Bright Matrices

Writings & musings of Mike Zavarello (a.k.a. brightmatrix), a "red mage" web developer.

Tag: search

Social Authority in Search Results and Lessons from the Past

I read a very interesting article on Mark Schaefer’s blog {Grow} today that discussed some relatively new topics in the search world: “social scoring” and “social authority.” He cited excerpts from interviews with Google and Bing that explain how both search firms are considering changes to their algorithms to account for the influence of content authors.

The concept of “social authority” is a sea change in how online content is indexed and discovered. With the rise of user-contributed content over the past few years, the fact that Google and Bing are giving more credence to this medium is, to me, a logical outcome. We’ve already borne witness to real-time search results appearing in our queries; calculating the weight of one’s social authority is merely the next step.

Reading through the comments, however, this trend doesn’t seem to sit well with folks.

Is social authority going to be gamed? Of course it will. One of the reasons the phrase “search engine optimization” still tastes funny in many mouths is due to “black hat SEO” that used sneaky and misleading techniques to propel biased or unrelated content to the top of search engine rankings. Google’s Page Rank, once considered a key metric in figuring out the overall importance and relevance of your online real estate, has pretty much fallen off the radar due to numerous attempts to exploit the algorithm.

Social authority doesn’t have to be scary. What needs to happen to prevent a dark future for this concept is twofold.

Google, Bing, and other search entities need to be relentlessly proactive in how they integrate social authority into their results. I expect results that incorporate author authority to improve steadily over time as the search firms gather more data on the authors, their influence (including how that influence is generated and calculated), and the nature of their publishing platforms (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc.). Evolution of search algorithms needs to be intelligent enough and sophisticated enough that the relevant content “naturally” rises to the top.

Content authors need to come clean and stay that way. We all witnessed how black hat SEO came to ruin the party for those who genuinely and continuously thought about how to get the right content in front of the right viewers. We have to heed the lessons of the past and do things right this time around. Authors must be counseled on how to continue to create excellent content, in the proper medium, in the proper context. They must understand that silver bullets do not exist and that cutting corners will come back to bite them in the end.

Let’s fight hard to prevent “social authority” and “social scoring” from becoming the next four-letter words in the content world.

Google, Snake Oil, and the Absolution of Guilt

Today, a stakeholder contacted me with a request that I hadn’t heard in so long, it almost sounded antiquated. He wanted to know “what I could do” to make a certain page rank well for a rather broad-scoped term (“small business”). The page in question was no more than a laundry list of about a dozen off-site links, with no original content native to the site itself.

About two years ago, I attended a presentation hosted by PhillyCHI, a Philadelphia-based user experience group. The speaker was talking about search, specifically the pitfalls of SEO. One of his quotes has continued to resonate with me since: “Everyone ranks well for something. So what [terms] do you want to be known for?” This statement goes both ways: you can strive to have your site appear high in the roster of results for vague terms like “small business” (which is an unenviable and Herculean task), or focus on making sure you’re targeting the right audiences by crafting your content appropriately.

In other words, in order to rank well, and I mean truly well, you need to have the real deal: relevant, original content that is well-written, thoughtfully organized, and regularly updated.

These attributes have always been hallmarks of a solid web presence, but clever blackhat tricks allowed the chaff to be more visible than the wheat. It’s what gave SEO and SEM the dark marks and shady reputations they continue to bear today.

Search algorithms are much cleverer these days, however. You can’t tweak the page code or load the content with keywords to artificially inflate the importance of your site; doing so is a fast track to getting your site blacklisted, banned, or worse. Google’s PageRank, once a barometer of success, is now considered to be pretty much irrelevant. Social media mentions in search results are fast becoming a real-time ticker stream of user-contributed content.

These changes are all welcome, as far as I’m concerned. As the trickery which can be used to abuse SEO and SEM becomes circumvented by evolving search engine algorithms and the rise of social media channels, clients and content owners become more culpable for the success of their sites. It’s given the web designers and developers of the world something akin to absolution of guilt, insofar as search rankings are concerned. The folks who come to us with ideas on how they want to launch “world class websites” and have them be on the first page of Google now need to make certain they have the means, budget, and resources to generate solid content and keep up with the workload. Otherwise, they have little or no chance of true success.

This doesn’t mean us web designers and developers can relax on our laurels; good content strategy, information architecture, and solid, semantic coding remain as vital as ever to making sure those clever little spiders can still do their indexing.

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