A Copy, of a Copy, of a Copy
There are many approaches to online navigation & discovery. On the surface many of them look exceptionally different, but when you look a bit deeper many of them are playing the same game with the same game plan. The main differences are brand perception & marketing angle, but they all copy off of each other.
New Ideas, or The Same Ideas?
There is an illusion that social media is significantly different because messages from friends are mixed in with the other stuff. However, when you look at the aggregate trends, ultimately social media pushes the same stuff that the mainstream media pushes (which is the same stuff that post-Panda Google pushes).
Huberman and three fellow researchers demonstrate that "user activity and number of followers do not contribute strongly to trend creation and its propagation."
Instead, says Huberman, "we found that mainstream media play a role in most trending topics and actually act as feeders of these trends. Twitter users then seem to be acting more as filter and amplifier of traditional media in most cases."
it's amazing how you can be the king at one point, quote unquote, and everyone loves you and the minute your time has passed and it's time for you to get torn down. When it's tear down time -- woah, it's harsh. There's no pity. They will hurt you however. Jabs, uppercut, hooks, and they want to see you on the floor knocked out. TKO. That's what they want. I saw it happen to some people, but when it happens to you, it's amazing how devastating it can be. When the negativity is directed at you, it hurts because you're there as an entertainer. You want to please your fans, have a good time and make them smile. You do the best you can on stage for them, and suddenly, you're nothing but a joke. - Fab Morvan, Milli Vanilli
Facebook is also aiming to highlight big media:
Facebook is developing features that will make the sharing of users’ favorite music, television shows and other media as much a part of its site as playing games or posting vacation photos.
Along with the official relationships (and game board tilting) that big media enjoy, larger merchants can also tilt the table by selling into a new category with a loss leader to buy marketshare. In some cases they can promote give aways that use social signals as a form of payment.
The largest companies enjoy an asymmetrical information advantage, which easily allows them to scale up and down the value chain to dominate their vertical. Amazon.com sold books, but after Kindle they now sell more ebooks than physical books, they promote new formats like Kindle singles, and they look to be pushing into publishing. That is great news for authors, but is certainly scary for some traditional publishing companies.
Most of the "social" signals will generally promote that which is already large, or (for smaller businesses) that which is weird, funny, exotic, extremely biased, comforting & (falsely) empowering, fluff, or brutally honest.
If you are small, race toward an edge & stick with it. Own an idea. ;)
Like vs +1
Facebook has their popular like button. Google owns like.com, which unlike other shopping-search businesses that Google has bought and folded in, remains an active site, in spite of the launch of Boutiques.com. Google unveiled the +1 button to compete with Facebook. Facebook's add as friend button now states "+1 Add as Friend."
In a recent Youtube video, Matt Cutts highlighted that "Google will use +1 activity to influence its search results ... "It's definitely a signal we're paying a lot of attention to," Cutts said. "It has tons of potential. It looks very promising."
Google accidentally leaked on TV that they were going to bake +1 into Google Chrome.
Like vs Spy
The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article about how some of the social media voting buttons track users, even if they do not log in to the social networks or click on the voting buttons. You can avoid using the official buttons & use third party buttons, but those companies do the same thing! You can say "enough is enough" and simply avoid all the social media nonsense, but unfortunately 25% of Google's bonuses this year are tied to social crap. If you ignore social & your competitors do not, then ultimately you lose.
As I wrote earlier, many of them are playing the same game with the same game plan.
Other Search Engines
Blekko's slashtag model is all about highlighting content from the most well known sources in a niche. When you think about some of the really awful misinformation shared in the SEO space it is clear that popularity & quality are not the same. But if you have brand, sound authoritative, and speak of innovative changes; those can easily mask any factual errors. ;)
Bing's Stefan Weitz was recently interviewed by Eric Enge. In the interview Stefan points out how he thinks Bing sees the web differently than Google, in that:
- they "look at the web as a digital representation of the physical world"
- search will move from a web of nouns to a web of verbs, helping you to complete tasks in a more integrated manner: "there are enough services opening up their protocols and their APIs, Bing can then broker out that request to a number of different services across the web and stitch that information back together to help me go from I want to do this to I have done it."
- "Humans have this primal behavior around the social experience where we almost always ask our friends and acquaintances for advice."
