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Archive for the ‘Search Engines’ Category

PostHeaderIcon Matt Cutts, Nofollow, and the Consistently Inconsistent

I have avoided (like the plague) weighing in on the tempest Matt Cutts unleashed at SMX Advanced in June regarding Google’s change to the use of the <nofollow> tag for PageRank sculpting.  I have avoided it for two reasons:

  1. In my mind, more has been made of it than its true impact on people’s rankings.
  2.  

  3. As far as I’m concerned, in general (and note those two words) the use of the <nofollow> tag is a last resort and a crutch for less than optimal internal cross-linking around thematic clusters.  When internal cross-linking is done right, I don’t believe the use of the <no follow> tag is that impactful.

Bruce Clay had a great show on Webmaster Radio on the subject of the <nofollow> controversy, and basically he was of the same opinion as me. There are also many more heavyweights who have weighed in than I care to name.  So adding my comments to the mix isn’t all that helpful to my readers or the SEO community generally.

But I was searching today for some help on undoing 301 redirects when I found this section on the SEOMoz blog (click here for the whole article) from 2007 that provides some historical context for these conversations – so I thought I’d share it here.  My compliments to Rand Fiskin of SEOMoz for reproduction of this content:

“2.Does Google recommend the use of nofollow internally as a positive method for controlling the flow of internal link love?

A) Yes – webmasters can feel free to use nofollow internally to help tell Googlebot which pages they want to receive link juice from other pages

(Matt’s precise words were: The nofollow attribute is just a mechanism that gives webmasters the ability to modify PageRank flow at link-level granularity. Plenty of other mechanisms would also work (e.g. a link through a page that is robot.txt’ed out), but nofollow on individual links is simpler for some folks to use. There’s no stigma to using nofollow, even on your own internal links; for Google, nofollow’ed links are dropped out of our link graph; we don’t even use such links for discovery. By the way, the nofollow meta tag does that same thing, but at a page level.)

B) Sometimes – we don’t generally encourage this behavior, but if you’re linking to user-generated content pages on your site who’s content you may not trust, nofollow is a way to tell us that.

C) No – nofollow is intended to say “I don’t editorially vouch for the source of this link.” If you’re placing un-trustworthy content on your site, that can hurt you whether you use nofollow to link to those pages or not.”

Just some interesting background as you consider the current debate.

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PostHeaderIcon What is Influence and Why is It?

I was at the Social Media Club – Silicon Valley last night where there was an excellent session on “What is Influence” with Domunique LaHaix (eCairn), Scott Hirsch (getSatisfaction), Jennifer Leggio (Fortinet, ZDNet), Ryan Calo (Stanford CIS) (among others).  Great topic, great crowd. 

The first question asked of the panel was “What is influence?” and I am going to weigh in here because I don’t think that anyone got to the core of what is influence online, how you grow it, how you maintain it.  This is going to be like a Celtic design – I am going to weave in many topics that, to this point, have only been discussed disparately but, which to my mind, make up the whole quilt of influence online.

Influence can be considered the power to persuade others to some end.  Now you would say “well that’s a definition.”  But in the case of online, it is a necessary, but sufficient condition for the definition.  In many cases, people influence online with no intention to persaude.  In some cases, as in the case of a search algorithm, influence is created almost by default by the items returned from the search and the sort order in which they appear.  I mean, if this blog appears in position 31 in Google, how much influence can I have?  Or as another example, if the mullahs in Iran wanted to prevent any other viewpoints from being top of mind other than their own, they would create a search engine that only returned the results they wanted people to see. 

In order to understand what influence is online, we have to understand WHY it is. 

So the first question: why does anyone bother with social media?  Why spend your time on it?  Why actively participate in it?  The simple reason is that social media is based on gift giving – in this case the gift of information.  In his book, Influence:  The Psychology of Persausion, Robert Cialdini discusses the six “click-whirr” responses which, when triggered, can get you an automatic and predictable response from most people.  The most powerful of these is reciprocity.  Imagine for a moment I ask you for a recommendation on LinkedIn about my performance at a place where we both worked?  What’s the likelihood you will respond to the request.  If statistics are any guide, about 33%.  If, however, I first give you a recommendation on LinkedIn, the likelihood you will respond to my request is 66%. 

