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The Google College Rankings

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George Lindemann

Continuing our survey of university Google-rankings by country, what can we discover about the best universities in Mexico? Although English is widely spoken in academic circles, the language of instruction in Mexican universities is Spanish, so we will want to search google.com.mx for “universidad” rather than “university.” Here’s what we get:

  1. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
  2. Universidad Veracruzana
  3. Universidad Virtual del Tecnológico de Monterrey
  4. Universidad Panamericana – Guadalajara
  5. Universidad de Guanajuato
  6. Universidad de Guadalajara
  7. Universidad Regiomontana, Monterrey
  8. Universidad Autónoma Chapingo
  9. Universidad Iberoamericana
  10. Universidad de Colima

Of particular interest in this list is the third-ranked Universidad Virtual del Tecnológico de Monterrey, a predominantly online (”Universidad Virtual”) institution. Google pays no attention to the existence or non-existence of a physical campus in assigning rank to university websites, so there is in principle no reason why an online institution can’t outrank any or all brick-and-mortar schools.

What Google “sees” as it evaluates a college or university is the extent of its website(s) and in particular, the number of times people off campus link to the institution’s pages—each link functions as a king of micro-recommendation that says “this place is important.” Any single link or micro-recommendation might not be worth much, but a pattern of such recommendations, coming from many different sources, and built up overtime, well, that’s exactly what reputation consists of everywhere, whether online or offline.

Any country that has a Google address—such as google.co.za—can have its universities Google-ranked with just a bit of effort. If we use a clean browser to search for the word “university” at google.co.za, we get this ranking of South African universities (after the usual brain-filtering has been applied to remove extraneous links):

  1. University of Pretoria
  2. University of Johannesburg
  3. Stellenbosch University
  4. University of the Witwatersrand
  5. University of South Africa
  6. University of Cape Town
  7. University of KwaZulu Natal
  8. Rhodes University
  9. University of the Western Cape
  10. “A university of excellence, equity and innovation”

The mysterious “university of excellence, equity and innovation”—that’s exactly how its <title> appears in Google, with no other identifying name—turns out to be the University of the Free State. As I write this its website seems to be inaccessible, so I can add little more other than to recommend that its excellent webmasters brush up on their HTML.

Universities in multi-lingual countries like South Africa often have historic (and present-day) associations with particular language communities. What happens if we search the South African pages on google.co.za not for the English word “university” but for the Afrikaans word “universiteit“? This is the top-five ranking we get:

  1. Universiteit Stellenbosch
  2. University of Pretoria
  3. “A university of excellence, equity and innovation” (there it is again!)
  4. North-West University (Die Noordwes-Universiteit)
  5. University of Johannesburg

The University of Pretoria, number one in the English-focused list, is replaced here by the University of Stellenbosch, one of South Africa’s most well-known Afrikaans-speaking universities. And in this list the mysterious University of the Free State appears again as the Universiteit van die Vrystaat.

What can the method used here at the Google College Rankings tell us about universities in India?

India is a good country to examine via Google because it has a large and diverse university sector. Here is a first attempt at ranking, one that can serve as a basis for future comment and comparison:

  1. University of Mumbai
  2. Anna University
  3. University of Delhi
  4. Annamalai University
  5. University of Madras
  6. University of Pune
  7. Indira Gandhi National Open University
  8. Calcutta University
  9. Madurai Kamaraj University
  10. Jawaharlal Nehru University

These are the rankings given by an English-language search on google.co.in, but Google also permits searching in Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, and Punjabi. How do Indian universities rank under those language-specific searches?

Perhaps readers who are fluent in one or more of those languages might like to report on how Google ranks university websites for the languages they know. It would be natural to assume that the rankings might differ from the English-language rankings, since some universities may well have a stronger reputation within particular language communities.

What’s the best Christmas college? I have no idea what that might mean, but for holiday amusement, what does Google have to say?

There isn’t a single obvious way to search for the answer—we could try the words Christmas college or college Christmas, or the phrases “Christmas college” or “college Christmas”—and whichever one we try there will be a lot of irrelevant results that will have to be filtered out. But you’re not taking the idea of ranking Christmas colleges seriously, are you? This is just for fun.

