Is Result Diversity Enough? Search Offers a Reflection of What?

Pay Per Post Already Dominates Many Business Models

Search engines toe the company line fighting against spam, but are paid posts any worse than sponsored research? The day before Matt posted about some lowbrow PPP ads used to equate paid post with bogus information on brain tumors, I posted about how some scientific research is polluted by commercial interests, and an SEO Book contributor by the nickname of RFK left this great comment:

I was just going to comment on this issue on Matt's blog, since he went on a rant about paid posts being bad for personal brain surgery research. Really.

The irony is that most/all of the articles that he would prefer to see on the Google SERPS are researched, assembled and ghost written by pharma companies. Having worked with a number of clients in the medical field it's become more and more apparent that the "studies" published by well-known academics are most often based on research by the drug companies, scripted by a hired copywriter and given to the academic to sign off and publish under their byline.

This begs the question: what's more harmful, the illiterate drivel of a $10 Pay Per Poster or a biased supposed medical study published by a respected researcher? Obviously Google can't control what papers are published, but they shouldn't be pretending that restricting competing paid advertising practises is about returning better content.

The Copy & Paste Culture

As a joke, years ago I created a rather offensive seedy website (with low quality information on porn, drugs, and gambling), and a professor diametrically opposed to my worldviews sourced that site as a credible source. If he was that intellectually lazy with his own professor profile page, how much intellectual laziness goes into the average web page?

As media empires crumble the recycling effect of online information is only going to get worse. While I may not agree with all of the research, the Report on dangers and opportunities posed by large search engines, particularly Google highlighted how journalists start research using Google, and even have a way to warp Google for other writers:

More and more, initiatives to maintain journalistic quality standards complain that also journalistic stories are increasingly the result of a mere "googlisation of reality". One drastic example is described by the German journalist Jochen Wegner [Wegner 2005]: A colleague of him did a longer report on a small village in the north of Germany. He reported about a good restaurant with traditional cooking, a region-typical choir doing a rehearsal in the village church and about a friendly farmer selling fresh agricultural products. If you type the name of the small village into Google, the first three hits are the web sites of the restaurant, the farmer and the choir. And if you compare the complete story of the journalist with the texts on the web sites found by Google, you will see: As a journalist of the 21st century, you don't have to be at a place to write a "personal" story about it. Google can do this for you.

When you think of that publishing trend, think of how well Wikipedia ranks, and how Wikipedia often reflects the public relations campaign of the largest market participant it gets a bit concerning. It gets even uglier if you think about the erosion of publishing based business models, and their increasing reliance on public relations firms to give them stories as they drastically cut staffing levels.

The Race Toward The Edges of Reality

The types of publishing that will dominate the web are

  • those selling content as service: the value add of service will allow them to develop relationships with readers which help them market their content while still being able to provide honest value and compete in competitive marketplaces
  • those giving away content to push commercial services: if you can gain enough attention, respect, and credibility you can charge well for your work. You can even sell what others give away, see the above category.
  • those creating content from passion: they don't need to be profitable if they are doing it for fun or because they are passionate
  • those with extreme bias: a biased article is remarkable and more citation-worthy than a vanilla article
  • public relations spin: essentially Pay Per Post, also without disclosure
  • those creating thin content: consumer generated content, repackaged ideas as link list linkbaits, and/or copy and paste of one of the above groups
  • profitable advertisements: with automated integration or editorial selection causing these to have exposure in the above content types even if they are not well ranked in the organic parts of the web. The ease of tracking these ad results will effectively warp many of the above categories of information.

Biased content is easier to reference, syndicate, and subscribe to than more balanced content because we are more aligned to communications messages that match our worldview. And much of the passion driven content is tied to a strong bias (like hate sites). Which means that search engines can try to display a diverse set of search results, but as time passes they will reflect more biased groups of opinions and far fewer balanced articles.

Your Feedback Needed

Maybe it has always been this way though? Do any reporters read this blog? I would love your comments on concepts similar to result diversity in offline publishing, especially contrasting it before and after the web.

I wonder if my roll as an SEO makes me interested in such issues? Do other SEOs (perhaps you) find macroeconomic and publishing trends interesting? What other topics do you find yourself losing hours to every week?

