear that in recent digital parlance, tweaks really are minor adjustments:

To change slightly, usually in reference to a value. Also used synonymously with twiddle. If a program is almost correct, rather than figure out the precise problem you might just keep tweaking it until it works.

So I was taken aback by the contrast between the headline ("Google Tweaks Algorithm") and the lede ("Google … made a major change to its algorithm").

But maybe for some people, tweak has come to mean merely "modify", whether the modifications are minor or major? The number of web hits for "major tweak|tweaks" suggests that this is true.



  1. Dougal Stanton said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 6:34 am

    It could be that a major change in implementation is needed for a minor change in behaviour, so that from the outside things have been tweaked but from the inside there's been a rewrite. It depends on whose perspective you take. Conversely it would be possible to tweak the code to make a massive change in output (changing the sign of a constant or something). Changing the value of the gravitational constant in a planetary simulator would not seem like a "tweak"!

  2. Jon Hanna said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 6:37 am

    I think an influence on the change in meaning may be cases where a genuinely minor tweak can have a major effect. Guides to the tweaks possible in a given system (those to speed up operating systems, particularly years ago when they were less good at self-adjusting, would be a good example) would have introduced the idea of "tweaks" as changes that were "major" to a relatively wide audience who may not have been as familiar with the jargon-file definition as the person writing the guide.

  3. bulbul said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 7:01 am

    For me, it's not just 'modify', it's 'improve'. But yes, the scale really doesn't matter and consequently, I don't see the contrast you see.

  4. Duncan said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 7:03 am

    Despite the relatively minor nature of "tweak" as I too understand it, I don't see the conflict with "major" in the lede.

    Rather, I see it as a matter of viewpoint, and what /Google/ would consider a /major/ change, that would from a different perspective be considered a mere /tweak/.

    Using the car analogy the OED so conveniently provided as the first citation, Google's algorithm already has the Morris running at 98, well above what was considered even possible by competitors before Google came along with its search algorithm. Now, with just a slight adjustment, a 1/4 twist on a reed valve already 32 full twists in, Google hopes to get that Morris up to 99.5 or even 100. By literal magnitude it was a tweak (1/128th of the total), but as anyone who has ever fiddled with a carburetor knows, once you get close, a quarter turn "tweak" is a MAJOR adjustment on something where the final tweaks are a struggle between the resistance to move at all, and moving it several times what you intended.

    Alternatively, the viewpoint of the Google spokesperson might have been anticipating the /major/ effects such a tweak could well have on the so-called search-optimizers, who will likely see it as more major than even the relative major that the one doing it might claim, given the effects they're likely to see.

    Either way, I didn't see anything unusual about this in context as I adjusted viewpoint as fast as I read… until you pointed out the word contrast.

    Which of course is why I read LL, because I find such observations (and my internal reactions to them) interesting. =:^)

  5. Norman Gray said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 7:26 am

    For me (agreeing with the earlier comments), 'tweak' does imply a relatively minor change to an algorithm or system. The effects may be minor, but can also be disproportionate to the change. In the latter case, one cam imagine a somewhat non-linear system, where the location of the sweet spot is hard to predict beforehand, but has to be found experimentally.

    Google's announcement ( doesn't mention 'tweak', but instead talks of "a pretty big algorithmic improvement", and distinguishes it from the normal "constant tuning". It does therefore appear that "tweak" is being introduced by commentators who don't _really_ know how to use the word idiomatically, but are aware it sounds kewl in this context.

    I'm not sure of the difference between "tuning" and "tweaking". I think that "tuning" would generally suggest a more systematic approach; "tweak" smells of ad-hoccery ("ad hockery"?), and can easily turn into self-indulgent footering.

  6. Rodger C said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 8:09 am

    "Conversely it would be possible to tweak the code to make a massive change in output."

    That's basically why we're not chimpanzees, isn't it?

  7. David L said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 8:11 am

    I'm with myl on this: I find it jarring to see 'major change' coming after 'tweak.' In my line of work, or one of them anyway, making the final tweaks to a document means fixing typos, putting in en-dashes for hyphens and vice versa, tidying up format etc. Rewriting whole paragraphs wouldn't count as tweaks.

  8. Alex G. said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 8:16 am

    I don't see the confusion – whatever the amount of work required under the hood, from the user's perspective, it's a "tweak" in the sense that it affects probably 0.01% of the Google searches that happen every day. It's like adding fins to a car, or making the spout of a carton a little bit wider – it's a tweak.