If we try the phrase “college Christmas” on google.com, with a clean browser as always, and from a U.S. location, we get these interesting holiday items at the top of the list (after it has been appropriately passed through my complex edu-neuro filter):

  1. St. Olaf College Christmas Festival
  2. Concordia College Christmas Concert
  3. Regis College Christmas Concert

Google really does pretty well here. The Christmas festival at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, is indeed nationally known and annually broadcast, and the St. Olaf College Choir has produced many recordings. The Concordia College concert, also in Minnesota, and the Regis College concert, in Massachusetts, look like fine events too. If there’s such as thing as “the best college Christmas,” these would certainly be near the top of anyone’s list.

What if we search for the best “Christmas college” instead. Here’s what we get:

  1. The Christmas College Society of Cambridge University
  2. A notice that Trocaire College in Buffalo, New York, is closed on Christmas
  3. The “Blues Christmas” fundraising program from the University of Utah

Well, #2 and #3 are rather odd. But the top-ranking item is quite nice: an organization that provides care, feeding, and holiday cheer to Cambridge University students—many of them international students—staying on campus in their college residences over the holidays. That certainly belongs at the top of any Christmas college list as far as I’m concerned!

A Swedish newspaper reports that “Sweden’s National Agency for Higher Education (Högskoleverket) has criticized the ranking of different universities and colleges, arguing the lists don’t help students pick the right school. According to the agency, the rankings do very little to help students distinguish between the differences in quality between different institutes of higher learning.”

Here at the Google College Rankings we agree, in part. One of our reasons for being is to encourage people not to take rankings so seriously. There is no such thing as a perfect ranking of universities, nor could there be. Students should examine a range of factors when selecting a university, whether in Europe or elsewhere, and an institution that is a good fit for one student may not be for another.

But that doesn’t mean that existing ranking systems mean nothing and measure nothing. They measure whatever it is they are designed to measure. We aim to show that this is the case by deriving our own rankings from Google, and demonstrating that they are both helpful and at the same time variable and complex.

Can we offer any insights to the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education? Yes, we can. If we search google.se we can establish a basic ranking of Swedish universities, but this time there will be additional complications. If we search on the Swedish word universitet we get the following ranked list:

  1. Stockholms universitet (Stockholm University)
  2. Umeå universitet (Umeå University)
  3. Göteborgs universitet (University of Gothenburg)
  4. Växjö universitet (Växjö University)
  5. Uppsala universitet (Uppsala University)
  6. Lunds universitet (Lund University)
  7. Örebro universitet (Örebro University)
  8. Linköpings universitet (Linköping University)
  9. Karlstads universitet (Karlstad University)
  10. Luleå tekniska universitet (Luleå Technical University)

But if we search on the English word university we get this ranked list:

  1. Lund University (Lunds universitet)
  2. Linköping University (Linköpings universitet)
  3. Karlstad University (Karlstads universitet)
  4. Stockholm University (Stockholms universitet)
  5. Umeå University (Umeåa universitet)
  6. University of Gothenburg (Göteborgs universitet)
  7. Uppsala University (Uppsala universitet)
  8. Mälardalen University (Mälardalens högskola)
  9. Växjö University (Växjö universitet)
  10. Malmö University (Malmö högskola)

The first set of links go to Swedish-language pages, the second set go to English-language pages.

What might we infer from the differences? Some Swedish universities may place stronger emphasis on their online English-language materials than their competitors do, and may appeal more to an international English-speaking audience, while other Swedish universities may have their greatest strengths in Swedish-language offerings. But this is really conjecture. Google makes a great many assumptions about what a user is hoping to find when it delivers its results, and what it is assuming about users who search in Swedish as opposed to English is difficult to determine. But the results themselves exist. Their proper role is to encourage further exploration and comparison on the part of prospective students. I hope that is a conclusion with which the Högskoleverket would agree.

