Bloggers in the stupid field of SEO are currently tripping all over each other trying to convince themselves that Google’s author ranking is the most amazing new idea that will surely purify the internet forever and you absolutely must get onto it or else.
The tone varies from not so cautiously optimistic to outright threatening. Comment sections are little more than a crowd of devoted followers nodding furiously in agreement. It all has an air of panic much like I picture Orwellian citizens listening to the announcement of who’s the public enemy from now on. The reaction starts with fear, then comes acceptance followed by blind obedience, until they go on the offensive, shaming unbelievers into joining and finally rationalization and post hoc justification.
Just like slaves will study every word, every hint and even the tiniest gestures of their tyrant to get a read on what he’ll do next for the sheer sake of survival, these bloggers are listening fearfully for every little sign from their Ministry of Search. A single sentence from any Google representative will spark entire series of articles solely dedicated to its interpretation. What does that mean?, what will happen to me?, will I disappear?
Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you Google’s update called and the SEO crowd’s reaction to it. No this really is about the author ranking. Couldn’t help point out that the reaction is staggeringly similar whenever the oracle announces a big change.
It started slowly and quietly, when Google first began to focus on the author rather than their work. This latest step marks a new milestone in that process. They practically come right out and say openly that if you aren’t popular, your content can’t be valuable. Most users have no idea this is happening. How could they? You never know about results you aren’t being shown.
What used to be a search for “xyz” has quietly turned into a search for “most popular blogger’s opinion on xyz”
That’s what you get when you focus on who wrote something as opposed to what they wrote.
No matter who you were, where you lived, who you knew or what books were in your local library, if you used the same search engine, you’d get the same information. As such, going on the web via search is like breaking free from all the day to day constraints. It’s a truly wonderful process of democratization and empowerment, limited only by access to the web itself which is growing every day.
Now Google is bringing back the days of the information-village mentality and actually selling it to us as something new. By showing you results based on your search history or what your friends in social networks liked, you’re no longer being shown the internet, you’re being shown your particular version of the internet that was tailored to suit you by a stupid machine that hasn’t a damn clue what you really want. And the worst part is, it’s often done quietly without the user’s awareness. Many people searching today don’t even know that they’re seeing personalized results. I still come across content creators proudly announcing their website is nr. 1 in the search results because personalization is on by default and they thought everybody got shown those results.
Search engines are first and foremost about relevance and that is how users expect them to work even today. When you search for xyz, you expect to find things related to xyz. That relevance is determined by the content of a page, its title and the pages it links to as well as links pointing to it.
Then comes the quality of that content but this is already stretching the original purpose pretty far. Quality of text can be determined, for example, through linguistic analysis and testing for repeated passages (nobody wants to read the same thing on different pages). But beyond things like that, there is no way for search engines to really determine the quality of content by analysis of the content itself. Only a human can do this because machines are notoriously bad at it and that won’t change anytime soon.
Dealing with this limitation is (and will always be) the main challenge for search engines because, not only is there a lot of poor quality content, but there are also a lot of people trying to trick the search engine into thinking something is better than it is. That’s what SEO is and it’s a very lucrative industry.
Google, being highly resourceful, realize this limitation of course. And that is why they started to abandon determining quality from the content itself and started looking at the popularity of the person who created it. That, in itself isn’t a bad or wrong idea, but giving it any non-marginal weight in the final verdict has several fallacies:
1. The first is so common it has its own name: Appeal to Authority which occurs when you assume that something is true simply because somebody with authority said it. We can see that fallacy in action every day with big-name bloggers who spew worthless junk relying entirely on a devoted list of fans (and now also Google) to keep the views up.
With this new trend, the “big guys” will be even more safe to publish crap than they were before. Don’t for one second underestimate the damage this can do and already has. This article reveals the shocking levels of dishonesty and even libel to which some bloggers will go just to get page views and make a quick buck.
2. Popularity is not Authority. Google is falsely telling us they’re ranking the “authority” of the authors but this is simply not true. Just as a machine can’t tell quality beyond crude statistical analyses, it also can’t determine somebody’s authority or expertise. And they’re not even trying. The signals they’re looking for have almost nothing to do with what we’d normally ascribe to authority such as academic credentials. No. It’s really only about popularity which is determined by signals like how many friends/connections/followers someone has in G+, how many “likes” their work gets or how often it’s shared.
I’m not universally opposed to including social profiles in a ranking system under the condition that the problems mentioned above first be addressed. Lets take a look at what that entails (the numbers correspond to those above):
Please say so if you can think of ways this might be made to work or the problems might be addressed. But as it stands, the only sensible way to do this would be to have authorship weigh so little in the overall algorithm, that it’s not worth bothering with.
Since G+ sucks and nobody wants it other than mostly SEOs, they must have realized an inherent flaw in their system of trying to evaluate ALL content using only the social profiles of a few spammers (seo=spamming in case you didn’t know). So they took it upon themselves to connect pages and websites to author profiles automatically even if they never submitted those pages as their work. Here is a page describing that in detail. I’m just waiting for the first lawsuit because Google falsely sited one of their G+ profiles as the author of a page written by someone entirely different. Ironically that page concludes with this preposterous assertion:
"It’s easy to blame Google for mistakes like this, but it wouldn’t have happened if the Times and the article’s author had correctly established an authorship connection. That’s the main takeaway for publishers: Setup authorship yourself, or risk Google … getting it really wrong."
