Posted tagged ‘SEO’

Knol and SEO: Google Insider Trading?

11, August, 2008

Is Google a media company? The New York Times asks the question today. The report focuses on Knol, Google’s new super-publishing platform which invites people to post articles online.

Authors retain copyright, and Google makes no money directly for the postings, though authors can choose to display AdSense ads on their content pages. Google serves those ads and shares in their revenue. This is not an insignificant part of the Knol strategy.

By asking whether Google will artificially elevate Knol content on its search engine results pages [SERPs], the Times is, I believe, asking the wrong question.

Google doesn’t need to employ illegally anti-competitive means. Knol content likely has the advantage of perfectly legal, perfectly legit, perfect SEO. Because who could possibly know SEO better than Google programmers and engineers?

For the uninitiated: Search Engine Optimization is the art/science of enhancing content [and the sites that carry it] to make that content appear higher on search results pages. Some people are SEO wizards, whose long experience, wily intelligence, subtle understandings of code and ability to read Brother Google’s head-fakes give them the ability to make just about any content, including total crap, pop up really high on SERPs. We mortals follow half-a-dozen best practices and muddle through. [Here’s an independently authored Knol [!] on how Google’s page rank system appears to work. Here’s another Knol on SEO generally.]

But here’s the problem: Google keeps its algorithm secret, so people on the outside never really know for sure what Brother Google’s search bots are sniffing for. That’s why SEO experts exist. If Google’s search algorithms were transparent, we’d all know the deal. SEO experts would be neither necessary nor well-paid.

From the Times piece:

Google has always said it will never compromise the objectivity of its search results. And it says it treats Knol pages like any other pages on the Web. “When you see Knol pages rank high, they are there because they have earned their position,” said Gabriel Stricker, a spokesman for Google.

Yes, but Google doesn’t have to compromise the objectivity of its search results to make Knol content rocket to the top.

If we generously accept the claim that the Knol pages have “earned” their way high onto the SERPs–that Google has, in the name of fairness and despite powerful economic motivations, heroically resisted the temptation to tap its internal knowledge of how Google’s algorithms reward and punish web pages when building its platform–then we are entitled to know how the Knol pages have done so well via conventional SEO.

But the Mountain View mothership is eerily silent about how it is indexing and making Knol content discoverable. Here’s an answer from an author of Knol’s Help pages to a user question:

“Q: . . .What factors affect whether a page appears [on SERPs] or not?

I cannot answer these questions, only to say that we are dedicated to making the search experiences for readers and authors better, over time.”

As discussions among SEO folk are revealing, some Knol entries are showing up inexplicably high on SERPs already. The Times story reports that a buttermilk pancake recipe published as a Knol is appearing higher on SERPs than a Martha Stewart Living page that publishes a similar recipe.

If this is not due to some internal knowledge of Google’s algorithms, the only explanation could be super-duper-ultraly-awesome-galactic-class search engine optimization practices by Google based on publicly available information which the greatest minds in SEO otherwise have not discovered.

For instance: SEO experts coach that links to a site’s content from other credible web pages are the most important factor driving SERP rankings. Yet some Knol entries that have been up for two or three weeks and appear to have just a few inlinks are scoring higher than similar Wikipedia entries–or content from well-established publishers whose content is richly inlinked and appears on pages with what’s known in the trade as “high URL equity.”

Yet Google won’t explain this oddity other than to say it’s not cheating. It won’t comment any more than that.

So. Let’s think for a minute about how Knol is pulling this off if it’s not using inside knowledge. . . .Ah: Maybe Google has hired brilliant SEO experts from the outside to make Knol entries rise high on SERPs so quickly. After all, that’s what the rest of us have to do.

So, Brother Google: If you won’t produce an explanation, at least produce an invoice that shows you’ve hired that outside SEO firm. I have to say, whoever is doing SEO on Knol content is doing a damn good job.

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SEO good. User experience bad.

10, April, 2008

I have been accused of giving my former employer, The Washington Post, a big juicy kiss a couple days back. I looked at how well the Pulitzer Prize winners integrated digital journalism into their prize-winning work. The Post came out on top. Hey, I tried to be objective.