The Google-method of ranking colleges and universities works best for relatively large countries with a reasonable number of institutions of higher education. Australia is certainly such a country, and this initial league table—assembled as usual by means of a clean browser, this time searching via google.com.au—will serve as a basis for future comment and comparison:

  1. University of Sydney
  2. Monash University
  3. University of Queensland
  4. Griffith University
  5. University of Melbourne
  6. Macquarie University
  7. University of Newcastle
  8. University of Adelaide
  9. University of New South Wales
  10. RMIT University

It’s interesting to note that many of these universities include the word “Australia” in the HTML <title> of their webpages. The page title isn’t simply “The University of Queensland” but “The University of Queensland, Australia”; not “The University of Melbourne” but “The University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.”

In something of a contrast: while the webpage for RMIT University does tell us in its <title> element that it is in Melbourne, Australia, even if you go to the page itself you’ll have a hard time finding out what “RMIT” stands for. Some kind of institute of technology perhaps? Radical Metaphysical Institute of Technology? Republican Military Institute of Technology? Real Mellow Institute of Technology? Only Australians know for sure, and they’re not eager to have the rest of the world find out.

Like law schools and medical schools, business schools can be ranked using the method followed here at the Google College Rankings. Here’s an initial list, offered as a basis for future comment and comparison:

  1. Harvard Business School
  2. Columbia University Graduate School of Business
  3. International Business School, Florida International University
  4. Stanford Graduate School of Business
  5. Stern School, New York University
  6. University of Michigan Business School
  7. “Business School” (Foster School of Business, University of Washington)
  8. Wisconsin School of Business
  9. McCombs School of Business, University of Texas
  10. Rutgers Business School

As with our earlier Google-ranking of law schools, this listing of business schools includes many familiar names. It will fluctuate over time, as all such rankings do, but a pattern will emerge of institutions that are consistently near the top.

The only entry that is somewhat surprising here is that of the International Business School at Florida International University. Overall, FIU generally does not place high in national university rankings—U.S. News puts its undergraduate program in the fourth tier. Will its business school continue to rank highly in Google’s estimation? Time will tell.

This list also contains a formatting oddity. As with the strange case of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington is anonymous in its Google listing. The SERPs only display the title “Business School” and nothing else; you have to look at the URL to discover what university this nameless “Business School” is attached to. This is bad web design and should be fixed.

Does Google really rank colleges and universities? Of course it does! Well, not exactly. But in another sense, yes, certainly.

What Google does is index and rank webpages. And here at the Google College Rankings we use Google’s webpage rankings as a proxy for the overall quality of the institutions behind the webpages. This is not nearly as far-fetched as it sounds, once you understand how Google’s ranking algorithm works.

When you enter a search term such as “college” into Google and perform a search, you get pages and pages of links in return. Geeks refer to these pages as SERPs—search-engine results pages. How are these many pages of links assembled?

Google’s search spider, the Googlebot, is forever scanning the web, following links and looking for new webpages, and adding the contents of each page to Google’s enormous index. Whenever you perform a Google search you are searching through that index as it exists at the moment of your search. The index is in a perpetual state of revision, and not only that, it is distributed over many different physical locations—different data centers—so the results you get from one moment to the next aren’t always the same.

But even if the Google database were static, searching on a common word like “college” or “university” would return millions of pages. (As I’m typing this, Google is returning about 711,000,000 results for the word college, and 789,000,000 for the word university.) For these results to be useful, they have to be sorted in some way, with the more helpful links at the top, and the less helpful ones further down.

There’s no perfect way of doing this, of course, but Google and other search engines try their best. The way Google sorts the results is by assigning to every page on the web, in the course of its indexing process, a value Google calls the PageRank. When you search on a word like college, Google first finds all the pages it knows about that contain the world college, and then (in rough terms) it sorts them according to their PageRank: high-PageRank sites are near the top of the results, low-PageRank sites are near the bottom.

Of course no one but a handful of Google engineers know the exact details of how this works, because those exact details are closely-held corporate secrets. There are dozens and perhaps hundreds of variables that go into the calculation of PageRank, and that list of variables is subject to frequent revision.

One of the most important variables that goes into the calculation of PageRank is known, however. It is the number of other webpages that link to the page in question. An important webpage, the theory goes, has many other links—backlinks—pointing to it. And unimportant webpage, by contrast, is ignored by web authors at large, and few others pages link to it. The number of backlinks thus functions as a measure of reputation in a sense. Webpages that are deemed important within any given field—deemed so by other webpage authors—receive lots of “votes” in the form of incoming links. They are therefore assigned a higher PageRank by Google, and appear higher in the SERPs. Google is effectively saying, “Lots of other people seem to think these pages are important, so our best guess is that you, the user, will also find them helpful.”