Why the difference?  Simple.  We are genetically wired for cooperation, not competition.  It’s how we survived as small, hairless, vulnerable proto-humans on the savannah against wild beasts and other threats.  If I do something nice for you, you feel almost obligated to do something nice for me.  If you don’t believe this is a genetic trait, then also read Frans de Wall’s Our Inner Ape, where you will see that this behavior is prevalent in chimpanzees (our nearest living cousins), as well. 

So why am I blogging?  Why do I respond to comments on Facebook?  Why do I tweet?  I mean beyond the obvious fact I may enjoy it and I can keep up with my friends.  Why does social media exist at all – why are humans wired in such a way that social media actually works?  At its most fundamental level the answer is gift giving.  People who write provide the gift of information – think about how many tweets include a link to some web page.  So, by necessity, I feel some pull to return the gift and give information back. 

That’s the fundamental mechanism that makes social media work – enjoyment, need to keep up with people and an infinite pipe of information, are built on that behavioral foundation.  Without the reciprocity rule around information, social media would be nice, but humans wouldn’t respond to the stimulus.

That is the first extension of the concept of influence.  There is a second underlying mechanism at work – and it shows up clearly in the behavior of people who grew up with the Internet from birth and those who did not.  This behavior relates to the way the generations learn and collect information  Those who are (approximately) 40+ have a different mindset.  There brains are wired (literally) for linear learning.  They read books or articles and went relatively deep into the content.  You may recall the quaint notion of “speed reading” where, in order to take in enough information, people learned to read quickly to garner “the gist” of longer articles or books.  Basically, this was the older generation’s way of dealing with information overload.  An additional technique, which approached the information overload issue by going deeper into fewer sources, was to scan the table of contents of a magazine or book and only read the articles/chapters that seemed relevant. 

The problem is the Internet doesn’t just cause information overload.  It is effectively an infinite source of data.  There is no way any human being could ever in a hundred years find and digest everything they would need to know on the subjects important to them.  Relevant results from search engines help when you want to “go deep” on a single subject, but when it comes to looking widely across all our interests, it is completely impossible to gather a reasonable subset of information by yourself.

So the 20-something generation has learned to use the eyes and ears of their peers to act as search engines for relevant content across the range of their interests.  The stream of information is in multiple parallel threads from numerous sources. We call it multitasking, but in reality it is better called multigrazing.  By staying in touch through social media, the digital generation can consume more information across a broader range of topics than any individual could do alone.  And the relevance is higher because it comes from trusted sources: their friends or people they follow who share their concerns/interests.

So tying this back to the gift of information: the need for better, more efficient means for collecting relevant information combines with the gift-giving nature of social media to create a powerful behavioral motivator for digital learners to participate in social media – and that is the why of influence as it relates to human interactions online.

What about the definition of influence as it relates to machine-based entities like Google?  As mentioned before, search engines are a tool for an individual to cut through the clutter of an infinite multithreaded data stream and find the most relevant “deep links” -  published information – on a specific topic.  They can also get relevant information from their social web of contacts (the social web, for short), but that tends to be more random, “shallower”, and less immediate.  This suggests that the search engine, by its very nature, has influence, since its algorithm determines what is useful.  The latest case of this is the recent change in Google’s algorithm to favor big brands (see Google’s Vince Update Produces Big Brand Rankings; Google Calls It A Trust “Change”), which I have been ranting about to anyone who will listen.  Basically, Google has determined that “big brands” are a more authoritative source of information about themselves than third parties.  But is that really true, say, in the case where a company’s product doesn’t work and bloggers are covering the fallout?  How many times have I been hired by Fortune 500′s to push unfavorable comments about them off the first page of the SERPS, even though they were factually accurate?  Now I don’t have to work as hard.  Google is doing the work for me.  And I’m sure that the fact that Google is trying to generate more Adwords revenue from big brands has nothing to do with it. 