I highly recommend the interview as a must read to understand where search is headed. The speed of change in technology is increasing at a logarithmic progression & search is going to become much more of a complete end-to-end service.
The big takeaways for me from that read were that Bing will be doing hard brand pushes at some point (a digital representation of the physical world) & a lot more tight vertical integrations (a web of verbs). In summary, that means their game plan is just like Google's.
Partnering vs Owning
The only areas where they are significantly different currently is that Microsoft is trying to partner to build an ecosystem, whereas Google wants to own the ecosystem (see Freebase, Google's ITA integration, Google Places pages scrape-n-displace, BeatThatQuote / Google Advisor, illegal ebook scanning, Google's botched partnership with Paypal on mobile payments).
More Data = Better Relevancy
In search, more data is typically better than better algorithms. As more signals get mixed into the pool, the value of any individual signal decreases.
Google has tried a number of attempts to solicit end user feedback & collect user data: the Google toolbar, Knol, SearchWiki, SideWiki, Google Chrome, etc. The Google founders have desired an annotated version of web more than search:
Sidewiki feels like another swing at something Google seems to desperately desires — a community of experts offering high quality comments. Google says that’s something that its cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin wanted more than a system for ranking web pages. They really wanted a system to annotate pages across the web.
Yelp has dominated the review space, but in Portland (a test market) Google has collected more local reviews than the rest of the big review sites have in the history of their existence - and it only took them a couple months to do it.
A lot of information is coming online, but it is hard to sort out the signal from the noise unless you have identity. Google now has that through Gmail, Google Checkout, Android & Google wallet.
Eric Schmidt suggested that smartphone contacts could be used to create a social graph. Those cell phones use local services to send your location. With Google Wallet they are willing to give you $10 just to try it, simply because they know they will make more than that back on improved ad targeting & getting a taste of local ad budgets via their offers. They even have stickers to put on phones without NFC to enable it.
Who are the real wine experts in Portland? Maybe the people who...
- actually live there (confirmed by the address associated with their credit cards, the IP address of their home computer & the location information Android phones share with Google)
- those who are consistently spending hundreds to thousands of Dollars a month buying wines (the more skin you have in the game the more weight Google can put on your feedback & reviews.)
- those who review wines (Google can offer perks & bonuses to get people over the hump, & then add social game dynamics like badges)
- those who review wines who have positive reviews from other wine drinkers (nothing like a little peer review to an academic mind)
What wine stores in Portland are the best? Probably the ones which the above wine reviewers shop at. Looking up driving directions can be seen as a relevancy signal.
What wine stores in Portland are less scrupulous? Those which are mostly given 5 star reviews by out-of-town (or, out-of-country) people who have never logged into Google from an IP address in the Portland area, never used an Android phone in the Portland area, and have never looked up driving directions around the Portland area.
More Holistic Marketing
At one point in time online was a new and (fairly) level playing field where one could win based on meritocracy. Increasingly though search is becoming "a digital representation of the physical world." To win online you will often be required to win offline.
With all the above data being included in Google's algorithms in the coming years (along with other brand signals) some people might decide that SEO is becoming too hard for the head keywords & that they are better off playing in the tail of search. But even that has 3 big problems:
- if you have too many low quality pages Google can torch the whole of your site for it (and at this point it has been close to 100 days since Panda, and virtually no recoveries have been reported)
- the eHow model will be reformulated at some point & added into some of the larger publishers that Google's algorithms boosted the rankings for, so if you are not one of those guys then they would still have a cost advantage over you through increased rankings & distribution (along with easier influence of social signals & such)
- Google is looking into renting ebooks & could eventually unveil an ad supported ebook model for endless editorially-reviewed longtail content (and since Google would host those ebooks they would be able to track more relevancy signals from them, just like they have with videos on Youtube).
Certain categories with significant guilt or shame (say genital wart removal, criminal defense lawyers, etc.) won't have much end user data shared publicly (or, at least, users won't intentionally share that data with Google - though they may do so accidentally). Many (most) categories will have a sea of data available. And in those categories, at some point jumping through technical loopholes will be so tiresome & expensive that it will be cheaper and easier to create the signals Google wants to see through brand, public relations, and consumer experience than it is to try to fake them.
As search is becoming "a digital representation of the physical world" some of the best SEO tips in the years to come will have nothing to do with sitting at a computer. In due time, in search, there will be no security through obscurity.
Indeed, the future is already here.
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