Although the use of PageRank as a tool for quality evaluation is commonly associated with Google—and the term “PageRank” itself is one of their trademarks—the basic idea behind PageRank didn’t originate with Google, and in the days before the web similar statistics were used by journals such as Science Citation Index to evaluate the importance of academic research publications.

But what does this have to do with ranking colleges and universities? Well, in the popular America’s Best Colleges edition of U.S. News & World Report—probably the most widely-known college rankings guide in the United States—the weight given to “peer assessment” is fully 25%. The peer assessment surveys prepared by U.S. News are sent to about 4000 people, who simply vote their opinions of the quality of various colleges and universities, and this accounts for a quarter of the total rankings value calculated.

There’s nothing wrong with sending out a survey, but “peer assessment” is also what Google’s PageRank algorithm is all about, and it isn’t based on the opinion of a few thousand people, but rather on the actual effort put in by millions of web authors around the world, many of them experts in their respective fields. The results of a Google search are based strongly on peer assessment, just as the results of the U.S. News ranking process are. When the website of a college or university appear high in the Google SERPs, it’s because, in the collective judgment of web authors around the world, it really is important, for a great variety of reasons, and many people have linked to it. So does Google really rank colleges and universities? Well, in a sense, yes, it really does, because the web at large does. And an important element of its ranking process is “peer assessment,” just like U.S. News.

There are additional factors that can influence both the Google rankings of a college and the in-print rankings from U.S. News and other such publications. I’ll explore some of these in a future post.

The approach used here at the Google College Rankings can produce a league table for universities in any country, not just the United States. To get a Google-ranking for universities in the United Kingdom, for example, just use a clean browser to search for the word university, but do it at google.co.uk rather than google.com. When the extraneous entries are removed from the results, this is the ranking that appears (as of today):

  1. University of Cambridge
  2. University of Oxford
  3. University of Birmingham
  4. University of Manchester
  5. University of Leeds
  6. Durham University
  7. University of Edinburgh
  8. University of Warwick
  9. University College London
  10. University of Southampton

This first ranking of the best British universities will form a basis for comparison and commentary in future posts.

Observers of British higher education—even remote observers—will be accustomed to seeing Oxford and Cambridge in the top two slots, as the oldest and most well-known universities in the United Kingdom. The rankings below them are likely to be much more fluid over time. Durham is often put in third place historically, after Oxford and Cambridge, but many of Great Britain’s other universities have become increasingly distinguished both within Britain and across Europe in the past few decades, and students attending them will be able to find much of value. What you get out of a university education always depends more on what you put into it than on some mystical “rank” that the institution may possess.

Here is Google’s ranking of medical schools in the United States, offered as another baseline list for future comment and comparison:

  1. Harvard Medical School
  2. University of Michigan Medical School
  3. University of Texas Medical School
  4. University of Wisconsin School of Medicine*
  5. University of Massachusetts Medical School
  6. University of Minnesota Medical School
  7. Dartmouth Medical School
  8. Stanford University Medical School
  9. University of North Dakota School of Medicine
  10. UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine

*Close study of the Google search results on any topic often reveals irregularities—and outright errors—in the design of websites. The title of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine’s webpage, as it appears in Google, is just “Medical School”—certainly odd:

['Medical School' — but where?]

When you actually go to the page, you see that the title appearing there is “University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health - Date Last Updated: 12/15/2008.” They may be employing the not uncommon practice of serving different versions of a webpage to different browsers, but in this case they haven’t attended to how Googlebot—which functions as browser itself—”sees” their page. Or it could simply be an error that was in place a few days ago that has been corrected on the site, but the correction hasn’t yet appeared in Google’s results. If we check again in a few days we should be able to tell.

