Tuesday 8 July 2014

Tinkering with the Results

You use it every day – but can you trust it? That’s what users wonder about Google, because the search engine’s results are open to manipulation.
That manipulative process, known as SEO (search engine optimisation), is open to further tinkering by second-guessing the search engine’s complex algorithms, which search for, aggregate and rank content on the web.
People cheat. If the stakes are high enough and the consequences low enough, they cheat. Within the world of SEO, “gaming” the algorithms had become so ubiquitous that many dodgy strategies were touted as “best practice” by some technologists, and some companies paid real money to unscrupulous entities whose sole purpose was to ensure that websites performed well in SERP (Search Engine Results Page) via organic or unpaid search, by whatever means possible.
But that meant users had to wade through results generated by the content farms (which paid wannabe writers peanuts to generate endless so-called original articles “thin” on content but stuffed full of keywords) or the link farms (which made your site appear more authoritative through the generation of myriad links to multiple empty domains). Users felt spammed.

Content is the oxygen of the web. But “scraping content” (good old-fashioned plagiarism) had become commonplace; those who spent time creating great content soon discovered just how easy “copy and paste” really is, and the worst part was, the scrapers often beat the new content-makers in SERP, since more content tended to trump less. They felt scammed.

In other words, the bad guys were beginning to run amok. Google was worried, and rightly so.

Google has a killer app. It is called search. Search is the second most commonly used internet application after e-mail, and Google’s revenue stream is hugely dependent on it. It remains dominant in the search market, particularly outside the US (where its market share has dropped to 65 percent), but its year-on-year revenue for July 2011 was $33.3 billion (R266bn), 97 percent of it from advertising. Of its advertising revenue, 67 percent is from paid search, marketed as Adwords, and the rest from web-derived advertising in Adsense.

It is not surprising search can be monetised; it provides direct marketing to those actively “in the market”, so while the “click-through rate” on paid search is only about 2 percent, these figures translate into actual sales, and companies that bid on Adwords will pay from only 2c to up to $50 per click in arenas of high competition, to be first, taking location into consideration, as well as negative factors (such as, I’ll pay for a search on “leather couch” when combined with “luxury” but not with “cheap”).

But here’s the kicker – direct marketers love crunching the numbers, and many attending the recent Search Engine Strategists conference in Toronto claimed their results were better from organic search than paid, both in terms of traffic and in terms of results.

Companies wanting to compete therefore need to perform in terms of SERP. At the same time, in an era of increasing competition from Bing, not to mention Facebook, Google needed to ensure its killer app continued to generate consumer satisfaction and not alienate but support its content providers, but how could they do this if gaming SERP was possible?

Google’s solution? Panda – a system where content is “quality rated” in human terms and the machines “learn” what humans want.

Panda scoring provides an update to the ranking algorithms by assigning a rank to pages in terms of quality. It penalises duplicate and poor quality content, for instance, with a high rating, which cumulatively drag down overall results.

Panda is a game-changer, impacting search worldwide by 12 percent overall. Within South Africa, Tim Withers, SEO Strategist for Quirk, observed volatility in SERP results but is happy to report that none of its clients received a “Panda slap” (that is, were sent way down in the SERP rankings). Noting that “Google has their hands full” in terms of those who would reverse-engineer the algorithms, he nonetheless feels some e-commerce sites may have been unfairly affected. However, workarounds do exist and Google has been at some pains to indicate what general factors would lead to a poor ranking.

While some feel Google sites such as YouTube have been unfairly well ranked by Panda, the engineers are adamant that ranking is algorithm-based not biased, and although revenue is high it is shared, with 60-70 percent of Adsense revenue going directly to the publishers themselves who host the adverts.

The bad news for those who wish to game the system is that the ranking scores are here to stay and are likely to become more aggressive in terms of weeding out poor content with each iteration, since the parallel processes involve continuous learning.

However, for marketers and brand strategists, continuous improvements to ranking algorithms are great news. Panda’s types of rankings place the emphasis squarely on content; no longer is it about the links, but the value of those links, not just about the number of followers but also about how deeply they engage with your content. Those who produce high-quality, relevant, engaging content will rank well.

In this era of big data where the process of information-gathering has been democratised through technical automation, Neil Higgs of TNS South Africa sees “huge growth” in relating your digital data information to real world consumer behaviour.

In other words, in this brave new world, technological innovation is reminding us, yet again, of the basics: know your customer. - Saturday Star.

Tinkering with the Results, was first published in the Saturday Star, 12 November 2011, p. 17

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