Quality Is in the Eye of Google
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Quality Is in the Eye of Google

Adotas-“The Wall Street Journal’s front page is typically littered with mistakes now,” a coworker randomly commented.

“That’s because they laid off the proofreaders and copy editors to cut costs,” I snorted. “Huge mistake.”

I often lament not having a copy editor or proofreader at Adotas, not just because I’m in such a rush to produce content that I let mistakes seep through. Having another set of eyes examine your work before publication is invaluable. I see little errors all over the major tech sites I read — I figure the writers have to hit publish as soon as they type the last word, same as me. The Internet news monster must be fed… constantly.

“Isn’t there some kind of software publishers could use to copy edit?” someone else asked.

“Besides spell check, no, not really,” I replied. Grammar check is useless half the time because many English rules are elastic, and a good writer enjoys breaking the rules to draw attention to a point or sound colloquial. These are things a human can discern, but can you imagine an algorithm that could do the same? A computer can beat the hell out of a few “Jeopardy” champions, but it can’t replace a top-notch copy editor.

Yet copy desks tend to get axed at pubs when budgets are grim. Effectively, we’re killing our human quality control in published works, and there’s no machine to replace it.

I was thinking about the human element as I got up to date on the fallout from Google’s recent algorithm update — which affected 12% of searches and threatened to vanquish the hated content farms. One of the hardest hit by the update, human search engine and how-to video producer Mahalo, apparently has laid off a tenth of its workforce.

Mahalo founder and CEO Jason Calacanis announced the staff cuts were due to a serious dip in traffic and revenue, but that the company would not cut down on its video production. So just as much content pooped out with less actual humans involved — sounds like a winner.

Allen Stern over at Center Networks laments, “when Mahalo first launched, Jason told me numerous times he didn’t care about Google because he was going to build loyal users who would just come directly to Mahalo.”

That’s the dream, of course, but it seems hard to make it a reality as online publishers have become slaves to Google — the latest update shows King G can pick publishers off with a simple gesture. (Why do I keep thinking of the Queen of Hearts screaming “Off with his head!”?)

Although Demand Media, the company that epitomizes content farms for many tech journalists, did suffer a bit from the algo update, its flagship eHow site appears to have gotten a boost, much to the grumblings of the rest of the web. In addition, Demand seems to be bringing on higher-profile names to give the site the semblance of prestige. “Lifestyle expert” Racheal Ray, queen of the 30-minute meal, has been named the creative force behind eHow.com’s Food channel, putting her in charge of recruiting mules — I mean, talent — to create and be featured in original video programming.

Meanwhile, Associated Content, Yahoo’s content farm, admitted the algo change was cutting into its traffic. But sites having little to do with the mass production of cheap content also had the traffic rug pulled out from under them by the “farmer” update — Technorati, PR Newswire, Songkick, Slideshare, Complete Review, DaniWeb and Cult of Mac were slapped by the new algo.

But Cult of Mac has already been “reinstated” in Google’s search results — apparently Google Spam Czar Matt Cutts reached out to editor Leander Kahney after complaints about the delisting, and whaddayaknow? They’re back in.

Kahney suggests that the algorithm updates are still being tweaked, but ZDNet’s Larry Dignan thinks Cult of Mac simply got a pass: ”There will be more sites complaining about Google’s algorithm change and the search giant will probably make a few ‘one-off’ exceptions. The inflection point comes when Google has to make multiple ‘one-off’ calls. Ultimately, we’ve outsourced the quality call to Google.”

Doesn’t this sound horribly inefficient? And also terrifying in general?

Dignan asks a question I’ve been hollering for a while: how the hell does an algorithm decide something as subjective as quality? Dignan lays out the issues:

  1. “What’s the unassailable definition of quality?
  2. “Is an algorithm capable of making a subjective decision (one man’s spam is another man’s good read)?
  3. “And do we trust Google to be judge and jury via an algorithm we know nothing about?”

Here are the answers:

  1. There is none.
  2. Not that we’ve seen.
  3. Not a chance.

Quality control requires inputs and opinions from flesh and blood humans, and the search sector has technology now to do incorporate that kind efficiently. Of course, I’m talking about social search.

In effect, Blekko is basically crowdsourcing quality control with its upstart social search engine. Facebook has improved its search features because our friends make good curators, and Bing is highlighting Facebook data in its searches. Google’s social search injection the week before the algo update seemed to be far more useful, but Google has its hands tied without Facebook data.

The ineffectiveness of Google’s “farmer” update should be the final proof that we need a new discovery and research engine. Just like Mike Arrington commented, Google has become a resource mainly if you know exactly what you want — say I’m looking for the person who said such-and-such.

Just like publications need human editors to ensure editorial quality, it’s becoming clear search engines need human input to deliver quality results. And we publishers could really use a social search resource to emerge so we can escape from Google’s tyranny, gain some visibility for our insightful original content, build our ad revenue and hire back our copy editors.