Published: December 4, 2007 by Aaron Wall in publishing & media


Igor The Troll
December 4, 2007 - 11:49am

Aaron we are all selling ourselves, some are cheap some are more expensive, it is human nature. You and I are not different.


SEO Nirvana
December 4, 2007 - 1:13pm

"Do other SEOs (perhaps you) find macroeconomic and publishing trends interesting?"

I think it's getting more and more difficult to do SEO without at least glancing at the overall trends.

In a way Google is an information processing company. The first thing is has to ascertain is how to go about gathering and trusting that information. And that may be partly explained with changing publishing trends.

Regurgitated stuff is typically a late entrant in the market. And Google is getting smarter at picking it. Hence a strong push right at the launch with strong PR is becoming almost a necessity.

Though there is still a scope for mixing the content and giving it a new twist, it will get more and more difficult with time. A newly forwarded idea at any place on the web spreads like wildfire throughout the internet. With frequent crawling by newsbots, any new idea or story reaches everyone almost immediately and further reinforced by the social bookmarking sites.

In a way the author of the idea now holds that word in everyone's mind. For instance, domainers can istantly correlate Bob with the word 'domain kiting'. After that whoever may like to put it in anyway, they can never own that word or concept. Rather they only further reinforce the original creator's monopoly on that idea.

With growing information pollution, the generic info will become more of cheap commodity with time. At the same time expert views, distinctive voices, biased opinions will be the new way to play the game of value creation.

"What other topics do you find yourself losing hours to every week?"

Though I try to remain focus but still can't help the mind from wandering through wide range of areas. I find the topics like email marketing, trust based selling, information packaging and tasks automation interesting. Your ideas on PR, viral marketing and link baiting have been particularly inspiring.

December 5, 2007 - 2:06pm

I really want to get into trust based selling stuff. That has to be a crucial concept going forward. I just watched a bunch of DVDs on information packaging too, which was no doubt helpful.

I just started reading words that work by Frank Luntz.

SEO Nirvana
December 6, 2007 - 6:15am

I haven't read 'Words that work' yet but looks impressive and plan to go through it soon.
Some of the other books on similar lines that I liked-
-Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy
-Test Advertising Methods - by John Caples
-Why We Buy - by Paco Underhill
-Scientific Advertising - by Claude Hopkins (ebook download on public domain)

December 4, 2007 - 1:35pm

Yes, Aaron, I've had these same thoughts. As a former newspaper editor/reporter who used the Internet for background research, I am quite amazed at the number of journalists who rely on it completely. I've never used it as a primary source for journalism.

But now that I provide ghostwriting services, I have come to rely it on more in my research. Of course, I can't know everything about every subject so this is where I rely on my clients to correct me if I get bad information. They are experts in their business so they should have a handle on that. I do my best to get good information but research skills can only go so far.

I had a discussion recently in a forum with someone over how to determine credible sources. He had quoted statistics on prison populations that I thought were wild and overstated. I went to the Bureau of Justice Statistics website and pulled down their figures on prison populations. I was right. When he shared with me his sources of information (a non-profit political policy website covering a niche issue, a local newspaper, and a general policy analyst website) I told him that my source was more reliable. His response was "That's your opinion."

It's clear to me that most people do not even know how to conduct research and therefore have no way of knowing what sources are reliable and what sources are not.

December 5, 2007 - 2:03pm

Hi Poetwarrior
Maybe this would be a great guest post if you would be up for to conduct research and cite sources.

December 4, 2007 - 4:07pm

As a former news editor/journalist and someone who has been involved in SEM for a while now, there is very little new under the sun, Aaron...

What you are referring to in your post is PR, plain and simple. Back in the day, if I was under time pressure and was desperate for a 5-par story to fill a space on an inside page, I'd chuck a handful of press releases at a junior reporter and ask him for 120 words in five minutes. Or, if the original release was written by someone who knew what they were doing (in other words, what newsdesks wanted), I'd sub it up myself and stick it in the basket (showing my era!).

Similarly, all those Web 2.0 SEOs who have been wetting themselves for the last two years because they think they invented linkbait should take a look at car shows and the eye-candy on display in between slapping each other on the back.