In other words, publishers, it’s YOUR responsibility to know about, find out about and set up a G+ authorship connection with ALL your work and if you don’t, then it’s your own fault if your content gets plagiarized. I’ve already had articles plagiarized by G+ users that ranked higher than the original. Perhaps he also thinks you shouldn’t complain when somebody copies your work and sues you claiming that you copied theirs and present Google’s authorship verification as evidence.
Remember my reference to Orwell further up? This guy has clearly advanced to the stage of shaming unbelievers.
Lets take a look at some of the arguments raised in support of this. I’ll update and add to this section as more (and hopefully better) arguments come up.
What they mean by this is that just being popular isn’t enough, you have to be popular in a specific topic in order to rank for that topic. And therefore it isn’t just about popularity… so they say.
Google’s very own Eric Schmidt on this: “The true cost of remaining anonymous, then, might be irrelevance.” [source] Because apparently, anyone who isn’t ranked highly in Google, is irrelevant.
You don’t need to do anything bad or illegal to make people hate you enough to want you dead.
So perhaps it’s a fact of life that people read and pay for crap. But that doesn’t mean search engines have to promote it. No, it really doesn’t and no, I’m not making a moral argument that search engines should “clean” the internet. I’m saying that it’s fallacious to assume that people who like to read crap also like to only be shown search results pointing to it.
We've all been there, browsing videos for example and got shown some related video with such a preposterous title that we just had to click on it if only to see how bad it is. We weren't searching for it though and the fact that we clicked on it doesn't imply that we wanted to be shown something like that when we came there. It just means the title successfully diverted our attention away from what we were doing.
Copyblogger absolutely love author ranking. They’ve wholeheartedly immersed themselves in unquestioned religious devotion. Hiring an ad agency would be less efficient at promoting author ranking. I can’t help feeling that, no matter what Google comes up with, copybloggers will find a way to persuade themselves that it’s a step in the right direction. I suppose it’s natural since their whole purpose is to attract an audience by writing about how to attract an audience.
This person believes that good content creators were hard done by in the early days of page ranking because:
"the importance was placed on the page, which created a nasty race to the bottom as far as writer’s value was concerned."
What a nightmare for authors, to focus on content? Seriously? You know, before publishing, you should read through your cont... ah never mind.
The title of this post says it all: “Get Over Yourself and Get On Google+”. This is another fine example of shaming unbelievers. We’re far beyond unquestioning devotion. Anyone who doesn't register and get officially approved by the Authenticity Verification Committee , must have some character flaw. Then he adds
So now you’re a coward for not joining G+.
It gets better:
“We’re going to do our best to drag you over to Google+ for your own good.”
Well it’s not bad for everybody. For certain groups of people it makes life a lot easier so, naturally, they’ll defend it, often with typical arrogant justifications like “sure, it’s good for those who write good content”. It’s the same as saying famine in the 3rd world has nothing to do with injustice or misfortune but it’s entirely because those stupid idiots just aren’t as good at finding food as us. This is the post hoc justification I was talking about. It’s how they work it out with their conscience that they’ve benefited from something they know is unjust.
On the second position in the search results for “Dorian mode” comes a G+ author writing about, not the Dorian mode but its implementation on the guitar. In other words Google treats the search not as “Dorian mode” or “what is the Dorian mode” but “how to finger the Dorian mode on the guitar”. I clicked through 3 pages on that link and never found an actual definition of what the Dorian mode is and couldn’t be bothered to go further (because neither would anyone else). I searched for “what is the Dorian mode” and got the exact same results.
This article actually tells us what it is (though a little clunky) but comes further down the page.
On position 5 for “do while loop”. Not only is his blog post not on do while loops but on loops in general (the actual do while comes more than half way down), but also is he only explaining their use in C. So it’s both too specialized and at the same time too general. The search term that page should rank for is “loops in c”. Wikipedia shows us how it’s done and rightfully ranks higher. But why is he even on page one when this, much more relevant result comes on page 3?
Fraser Cain. Guess what? He’s an SEO! He’s not even a fucking physicist let alone an astronomer. His degrees are in engineering and computer science though that isn’t mentioned on his G+ profile. So much for Google tying “authority” to subjects. Not that there’s anything wrong with his explanation except that it should rank better for something like
“What is a newtrun sta for mainstream cretins?”
More and better examples shouldn't be hard to find.
You probably think I hate Google but I really don’t. They’re an amazing corporation that has done some great things. It might come as a shock to some but you can actually appreciate that without becoming a blind follower, manically applauding everything that gets poured out of it regardless of, well, anything.
These days, the limitations of search engines are actually problems with limitations in search itself. That becomes apparent as soon as engines start trying to second guess what users mean as we’ve seen above. The only way to get better at identifying quality content is to invent ever more sophisticated ways to analyse said content. Anything else is a cheap shortcut that will only distort the results. I've exemplified how even the click through rate is a very bad indicator of relevance and Google rightfully doesn't give it any weight (otherwise we'd be only seeing shocking titles). And unlike the content based signals, peripheral signals (such as popularity) will never be reliable no matter how sophisticated your algorithm is. At least when nobody games the system, content based search can theoretically be optimal. Popularity based signals will always yield distortions even if everybody is being honest.
Because of this, search engines will never be perfect but I can live far better with an imperfect search engine than one that's deliberately biased to favor the big names or one's own products or anyone for that matter.