    [(myl) Actually, the article specifies that the change affects 11.8% of searches.]

  9. Neal Goldfarb said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 8:44 am

    Someone needs to tell Justice Scalia about this post.

    He's the author of the opinion in MCI v. AT&T, which considered whether the FCC's statutory power to "modify" the requirement that communications carriers file tariffs authorized the FCC to make "basic and fundamental" changes to that requirement.

    "No way," said Scalia:

    The word "modify"—like a number of other English words employing the root "mod " (deriving from the Latin word for "measure"), such as "moderate," "modulate," "modest," and "modicum,"—has a connotation of increment or limitation. Virtually every dictionary we are aware of says that "to modify" means to change moderately or in minor fashion.

    He rejected the argument that, because Webster's Third includes as one definition of modify "to make a basic or important change in", the word was ambiguous:

    Most cases of verbal ambiguity in statutes involve…a selection between accepted alternative meanings shown as such by many dictionaries. One can envision (though a court case does not immediately come to mind) having to choose between accepted alternative meanings, one of which is so newly accepted that it has only been recorded by a single lexicographer. (Some dictionary must have been the very first to record the widespread use of "projection," for example, to mean "forecast.") But what petitioners demand that we accept as creating an ambiguity here is a rarity even rarer than that: a meaning set forth in a single dictionary (and, as we say, its progeny) which not only supplements the meaning contained in all other dictionaries, but contradicts one of the meanings contained in virtually all other dictionaries. Indeed, contradicts one of the alternative meanings contained in the out of step dictionary itself—for as we have observed, Webster's Third itself defines "modify" to connote both (specifically) major change and (specifically) minor change. It is hard to see how that can be. When the word "modify" has come to mean both "to change in some respects" and "to change fundamentally" it will in fact mean neither of those things. It will simply mean "to change," and some adverb will have to be called into service to indicate the great or small degree of the change.

    If that is what the peculiar Webster's Third definition means to suggest has happened—and what petitioners suggest by appealing to Webster's Third—we simply disagree. "Modify," in our view, connotes moderate change. It might be good English to say that the French Revolution "modified" the status of the French nobility—but only because there is a figure of speech called understatement and a literary device known as sarcasm. And it might be unsurprising to discover a 1972 White House press release saying that "the Administration is modifying its position with regard to prosecution of the war in Vietnam"—but only because press agents tend to impart what is nowadays called "spin." Such intentional distortions, or simply careless or ignorant misuse, must have formed the basis for the usage that Webster's

    William Safire commented on the decision here, quoting the reaction of Merriam Webster's editor in chief but ultimately agreeing with Scalia.

  10. Janne said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 8:50 am

    To me, software tweaks can precipitate major change in the ultimate results of the system. The opposite, where major internal changes results in tweaked – slightly altered – results feels less natural. Not wrong, but a little odd.

    The origin of tweak itself, by the way, I have always taken to be from tweaking (twisting) knobs on a control panel to tune a machine, and by extension to adjust parameter values in a program to tune its operation.

  11. GeorgeW said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 8:59 am

    My tweaks are minor adjustments. I could have a [major modification] but not a *[major tweak].

  12. Josh said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 9:06 am

    I agree that "tweak" seems to have expanded its original meaning to include large as well as small changes, but there's a shade of meaning that remains that goes beyond a mere change. "Tweak" still always implies a mechanism—there's a technical connotation, sincere or humorous. You can always imagine someone selecting the right instrument from his tool belt before tweaking something.

  13. Spell Me Jeff said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 9:14 am

    w3schools sponsors a popular forum for web developers. There is a core group of volunteer "teachers" who help out an endless rabble of noobies. (Yes, I participate.)

    Just now I searched the archives for "tweak" and examined the first 2 pages of hits. EVERY one used "tweak" in the sense of minor adjustment. Modifiers like "little" and "simple" are sometimes prepended in a way that seems to intensify the minor quality (as opposed to limiting the value of a more generic quality). A common meme is something like "Tweak it until it works."

    Just a handy corpus of relevant data you might not have considered.

  14. Mr Punch said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 9:46 am

    Google search still looks the same an works the same way, though it now (apparently) yields slightly different results. Major changes to one part of a mechanism do not necessarily amount to major changes overall. That "tweaked" Morris, for example, may well have had a very different carburetor from that supplied by the factory, atop the same engine block.