Anyhow, today’s topic gives me the opportunity not just to cast a weary eyebrow at, but to throw sand in its face and kick it in the nuts. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

The topic is how mainstream news sites–the Post is just one egregious example among many–sacrifice user experience as a matter of daily practice in order to trick Google into ranking its contents higher on its search results.

Delivering poor user experience in the name of building traffic is, we all know, built into the very DNA of web publishing. But one particular practice of mainstream web journalism is so deeply annoying, so persistent, so widespread, so pernicious and so baffling to outsiders that it’s worth pointing out.

I refer to the Inexplicable and Distracting Hyperlink.

Let’s look at the news story that’s currently in the lead position on the home page.

Bush to Cut Army Tours to 12 Months

President Supports Suspending Pullout Of Forces in Iraq

Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 10, 2008; Page A01

President Bush plans to announce today that he will cut Army combat tours in Iraq from 15 months to 12 months, returning rotations to where they were before last year’s troop buildup in an effort to alleviate the tremendous stress on the military, administration officials said.

Note how the Post has kindly offered that hyperlink to “President Bush.” Who exactly is being served by this hyperlink? Let’s see. . .that would have to be someone reading Washington Post coverage of national affairs yet is wondering who this Bush feller is, anyway.

Same with Iraq. The audience for that hyperlink is probably that guy who’s been taking ice core samples in Antarctica since 1990 and is wondering what all the fuss is about.

But the Post doesn’t stop there. It offers handy hyperlinks to the following terms that demand explanation for the discriminating consumer of public affairs news: Capitol Hill. Afghanistan. Marines. White House. And my favorite of the day, U.S. military.

To be fair, the article also offers links of some potential value when it blue-fonts the names of prominent figures in the story.

But the stuff you might really want more background about? No links. If you want to know about the details of that Democrat proposal on a torture ban, troop relief-and-refresh and withdrawl timetable, for instance, sorry. You’ll need to visit with Brother Google.

You don’t have to be a search-engine optimization wizard to know what’s going on here. Google and other search engines read the language of hyperlinks as markers for story content. So if somebody is searching the term President Bush (and therefore likely to be looking for biographical information, not what he said yesterday about troop withdrawl) this story will bounce up higher on Google results.

But frankly, that’s SEO chump change.

The really big payoff is revealed if you click on one of those hyperlinks. Go ahead, click on the President Bush link above. You’ll be taken to what’s known in the trade as a “link farm” (or “index page”)–links to dozens of stories (and video, audio and blog entries) more or less related, in at least some tangential way, to President Bush. Torch relay to go on despite protests, IOC says (CNN). Bloomberg’s Zacharia Discusses NATO summit in Bucharest. And so on.

So why do these auto-generated pages exist? We return to the demands of Brother Google. If Google’s silent patient spiders see pages loaded with links about Bush–or Capitol Hill, or the Marines, etc.–they infer that the site is very content-rich about the topic. Up go the pages in search results. Even if the links are nonsensical, worthless or utterly baffling. (Say It Ain’t So, Colin (Balkinization)). Next time some Googler searches for President Bush, wham! is right on top.

Except when it’s not.

Go ahead, Google President Bush. Of the mainstream media sites, the well-tended New York Times link farm (led by Campaign 2004 content!) rides highest. As does (twice!) the New York Sun. And the Bush index page of the Tribune Co.’s The Swamp political blog. I got tired of clicking through results to find a story. But I passed the bushisantichrist and bushorchimp sites along the way.

SEO is a darker and far more complex art than this, and let me state plainly that I am a rube. There are complex traffic-steering and -aggregating services ( uses Inform and Aggregate Knowledge, at least) that play into this. There are many things going on behind the scenes that I am clueless about. And the thing Google spiders reward the most is links to the content from other credible sites, which is at least an attempt to validate content value.

But my point is this: A reader of online news is constantly distracted by all this blue-spatter spiderbait. It degrades the user experience. It offers no user value. It adds an unsavory layer of trickery to serious-minded content. Like the worst of all journalism, it places the institution’s commercial interests above those of the reader.

The question for serious journalistic enterprises: How can you maximize traffic to great content while keeping the reader’s needs at the forefront?

And isn’t that the same question we’ve been asking as long as this profession has existed?