Sound like a plan, guys? I know some great copy editors that could use work.

—–
Gavin Dunaway is senior editor for Adotas.com Previously he served as an editor at TheStreet.com and a staff writer at Mobility, the publication of trade association Worldwide ERC. He received a Bachelor’s degree in English from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.  It is also rumored that he will be in the next season of The Bachelor.

 

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9 Comments

  • Google has been a benchmark for the industry for years and years. They've always provided secure service that no one else has been in the running. Glad there are new companies leveling up to their level of business, the industry needs competition. Good luck!

  • Jim says:

    One of my sites got hit hard and it was unfair considering these sites that get a pass. I have seen the light, google has too much power and webmasters need to stop depending on google to make a living online.

  • Paul says:

    I like the point about English grammar as I teach ESL part time. English is a dynamic language and with all the plugins now that help hide duplicate content there is abaolutely no way that google can judge content.

    I think people are looking at the wrong things and in the wrong places.

    How does google judge a website – firstly you have to look how sticky it is. Check the bounce rate and average time on site and pages. second, how many links are going out. Article sites have a lot of outgoing links from republished articles. Thirdly, and I'm not sure about this, can google detect cron jobs? This would point to why a lot of the autoblogs are being hit.

    Finally, let's not forget google is a business and out to make money. Every time you do a search they want their adsense ads at the top. So, irrespective of anything else the searchers come first and the content providers come second.

  • Southwind says:

    If Paul teaches ESL he should slow down and proof his spelling in the first paragraph.
    (Sorry, couldn't resist.)
    It appears we have let another monster (big G) grow out of control.
    It's amazing what good marketing and a few years can do.

  • Jon says:

    I can hear that Queen of hearts screaming "Off with their heads!" too so it's not just you. I have been saying for a while that we need to start using another search engine. So many businesses really have become slave to Google's whims and fancies. Should a computer algo change really be the reason the quality content on a site gets ignored by the masses that was previously hailed as good stuff? The more Google tries to define itself as superior to other SEs the more we can see it's frailties and the more people begin searching for another search engine I'm glad someone is pointing this out. Long live Bing. lol.

  • It seems perfectly logical to me why Google is doing what it's doing.

    It's said that the landing page has 8 seconds to make an impression on the visitor or they're gone. If Google sends you to landing pages you immediately bounce back from, then Google knows it may have a problem. When people don't get what they want, they start looking someplace else.

    It's an undeniable fact that people are always trying to game the system. Like water, if there's an opening, it's going to take it.

    Google is now choosing to see content farms and aggregators as middlemen, or a diversion to the real thing. I find it frustrating to be lead to a page that paints a part of the picture and then requires me to click to the original source to get the rest of the information.

    I can see how content farms and aggregators are upset. They adopted their web content strategy to maximize search results which in turn made their website a cash cow for PPC and CPA offers. Google, I personally believe, now see these websites as revenue generators first, and information providers second.

    As any business person knows, the customer comes first and the customer is always right.

    If you do a search on Bing, you'll see they give mouse over text content of the landing page so you can make a choice whether to click there or not. Bing knows people don't like wasting clicks so they've offered a solution.

    If Google wants to continue to be the place where people, like me, begin their search, then Google has to continue to evolve to make sure they keep searchers, like me, happy.

    If Google gets customers to businesses with less interference, then businesses and searchers will continue to see Google as the place to start. For Google, there's a lot more money in serving the 80%, than the 20% who are playing to the algorithms.

  • badfly897og says:

    @David – you are right on the mark.

    Google is what it is and will continually evolve. We marketer's need to evolve as well.
    Just like Yellow Pages, telemarketers, newspaper ads and the other marketing tools
    filling the graveyard, content farms took the hit.

    Google is the Gorilla and will be for the foreseeable future. The market is not fair.
    Never has been and never will be.

    "We need to start using another search engine????" I'm sorry but that's absurd.
    It's not what we as marketers want, it's what the market wants and uses. People use
    Google and will continue to do so.

    Google repeatedly says, "We want people using Google to find what they're looking for."
    End the search and answer the searcher's questions. That's been a constant. It blows that
    I have sites that have been hit but my strategy is not to forsake Google and try for bing
    rankings. Just like any other non-Google or marketing business, it's my job to adapt to
    market changes or join the has-beens.

  • mlm says:

    Good day! Do you know if they make any plugins to assist with Search Engine Optimization? I'm trying to get my blog to rank for some targeted keywords but I'm not seeing very good gains. If you know of any please share. Thanks!

  • Tim Ryan says:

    Google is after quality and accuracy. They tend to update their algorithms in order to suit users need. There’s no perfect Search Engines out there but Google is doing it’s best to provide relevant results to searchers. Personally, i think using different search engine is not preferable. Google has been in the industry for quite sometime now and they indeed provide reasonable results
    Tim Ryan recently posted..Title InsuranceMy Profile

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