Will the medical school rankings shown above remain constant? No, they will fluctuate. But over time there will be a clear pattern of certain institutions regularly appearing in the top ten, and others that place there for a short time and then drop back down. But the absolute numerical position of a school, in this listing or any other, should never be the sole determining factor for a prospective student. Considerations of geography, specialization, campus climate, student welfare, research and teaching opportunities—all these things and more ought to enter into every decision. Rankings can be the beginning of the process, but they should never be the end.

Our method of using Google to rank colleges and universities can also be applied to certain professional schools, such as law schools. Here’s a first ranking of the top ten law schools in the United States, to serve as a basis for further comment and comparison:

  1. Harvard Law School
  2. Yale Law School
  3. Columbia Law School
  4. Stanford Law School
  5. University of Chicago Law School
  6. University of Michigan Law School
  7. University of Pennsylvania Law School
  8. University of Minnesota Law School
  9. Cornell Law School
  10. Berkeley Law (Boalt Hall, University of California)

Observers of American law schools will recognize most of these names as well-known institutions, all of them contained within universities of distinction.

Will these specific rankings be stable from month to month? Probably not: one of the lessons that the Google Gollege Rankings teaches is that Google results fluctuate. But this has the positive effect of encouraging prospective students not to get caught up in one particular ranking scheme. Every law school—as well as every university and every undergraduate college—has strengths and weaknesses, both academic and non-academic. Fluctuating rankings should encourage students to consider all aspects of an institution when looking for a good fit.

Google can do more than rank universities. It can also give us a ranking of liberal arts colleges in the United States. Here’s today’s ranking (recorded from a clean browser and with extraneous entries removed, as noted below). It will serve as a basis for future discussion and comparison:

  1. Hampshire College
  2. Dartmouth College
  3. Harvard College
  4. Ithaca College
  5. Williams College
  6. Vassar College
  7. Amherst College
  8. Grinnell College
  9. Swarthmore College
  10. Middlebury College
  11. Calvin College
  12. Reed College
  13. Bates College
  14. Kenyon College
  15. Bryn Mawr College
  16. St. John’s College
  17. Davidson College
  18. Pomona College
  19. Wheaton College (Illinois)
  20. Harvey Mudd College
  21. Gettysburg College
  22. Hunter College
  23. Hamilton College
  24. College of William and Mary
  25. Hope College

Although observers of American colleges will recognize all of these names as excellent institutions, there are a number of interesting placements that deserve comment in future posts. Hampshire’s position with respect to Amherst is especially amusing — but given the Google everflux, will they hold that position over the long term?

Furthermore, the term “college” is highly variable in its usage, so these institutions don’t all fit the mold of a stereotypical small liberal arts college. Harvard “College” is the undergraduate division of Harvard University, so it partakes of the character of a major research institution. Similarly, Dartmouth “College” and the “College” of William and Mary are really universities of national standing, with extensive graduate programs in addition to an undergraduate core.

So what can we learn from the Google-ranked list of the top 25 American universities posted yesterday? And in particular, how does this list compare to the popular college and university rankings published every year by the magazine U.S. News & World Report in their “America’s Best Colleges” edition?

Here’s our Google-based top ten:

  1. University of Virginia
  2. University of Tennessee at Knoxville
  3. Harvard University
  4. Stanford University
  5. University of Washington
  6. University of Michigan
  7. University of Georgia
  8. University of Wisconsin at Madison
  9. University of Florida
  10. Cornell University

And here’s the top ten from the 2009 edition of “America’s Best Colleges” from U.S. News:

  1. Harvard University
  2. Princeton University
  3. Yale University
  4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  5. Stanford University
  6. California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech)
  7. University of Pennsylvania
  8. Columbia University
  9. Duke University
  10. University of Chicago

The first thing to know, if you’re a student trying to select a university, is that you can get an outstanding education at any of these institutions. That’s because what you get out of your time on campus depends more on the effort you put in than on the campus itself. Every campus has many more opportunities available than any one person can possibly grasp, so each student’s individual effort will always be more important than some average calculation of institutional resources.

That being said, every university is different: some are larger (Wisconsin), some are smaller (Cal Tech); some are urban (Columbia), some are small-town suburban (Cornell); some are wealthy (Princeton), some are less so (UTK); some are in the cold north (Chicago), some are in the humid south (Florida).

