Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Search Engine Boobization

I follow a fellow on Twitter who goes by the monicker “Seaslug of Doom.” One of Seaslug's Twitter schticks is to, once and a while, post a tweet featuring three words that are “unlikely to get auto-followers.” Some of his word lists have included:

angelet, annelid, and anthropogeny

andrology, anemotropism, and anenterous

For a while after I started following him, and after I started laughing at his tweets – because I've noticed that when I used some trigger tweet terms, I'd get followers that would quickly disappear when they realized I wasn't tweeting constantly on their pet subject – I pondered setting up a string of fake Twitter accounts to indeed follow him for his extended vocabulary. But I'm generally a lazy soul, and gave up on it.

But that brought to the fore the interesting world of search engine optimization. Learning to seach engine optimize is, of course, the wave of the future for the Internet. Search engine optimization, (SEO), when you get right down to it, helps optimize your Internet searches so when people search the Internet for topics that interest them, say, from search engine optimization to optimizing their website for search engines, they find you.

That paragraph is, of coure, my poor attempt at emulating the stilted language you find in articles that are search engine optimized. Farhad Manjoo over at Slate.com does a much better job of it than I. (So good, in fact, his article shows up on Page 1 when I searched for "Search Engine Optimization" in Google. But more on that, and my penchant for Slate.com articles, later.)

At Uncharted, we don't officially use SEO in our articles. I frown upon it, because of the stilted, silly way it makes articles sound. About the closest we get to such shenanigans is in the title or subhead to our articles, we try to include the name of the place we're writing about. I think that's fair and natural.

And, hopefully, so does Google. Because as Manjoo points out, there may be sites who know SEO, but if the writing isn't there to back up what the searchers are searching for, they won't stay at a site long. I can look at the Google Analytics for my own stable of blogs and see how many new visitors simply bounce out of my site when they realize that their search has led them to the infantile backwaters my blogs inhabit.

Anyway, on to Manjoo:
Search engines' algorithms are getting better at detecting keyword gaming, they're beginning to learn searchers' preferences, and they're using social-networking signals to figure out what you, personally, might consider a good or bad article. The other problem for the new AOL-HuffPo is the rise of social networks as a replacement for search engines. Did you go to Google to search for a story about the Huffington Post's purchase, or did you see the news on Facebook or Twitter? Those social networking links are becoming a bigger share of every news site's traffic; as one of my Slate colleagues pointed out, in the Twitter age, "optimizing for Google results is a little like going out and buying the best VCR on the market."
I'm not quite to the search engine stage in finding trigger material – I do tend to go to Twitter, Facebook, and the bigger news sites (and to aggregators) to find what interests me. I will do searches, however, to find similar information, or articles on a similar topic by a number of authors. And like the bouncers from my blog, I'll bail quickly on a site that isn't offering the information I want.
What's even more frustrating are the sites that use SEO in a way that's hidden. They want to show up in any search, so their SEO data is embedded somewhere the average Internet idiot like me can't see, so when I click on a page that's supposed to be helpful according to Google, the term I'm searching for doesn't even show up on the clicked page.

And I'm not a big fan of the content farms that are using SEO to clutter Google with poorly written information. If I want poorly written stuff, I read my own blog, thank you very much. But places like eHow and About.com just drive me nuts. I'd rather use Wikipedia.

Good news is, according to Manjoo, search engines may quickly be able to learn what sites I prefer and thus not show me results from sites I don't frequent:
The answer is … it depends. All Google results are personalized—that is, links you see in response to a specific query may be different from the ones I see for the same query. They differ according to a number of variables—what sites I favor, where I'm located, what device I'm using, and other secret factors. At the moment, search engines' personalization algorithms aren't fine-grained enough to give everyone their ideal article in response to a query like "worst cell phone on earth," but there's no reason to believe they won't get there: In the future, Google will know whether you favor Slate over HuffPo, or whether you like original articles versus summaries, or whether you're a fan of slide shows more than text, and it will serve you the article that's most appropriate for you. And as this happens, Google will surely diminish the weight it now gives to the keywords HuffPo jams in its articles.
That's both good and bad. Good in providing me better information, per my point of view. Bad as in it proved me information per my point of view, perhaps limiting my perspective on the subject (especially in topics that tend to have a slant such as politics, climate change, et cetera). So maybe getting the raw results of a search is better than a personalized result. Which is why Seaslug of Doom's tweets just entertain me so: He probably piques the interest of at least one twit per word.

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