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Posts Tagged ‘Google’s search algorithm’

So when a writer is paying attention to the Google algorithm, is his creativity hampered by the damper factor? When otherwise creative copy is subjected to the cruel hand of the optimizer, does it lose its zing?

Keyword searchMany bloggers contend that SEO will be the death of the interesting title or the creative headline. There are many examples of old-fashioned, grab –the-reader headlines: In Sunday’s (4/23/2010) Los Angeles Times, a front sports page headline demands attention:

KING’S ENGLISH

The reader assumes this story is about the LA Kings given its placement in the sport section. But the way the headline writer plays on the words (King’s English connotes refined use of the language harkening back to some King in England), might draw in a reader who otherwise would only look for a Lakers story.

The allusion to ole’ England disappears in the online version of the headline, since the L.A. Times has clearly learned the importance of SEO. A keyword-enhanced headline remains, perfectly optimized for the “boredom” factor:

Dan Redding, in a 2010 blogpost entitled, “When SEO Kills Good Writing,” gives an excellent example of how SEO might conflict with the classics:

Ernest Hemingway titled one of his masterpieces For Whom the Bell Tolls. The novel benefits from a gorgeous title that strikes a chord in the context of its themes. The title and the novel are one. But if the book had been titled by SEO specialists, it would’ve been named Spanish Civil War Drama with Romance. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Have all the rules for reading and writing changed? In the old print-reader’s world, an entire publication was delivered to your doorstep, be it a newspaper, a magazine or a book that ordered from Amazon. Currently and more so in the future, we are not dealing with entire publications. We aren’t dealing with chapters or articles or even stories. We are dealing with “sound bites” or “micro-stories” as readers scan their RSS feeds for tidbits of information. These readers already know what they’re looking for. Noami S. Baron calls this “snippet literacy.” (p. 148).

Readers of old-style publications didn’t necessarily know what they were looking for. A newspaper reader only knew he wanted today’s news. A reader of Time magazine only knew he wanted an overview of the week’s major events. A reader of Vogue only knew she wanted a smattering of fashion and beauty advice for the month.

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Inherent in Google’s search algorithm, in fact, the very thing that differentiates Google search from competitors is something called the damping factor. After being frustrated by the Alta Vista and Yahoo searches that returned unsatisfactory results such as “Bill Clinton Sucks” jokes as the best result simply because a site with hundreds of Bill Clinton jokes had the most page content, Sergey Brin and Larry Page set out to revolutionize search.

In their 1998 paper, “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine,” the two Stanford students determined a way to make search results more relevant, while at the same time, engineering into the system a constant that ensures the ADD-like behavior of computer users. In “Always On,” Noami Baron points out that some researchers contend that Attention Deficit Disorder diagnoses have risen because of computers. She calls this “acquired deficit disorder.” (p. 219)

Brin and Page extol that “…the damping factor is the probability at each page the ‘random surfer’ will get bored and request another random page.” The damping factor is set between 0 and 1 and defaults to 0.85. Damping is sometimes added to a single page, but other times added to a group of pages, which “allows for personalization and can make it nearly impossible to deliberately mislead the system in order to get a higher ranking.”

The damping or “how long before the user gets bored” factor is becoming the basis of our world wide web experience. 0.85 is our litmus test for quality. Note that the relevancy of search results are not being evaluated on quality benchmarks such as:

  • Does this source have any published books?
  • Has this source been quoted by any other publications?
  • Does this source travel to universities and give speeches?
  • Does this source have a degree in the subject?
  • How many years of experience does the source have?

Instead of evaluating based on quality or credibility, Google measures against a “boredom” constant. What does this mean for writing? Well, one of the tenants good writers follow is to “keep it short.” Content producers for websites will certainly be trained to do that.

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