Or cast an eye over the kind of press release that we used to get from a bed manufacturer (for example):

Brits are having more sex than ever before, according to XYZ Bed Manufacturing Company. XYZ has had to increase the thickness of the supports twice in the last 10 years and, according to technical manager Alan Spunkett, that's entirely down to the nocturnal naughtiness of the average user...

Paid posts? Take a look at the sponsored content in your local paper: "A Doctor Writes", or "Real Estate Trends from property professional Amy Prime".

Who is being quoted as experts in the plain news stories? Why are they experts? Does that have relevance to or for social networking?

In fact, it might be an idea for any of us to go out and buy our local paper and count up the different ways that products and services can and have been placed in the pages. At the end of the day, I would bet that there won't be that much difference from what is going on with web content.

December 5, 2007 - 2:00pm

Hi Stever
Thanks for the perspective. So largely the web is exceptionally similar to offline, but it is perhaps Google's quest to make it appear more pure that makes one realize and appreciate that lack of purity.

I loved your press release BTW!

December 4, 2007 - 5:38pm

...we are more aligned to communications messages that match our worldview...

Heard of Strange Deja Vu by Dreamtheatre?

I had some serious doubts about the issue of recylcled content myself. In a lot of topics, mostly health related, the information available is either stuff the target market wants/likes to hear.

Much of the "X ways to do YZA" are all stuff people find logical and not really tried them themselves. Some of that stuff don't work but just sounds logical to the author.

December 4, 2007 - 6:55pm

Aaron great point. There is actually a book written about the copy and paste culture, so does that mean you recycled that information? I do not believe that this trend is as bad as it seems. I think it is liberating in that you do get to hear dramatic point of views which help you form your own ideas.

What I fear is "echo chambers" another idea I am sure I stole from something I read in college. People can literally tune themselves out to what is going out around them and surround themselves with information that is already aligned, and reinforces their world view. Picture this you are a conservative. You listen to conservative radio, podcasts, watch conservative TV, read conservative papers, blogs, etc. Everyone keeps patting each other on the back and you do not get exposed to a fresh perspective. Thats why I think the state the internet is right now is so great, there are so many voices with so many opinions and as long as you open up your eyes you can experience it all.

On another note about your categorization of publishers. I think the internet will have the same outcome as cable. Soon there will be websites that will provide premium content that people will be willing to pay for. Think of an HBO for the internet. Websites like yours will fall into this category, and will coexist with the copy and pasters. If someone wants free content they will still find it but will have to deal with the noise, or if their time is valuable they can pay a small fee and get quality content right from the start.


December 5, 2007 - 12:58am

In Everything is Miscellaneous, Weinberger says that careful comparison of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica and Wikipedia shows that, while the wiki contained more errors than EB, the errors were quickly corrected. EB's errors still stand. Wikipedia contains many times more content than EB, but because the content can be edited continuously, it's possible that the source has changed since you cited it.

I have been thinking a lot about opinion that passes as fact (the SEO world is absurdly confusing), and about the problem of fewer real authority sites. I think flipsideinvest makes an excellent point, that we will eventually end up paying for content we can trust. I think Aaron's business is built on that model, eh?

December 5, 2007 - 6:07am

Cable is a perfect example of explain the current and predict the future picture of linkbait content under google's roof. But here I believe, there is a need of a central body (non google - offcourse) where one has to post his content to get it reviewed by the professional industry users in form of comments to earn the content owner points. This central body may then impart him a globally acclaimed status based on the number of positive comments on his post(& the no. of backlinks too). This was quality linkbaiters with original ideas will have a better chance to coexist with the copy-pasters.

December 5, 2007 - 2:12pm

I think Google and other search engines already act as this sort of central body. The answer to progress is likely more toward topic specific votes or algorithms and/or usage data aggregation across a niche topic instead of just counting general web-wide votes.

December 5, 2007 - 2:02pm

Hi Flipsideinvest
I totally agree about self-reinforcing bias and self fulfilling prophecies being a bigger issue than most people give them credit for, especially when you couple this tune out effect by some as a form of voting for the most biased content so more people see it.

December 4, 2007 - 7:30pm

What other topics do you find yourself losing hours to every week?