  15. bfwebster said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 9:49 am

    Being a software engineer for nearly 37 years now, I interpret 'tweak' as a minor modification, though 'minor' tends to refer more to the changes done than the resulting effect, e.g., "I tweaked the search algorithm, and it's now twice as fast." That sense of minor change is important: there is a very real risk in programming of introducing errors when you modify working source code, so there is a big difference in risk and potential impact between 'tweaking' a program and 'making major changes.' On the other hand, it could be that a 'tweak' to the source code made a 'major change' to the algorithm's performance or behavior. That's the sort of elegant tweak that software engineers like to brag about ("Yeah, I realize I could pre-calculate certain key values and store them in a simple lookup table – it let me move a chunk of code out of the inner loop and bam! the search algorithm is now three times faster for the worst case.")

  16. D S Onosson said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 9:51 am

    I use "tweak most often in the context of audio recording, where it does indeed usually involve twisting and turning knobs and dials (real or virtual).

    I think, actually, that "tweaking" does connote small changes, but can also imply a series of "tweaks" which, taken together, may constitute a large change. So, I might adjust many software dials on an audio recording and send an mp3 via email to my recording partner with the message "I tweaked the mix quite a bit".

  17. buford puser said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 10:04 am

    It seems worth mentioning "tweaker"=methamphetamine user, "tweaked"=high on methamphetamine, most likely because of the prevalence of "projects" among heavy amphetamine users: obsessive prolonged "tweaking" (in the racing/codemonkey sense that is the main topic here) of various objects and devices.

  18. John Cowan said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 10:12 am

    Many years ago, I used tweak in the canonical way, explaining to a user that the program she was using could be configured to suit her needs. She looked more and more uncomfortable, and eventually I realized that I was dealing with word aversion (though I had no name for it at the time). I forced myself to say adjust instead.

  19. David J. Littleboy said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 10:19 am

    bfwebster is correct here. A tweak can result in a major change, but it can't be a major change. So the article as written is dizzy.

  20. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 10:54 am

    I don't disagree with the commenters who've pointed out that "tweak" vs. "major change" can be a matter of perspective (what is changed internally vs. what visible effects it has), but I don't see any evidence here that the article's headline and its first sentence are taking different perspectives. Furthermore, the article describes the "major change to [Google's] algorithm" as "big enough to significantly change the results that people see" — that is, it's big from either perspective.

  21. Aaron Toivo said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 10:57 am

    I agree with those above who say the problem is that "major change" probably in this instance means one with high impact rather than one that is large in scope, not any real change to the meaning of "tweak".

  22. Joel Shaver said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 11:36 am

    Couldn't it just be stylistic understatement / possibly misguided use of endearing "techie" jargon? Something more "fun" to read than "major overhaul", but less profoundly sarcastic than Scalia's use of "modify" with the French Revolution?

  23. Nijma said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 12:06 pm

    When I worked with computer hardware in the 80's, tweak meant "adjust with a screwdriver". Circuit boards would have built-in adjustments to compensate for the accuracy of components.

    For example, if you have two resisters in a circuit that are accurate to + or – 20% of their stated value, if they are both exactly at their stated value, no problem. But what if one is plus 20% and the other is minus 20%? Then you need some mechanism to compensate for the difference. Or what if you have a power supply with one output at no load, but drops 5% under load, as is typical? You needed to be able to adjust it to the exact specified voltage, or the sensitive electronic components would not work.

    The adjustments were accomplished with tiny potentiometers or "pots" on the circuit boards. Some would only turn maybe 270 degrees, but others could be rotated through 360 degrees several times. We even had special non-metallic "tweakers", as some circuit boards were sensitive enough that the inductance or capacitance from any metal near the circuit board could influence the setting. So while most adjustments of the pots were small, with corresponding large changes in output, the "tweaking" of the pot referred to the adjusting action itself, and not the magnitude of the adjustment.

    In the hardware world, if you can't get something to work by "tweaking" it, it's "broke" and has to be "swapped out". So in another sense, "tweaking" something has to do with changing an existing system within its design parameters rather than replacing or redesigning it.