THAT is the influence of an algorithm.  It is not about the power to persuade, per se.  It is about the power to choose what is relevant to a conversation, based on some programmer’s (group of programmer’s) views of what relevance means.  And no matter how much you can look to the research and say that you are following good Information Architecture design that is intended to be value neutral, it is impossible in reality to achieve that.  It’s like asking a human to manually generate a random number – it isn’t possible.  The bias can be consciously or unconsciously embedded in the algorithm, but it is there.

In other words, the search engine is like a trusted person – you can think of it as an avatar – that you also use to allow you to deal with the infinite information of the web.  Only this trusted source goes deep into a subject with immediacy, rather than helping with your multigrazing.  It is the Internet equivalent of a table of contents, whereas multigrazing is the Internet equivalent of speed reading.  Add like a trusted friend, you give the gift of information back to the search engine in the form of your click behavior, which is one of the factors our current generation of search engines use to determine the relevance of specific documents.   What is not the same in this relationship is that you cannot know what bias is built into the algorithm and how it changes over time, which it does many times without any notification by the major search engines.

So now we can go back and define influence in its online context.  Influence is the ability to share relevant information with others who share a common interest or concern, in the hopes that they will, in turn, give the gift of information back to you. Human or avatar, it is the same definition.  Both humans and search engines have their biases they bring to the conversation.  The only difference is you probably know something about the inherent biases of your friends or trusted human sources, whereas with a search engine you can only infer it, and even then it changes so often that effectively the bias can’t be known.

That’s it.  So what do you think of that logic?  Please tell.

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PostHeaderIcon From the Trenches: Overview of SEO Project Implementation

If you look on the About page of my blog, you’ll see that one of the key audiences I am concerned with are search marketers who for one reason or another came late to the game. While I have been doing online products and marketing since 1992 (think about that one for a second…), I did come late to the search marketing party because at the time that these markets evolved I hired people to sweat the details of day-to-day implementation. I was actually pretty knowledgeable and could do many things myself that most CMOs couldn’t do – e.g. develop extensive keyword lists and upload them into the Adwords Editor, write VB scripts – but I was still a long way away from all the intricacies of the practice.

And let’s start with that as my first statement on the science of online marketing: developing online strategies is relatively easy. It is in the details/intricacies of implementation that great search marketers make their bones. Details come in many forms and, in the interest of time, I will not go into categorizing these. We’ll do that at the end of the series on “From the Trenches.” In the meantime, we’ll just work through them for each area that I’ll cover.

The initial portion of this series will focus on Search Engine Optimization, since this is a very hot topic in the current economy.  The approach – given this is a blog – will be to do relatively short modules on one subject within each major topic.  Each module will begin with the name of the section  and then the topic at hand (e.g. Keyword Analysis – Building the Initial Keyword Universe).  I am going to add presentation material in the form of audio powerpoints whuch will provide a bit more extensive coverage of each topic.  How long will the presentations be – not sure yet.  We’ll have to try it out and see – after all, I’m learning how to present in blog mode just as you are learning how to learn in blog mode. 

The sections for basic SEO will run as follows:

  • Introduction to SEO
  • Keyword Analysis
  • Site Architecture Issues
  • On-Page Content and Meta Data
  • Link Building
  • Combining the Basics into an SEO Program

Looking forward to these sessions.  I expect to start them shortly – once I get the presentation technology set up. 

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PostHeaderIcon Google's Orion and Vincent

Well, even as I really want to write about Twitter and the English language, along comes Google with a new update.  Given the nature of social media, timeliness comes before etymological Godliness (when will you ever see those two words combined in a blog… I think I deserve an award for that one).  Therefore like any young techie in Spring, I turn my thoghtes (thank you Mr. Chaucer) and my feet towards a pilgrimage to the Googleplex. 

But of course, I don’t want to ignore the previous Vincent update – as that was the connection to post #1.