Actually lately I find it a little to focus on SEO or my niche because what's going on in the larger sphere re: the falling dollar, the wagging the dog on Iran, subprime mortgage messes and the lack of transparency aka the postponement of mark to market reveals of level three assets, the fingerprints of Goldman Sach all over every major western government and major bank, and the huge increase in M3 money (for starters) is keeping me up nights.

December 4, 2007 - 7:39pm

flipsideinvest: I am totally agree with you... And your example with HBO on cable is very illustrative!

Igor The Troll
December 4, 2007 - 9:02pm

Look guys the little pixel PR is becoming what it really is.

It is not democratic, democrascy ia a nirvana and utopia, it is all about do you have the Power!

So the real PR is Public Relationship...If you can do that, then you have the cat in the bag!

Just be popular, famous, infamous, or just totally retarded!

Even the great president of United States of America had a very strong force of support behind them, which not necessary was coltivated by the president himself.

Get that PR guy working for may feel that he or she is taking way the spotlight anf fame from you, but if you caannot deligate trust and authority to your bright shining star than you will forget what being at the top is, if you have ever been there!

Just get a capable social media consultant and let them do the work, trust them with your heart, and go for the ride of your life time!

The speed will be fast and hold on to your SEO HATS...

A great emperor, does not need to be in the front of the army, but have a great general lead the army for him!

Chris Marshall
December 4, 2007 - 9:19pm

I wrote a related piece last week comparing the editing practices of offline publishers with those of bloggers. You might find it interesting.

How Amateur Bloggers Create Great Posts

December 4, 2007 - 9:19pm

I honestly see a lot of potential in free content sites like ezinearticles, but with more of a Wiki like system. Perhaps even wikipedia to cover the research spectrum from brain surgery to nose bleeds. If enough people that know what they are talking about put their theories into a pool, the result is a general consensus. This is humanity at its finest. We have always succeeded in change and growth, though we make mistakes (eg: false accusations of Copernicus) I feel that the continued growth of humanity depends on our willingness to share information, it always has been, it always will be. The information age may exist much longer than any other age.

Igor The Troll
December 5, 2007 - 12:59am

Totally Agreed, WiKi is the way to go...but even on WiKi there are subnetworks, if these subnetwworks can exist then humanity is not lost.

If the consenses is majority then minority loses, and if minority loses, so does humanity.

WiKiPedia, "Mafia (also known as Werewolf or Vampire) is a party game modeling a battle between an informed minority and an uninformed majority"
disclosure: I originally learned about this from MAtt Cutts post on Foo Camp.

December 5, 2007 - 1:49am

Do other SEOs (perhaps you) find macroeconomic and publishing trends interesting? What other topics do you find yourself losing hours to every week?

Aaron, I am not sure if you said it (I think I read it on Seobook): The Web reflects reality.

And this is very, very much true in relation to what you stated in this post: time passes they will reflect more biased groups of opinions and far fewer balanced articles.

The non-web media is already extremely biased: I am interested in geopolitics and I spend a lot of hours poring through press and watching news on tv here and there. And it's revolting - complete bias, but which does not look like one.

It is very difficult to find alternative opinions, let alone balanced views on the web, and in the press, almost non-existent.

So, Web is just catching up with what's been going on in other media for some time now.

I think I'll write a rant on this on my blog, I got quite an inspiration now and some new ideas :)

December 5, 2007 - 2:15pm

The Web reflects reality.

I think it reflects a biased subset of reality due to self-selection of media consumption habits, biased content being more remarkable than balanced content, precise measures of ROI, and improved ad targeting.

December 5, 2007 - 9:53pm

Thanks for the quote - you made my day :)

Perhaps we just need to 301 all Google searches to Wikipedia, since they are Google's ordained authority on everything.

The reality is that no published material is free of bias. Google decided to place the emphasis on links, while making themselves a vital part of the flow of information & commerce. Now it's up to them to reconcile the situation by protecting their precious algorithm from being gamed. Telling people to "stop it or else" seems decidedly anti-algorithmic.

I don't think Google will be able to prevent bias from influencing their results because everything published has bias, either personal, ethical, financial or otherwise. Paying someone to influence their bias is as old as society itself.

December 5, 2007 - 11:35pm

With all of the happenings at Gamespot, one cannot think that most large businesses can easily be influenced to think a certain way based on advertiser dollars also.

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