  24. Walter Underwood said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 12:11 pm

    Nijma's explanation agrees with mine, and the usage goes father back to radio circuitry. In fact, you need a special non-metallic "tweaker" to adjust tuned circuits, because the metal will change the tuning. See usage here:

    Perhaps they used "tweak" for its technical connotation. You can tweak a radio or an algorithm or an engine, but it sounds odd to tweak a painting or a poem.

  25. Rob P. said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 12:35 pm

    Nijma – back in my undergrad electronics labs, we always used the synonym, "twiddle" for potentiometers. "Twiddle the pot until you get the right output." I've always loved the phrase twiddle the pot, but have so few opportunities to use it.

  26. Andrew Dowd said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 12:52 pm

    It seems to me that a case could be made that any adjustment, major or minor, can be a "tweak" as long as it is made to something that already works, in order to make it work better. This seems to fit my intuition for software, academic writing, and car mods, just off the top of my head.

    I feel that if you're "tweaking" something non-working in order to get it to work, the modifications are much more strongly implied to be minor. Although in either case, the implicature that the modification is minor seems to be cancellable.

  27. Josh Millard said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

    For me, "tweak" in a programming context has a general implication of slightness but not a very powerful one; maybe that's because I'm used to a "tweak" often turning into a day long plumbing nightmare.

    It's says more about the mode of change than the magnitude: if I'm fundamentally rewriting the architecture of something, that's not a tweak; if I'm reconfiguring details of some architecture already built, that's a tweak.

    So in that sense, I can tweak something to produce profound effects on the output side, whether the tweak itself required a lot of work or not and whether or not it involved a large degree of net change in the literal content of the code, so long as what I'm doing is more fiddling with the knobs that already exist than throwing the knobs out and installing a bunch of dip switches and flashing lights instead. I tweak when I've got the right machine built but it's not running the way I hoped it would.

    Whereas if I tear out the guts of a thing and replace them with a brand new implementation that ends up producing more or less identical results, that's not a tweak even if the end user never notices a thing.

    Whether Google intended to communicate any such distinction, and whether Miller would be conveying it faithfully if they had, is probably an unresolvable here, yeah.

  28. bianca steele said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 2:23 pm

    I agree that the separation of what's changed and what the effect is makes "tweak" seems plausible, especially if the connection between them is largely arbitrary. It also might be questionable what "large" means. A large order-of-magnitude change to the only tweakable variable might still be a tweak, possibly. If there were two steps involved in an algorithm, each of them complicated, but with no obvious reason they should be done in one order rather than another, reversing the order could be a tweak, even though the percent change to the main body of the program was large.

  29. mollymooly said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 2:29 pm

    I'm guessing the sub-editor simply picked an inappropriate synonym of "modify" out of the thesaurus. Explanations in terms of internal-v-external viewpoints are unconvincing to me, and seem like post-hoc rationalisations.

    One constraint for composing headlines is "short words are better". (Hence "praise"->"laud", "condemn"->"slam".) But that's more important in downmarket tabloids with large font sizes; and the space limitations of print shouldn't apply to blog postings.

  30. Adrian said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

    The word tweak now always reminds me of the "Holby City" episode of the radio sitcom Ed Reardon's Week, wherein our pipe-smoking hero is prevailed upon to tweak and retweak the TV script he's writing.

  31. Ellen K. said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 3:04 pm

    Seems to me the question is, why did the headline writer choose the word "tweak"?

  32. Daniel said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 6:08 pm

    I could see how, to a non-technical person with no understanding of what's involved in what a technical person calls a "tweak", that that action would be just as incomprehensible as what the same technical person calls a "major change" — and likewise for other terms intended to convey both that a change is involved, and its magnitude. It's not a long stretch from there for the non-technical person to then conflate these into a kind of general purpose "something technical people do to technical things" meaning, and to switch between the various terms purely for flavour.

  33. bianca steele said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 6:11 pm

    Actually, if I changed a simple numeric value, I'd be likely to use the word "tweak" especially if I was explaining to someone who didn't understand the details and emphatically didn't care. It creates a sense of security that the changes are minor.

    To myself, I'd be more likely to use the word "tweak" if I didn't really understand the reason things improved (it happens to the best of us), as if I changed a timeout from 2 to 4 seconds, and less likely to use it for something like making sure two timeouts were relatively prime.

  34. Peter G. Howland said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 4:28 am

    resisters = those who (no)
    resistors = that which (yes)
    Sorry, but such inattention to spelling distinctions really tweaks my shorts.