Orion first.  Actually Google did not announce “Orion” – which is a search technology it purchased in 2006, along with it’s college-student developer Ori Allon.  But my guess is that thanks to Greg Sterling’s new article containing that title the term “Orion Release” will stick.  Here’s how Danny Sullivan described the technology back in April 2006:

It sounds like Allon mainly developed an algorithm useful in pulling out better summaries of web pages. In other words, if you did a search, you’d be likely to get back extracted sections of pages most relevant to your query.

Ori himself wrote the following in his press release:

Orion finds pages where the content is about a topic strongly related to the key word. It then returns a section of the page, and lists other topics related to the key word so the user can pick the most relevant.

Google actually announced two changes:

Longer Snippets.  When users input queries of more than three words,  the Google results will now contain more lines of text in order to provide more information and context.   As a reminder, a snippet is a search result that starts with a dark blue title and is followed by a few lines of text.  Google’s research must have shown that regular-length snippets were not providing enough information to searchers to provide a clear preference for a result based on their longer search term – as their stated intent is to provide enhanced information that will improve the searcher’s ability to determine the relevance of items listed in the SERPs.

Having said this, I don’t see any difference.  My slav…. I mean my 12-yo son (who has been doing keyword analysis since he was 10, so no slouch at this) ran ten tests on Google to see if we could find a difference (I won’t detail all the one- and two- vs 3+ word combinations we tried – if you want to have the list, leave a comment or send a twitter to arthurofsun and I will forward it to you).  But shown below are the results for France Travel vs France Travel Guides for Northern France:

 Comparison of Two-Word and 3+ Word Search in Google Orion Release

Comparison of Two-Word and 3+ Word Search in Google Orion Release

 

As you can see, there is absolutely no difference in snippet length for the two searches - and this was universally true across all the searches we ran.    So I’m not sure – I wonder if Ori Allon, who wrote the post, could help us out on this one.

Also, I am somewhat confused.  If you type in more keywords, the search engine has more information by which to determine the relevance of  a result.  So why would I need more information?  Where I need more information is in the situation of a 3- keyword search, which will return a broad set of results that I will need to filter based on the information contained in a longer snippet.

Enhanced Search Associations.  The bigger enhancement – and the one that seems most likely to derive from the original Orion technology – are enhanced associations between keywords.  Basically if you type in a keyword – Ori uses the example  ”principles of physics” – then the new algorithms understand that there are other ideas related to this I may be interested in, like “Big Bang” or “Special Relativity.”  The way Google has implemented this is to put a set of related keywords at the bottom of the first SERP, which you may click on.  When you click, it returns a new set of search results based on the keyword you clicked.  Why at the bottom of the first SERP?  My hypothesis would be that if the searcher has gone to the bottom of the page, it means that they haven’t found what they are looking for.  So this is the right place in the user experience to prompt them with related keywords that they may find more relevant to the content they are seeking. 

From my perspective, this feels like the “People who liked this item also bought…” widget on most comparison shopping sites (which I know something about, having been the head of marketing for SHOP.COM.)  I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this – I’m just trying to make an analogy to the type of user experience Google is trying to create.

Shown below is an example of a enhanced search associations from a search on the broad term “credit derivatives in the USA”:

End of First SERP Showing Google's New Enhanced Association Results

End of First SERP Showing Google's New Enhanced Association Results

 As I expected, the term “credit default swaps” – which is the major form of credit derivative – shows as an associated keyword.  What I do not see in the list – and was surprised  – was any reference to the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA), which is the organization that has developed the standards and rules by which most derivatives are created.  It does, however, show up for the search on the keyword “credit default swap.”  I’d be curious to understand just exactly how the algorithm has been tuned to make trade-offs between broad concepts (i.e, credit derivatives, which is a category)) and very focused concepts (i.e. credit default swap, which is a specific product).  Maybe I can get Ori to opine on that as well, but most likely that comes under the category of secret sauce.

Anyway, fascinating and it certainly shows that Google continues to evolve the state of IR. 

Well, I’ll just have to leave the Vincent release until tomorrow.  Something else happened this morning I need to do a quick entry about.  Sigh…..

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