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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’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 Previously he served as an editor at 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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