  35. Josh said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 9:31 am

    Looks like the "tweak" originalists won the war: the article appears on page one of today's (Saturday's) print edition of The New York Times with the following headline:

    Seeking to Weed Out Drivel,
    Google Adjusts Search Engine

  36. Spell Me Jeff said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 9:36 am

    "tweak" is ordinary programmer-ese. To "tweak an algorithm" is exactly the sort of thing a programmer might say. I can't imagine the word was chosen randomly from a thesaurus. As should be clear by now, what the headline writer misunderstood was scale. Regardless of the outcome, a tweak is a minor change to the underlying code, not a major change.

    (Actually, the algorithm concept underlies everything that programmers do, so it's the kind of word you don't use in normal contexts. You'd be more likely to hear "I'm gonna tweak this function" or "I gotta tweak this loop a little" or "I've been tweaking this object constructor for an hour!")

  37. Spell Me Jeff said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 9:43 am

    Or perhaps, from an impatient senior programmer: "Look. Your whole algorithm is fubar. Stop tweaking it and write the damned thing from scratch."

  38. Joyce Melton said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 10:05 am

    Tweak means "optimize through adjustment, especially with a non-scalar response".

    You can "tweak" a Broadway show by replacing the lead dancer in one big number. You can "tweak" a political campaign by using different ads in Sedona than you do in Tucson. You can "tweak" a website by changing the theme colors.

    Google's tweak was a classic software tweak, they adjusted the weights of the parameters of various inputs to an algorithm. It's almost exactly like twiddling the pots.

  39. mary said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 10:11 am

    I'm happy that the NYT used 'drivel' at least twice in headlines about this story.

  40. Mark said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

    Tweak turning into "modify" rather than "modify in a minor way" is normal drift IMHO. As a geek we use it all the time to assure upper management that what we're doing has no real risk. And for emphasis we minimize further most of the time.

    "We're just tweaking it a bit, no big deal".
    "It's not a big change, it is just a little tweak."

    Once you start qualifying tweak with other risk-minimizing words it just becomes jargon for "change" or "modify".

    In addition, as mentioned above by a number of other people the tech industry uses it to specifically where you tune settings or variables rather than by making actual code or algorithm changes. One it gets changed to "tuning" you can talk about all scales of "tweak" from minor to major so long as you don't change the fundamentals of how the system works. You are just "tweaking" the settings, not rebuilding parts of the machine.

    Mix insiders and outsiders and all those drifting senses and the headline just seems like a natural step in the evolution of this word's sense.

  41. army1987 said,

    March 1, 2011 @ 8:40 am

    I had always understood "tweak" to only refer to minor adjustments. I suspect this is a malapropism by someone unfamiliar with this word who assumed it had a broader meaning than it actually has

  42. army1987 said,

    March 1, 2011 @ 8:46 am

    (Of course, it could well be that the algorithm was tweaked but the change in the output was major, but then the placement of "major" in the first sentence of the article is a very confusing hypallage which I would've avoided.)

  43. Ed said,

    March 2, 2011 @ 7:28 am

    I myself think of "tweak" as being a minor change, but it doesn't bother me when it's used to denote something bigger.

    This made me realize, however, that words with an initial "tw" seem to take on a diminutive connotation (at least to me). They seem like "cute" words to me. Words like "twee," "twiddle," and "Twizzler." Does anyone else get that sense, and might it have something to do with the perceived meaning of "tweak"?

  44. Edward Carney said,

    March 2, 2011 @ 2:15 pm

    It's possible that a more generous interpretation is that the writer was indicating that the method of changing the algorithm involved a tweak, but the effect was a major change in the policy implemented. The message got a bit muddled, of course, because the writer refers to the algorithm a second time.

    As for 'tweak' still referring to a minor adjustment, I adduce a paragraph from this week's issue of The Economist from an item about research presented at the recent AAAS conference by Iain Couzin of Princeton University:

    Tracking individual fish in a shoal is hard. Fortunately, advances in pattern-recognition software mean it is no longer impossible. Systems designed to follow people are now clever enough not only to track a person in a crowd, but also to tell in which direction his head is turned. Since, from above, the oval shape of a human head is not unlike the oblong body of a fish, this software can, with a little tweaking, follow piscine antics, too.

  45. Edward Carney said,

    March 2, 2011 @ 2:17 pm

    Sorry. Forgot to say that my comment was in substantial agreement with army1987's comment just prior.

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