The U.S. News rankings come out only once a year, and their upper tier changes very little from one edition to the next. Princeton will trade places with Yale, which will trade places with Harvard, which will trade places with Princeton.

The Google rankings, on the other hand, are revised continually because they are drawn from Google’s natural indexes, which are themselves revised continually. We will have to watch and see how much the Google university rankings change from week to week and month to month. But with one exception, Google’s top ten above are all among the top 50 as ranked by U.S. News, so the two systems aren’t radically different.

The surprise in the Google rankings is the University of Tennessee at #2. U.S. News places UTK down at #106, along with the University of Oklahoma and the University of Dayton in Ohio. I have a secret theory that may explain UTK’s high position in the Google rankings. I may even reveal it in a future post.

What can Google tell us about the best universities in the United States? The simplest result can be gotten just by entering the word “university” into Google and looking at the results. Here is a basic ranking of the top 25 US universities, according to Google:

  1. University of Virginia
  2. University of Tennessee at Knoxville
  3. Harvard University
  4. Stanford University
  5. University of Washington
  6. University of Michigan
  7. University of Georgia
  8. University of Wisconsin at Madison
  9. University of Florida
  10. Cornell University
  11. Duke University
  12. University of Utah
  13. Princeton University
  14. Yale University
  15. Georgetown University
  16. University of California at Berkeley
  17. University of Texas at Austin
  18. University of Iowa
  19. Northwestern University
  20. University of Miami
  21. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  22. University of Houston
  23. Clemson University
  24. University of Pennsylvania
  25. Syracuse University

This is the basic kind of result we will examine here at the Google College Rankings, and there are several important things to understand about it.

First, this is a ranking for today. People do generally understand that over the long term, the results displayed by Google for a given search may change. But what many people don’t realize is that Google’s results fluctuate almost continually, and the results of a search one minute may differ slightly from the results of the same search a few minutes later.

This “everflux” is due in part the continual updating of the Google database. But is also due to the fact that this master database is actually distributed over many “data centers” — separate computing locations that are needed to handle the enormous volume of requests that Google processes every hour of the day.

You may not realize it, but the search you enter at one moment may be handled by a Google computer in California, and the same search a minute later may be handled by a different Google computer in Texas. The computers in these different data centers have similar databases, but they aren’t precisely in synch just because there are so many of them and the database itself is so enormous. Thus the university ranking you get today may differ slightly from the one you get tomorrow (or in ten minutes).

Second, this is a ranking from a “clean” browser — and we draw it from a clean browser on purpose. Google makes a great many extra services available to its users to assist with their web browsing tasks: toolbars, preference settings, history tracking, and more. These features are all used in an attempt to anticipate what you may be looking for, so Google can make a better guess in providing you with the results of a search.

When you search for “Paris” do you usually mean Paris, France, or Paris Hilton? (Or Paris, Texas?) Based on your search history and the preferences you have set, Google may be able to tell whether you’re likely to be looking for geography or celebrity.

But if we are interested in an “unbiased” raking of colleges and universities — one that isn’t based on websites we usually visit or on our own geographical location — then we need to perform our rankings-search with a “clean” browser that makes use of no special settings or Google extras. And that’s just what we do here at the Google College Rankings.

Third, this is a filtered list drawn from the raw Google results. The raw results from a search on the word “university” include many websites other than those of universities themselves. The top-ranking result, for example, is the entry “University” on wikipedia.com — clearly not a place you want to send an application for admission! To produce our university rankings, then, we clearly have to filter out these extraneous addresses that are not themselves universities.

So, the top-25 list above is today’s un-preferenced Google-ranking of American universities (with extraneous non-university sites removed). But what does it say about the universities themselves? That will be the topic of the next post!

The Google College Rankings (googlecollegerankings.com) is an independent project that uses the Google search engine to investigate college and university rankings around the world. We are not Google employees and are not sponsored or endorsed by Google in any way. We just use Google technology to compare the world’s institutions of higher education.

We hope the information presented here will give people a new perspective on the rankings business, offer insights into the notion of “reputation” as it applies to colleges and universities, educate readers about search engines, and maybe even help some prospective students select a college or university.

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