The authors appear to have expected the HITS algorithm to outperform the others in their tests, but found instead that a combination of BM25F and simple in-degree link analysis outperformed everything else. From the paper:
We were quite surprised to find that HITS, a query-dependent feature, is about as effective as web page in-degree, the most simpleminded query-independent link-based feature.PageRank performed poorly in their tests. However, their explanation of why struck me as unconvincing. From the paper:
As expected, BM25F outperforms all link-based features by a large margin. The link-based features are divided into two groups, with a noticeable performance drop between the groups. The better-performing group consists of the features that are based on the number and/or quality of incoming links (in-degree, PageRank, and HITS authority scores); and the worse-performing group consists of the features that are based on the number and/or quality of outgoing links (outdegree and HITS hub scores).
The combination of BM25F with ... id in-degree consistently outperforms the combination of BM25F with PageRank or HITS authority scores, and can be computed much easier and faster.
The fact that in-degree features outperform PageRank under all measures is quite surprising. A possible explanation is that link-spammers have been targeting the published PageRank algorithm for many years, and that this has led to anomalies in the web graph that affect PageRank.This begs the question of whether they picked the right PageRank algorithm. In particular, there are variants of PageRank that they could have used that appear less sensitive to spam and may have performed much better. Unfortunately, without results for those variants, it is hard to know whether the criticisms in this paper of naive PageRank are applicable to the algorithms evolved from PageRank used by search engines today.
Even so, the results of the study are interesting, both for the overview of several relevance ranking algorithms and the conclusions about their effectiveness. Particularly intriguing is the evidence that computationally expensive algorithms such as the query-dependent HITS algorithm seem to hold no advantage over much simpler techniques.
Update: Marc Najork, one of the authors of the paper, expands on the PageRank algorithm issue and the performance of HITS in the comments for this post.