Thinking about the human user? A brief reflection on search engines, SEO and page content.

Recently, a couple of news made me think a bit (again) on our behavior (as users) when surfing the internet and, specifically, when searching for news, products – whatever.

First, the news came that Google is decided to penalize sites over-optimized for the Google crawler.

Then, a tweet from @jnovick draw my attention to a brief article about the “10 words you should never use in LinkedIn”.

Both things raise an interesting question: to what extent the ‘commercial’ or business use of language modifies our utilization of it in our daily life, and what we should do about it (if there is something we have to do, or can do)?

Google search engine started to be successful because it retrieved the results that human users would have liked to have. I. e., we humans had the impression that Google did search like we would have ourselves… had we the time to do it. The powerful algorithm compared advantageously with the approach used by directories which relied on humans surfing the web, analyzing the different pages and rating content. Brute force computing seemed to be superior to thoughtful human assessment of contents (you may think that Google took up too quickly for human-maintained directories to keep up with it… and with the growth rate of content creation in the web: had it appeared some years later, maybe directories would have grown up and indexed successfully most of the web).

But, as Google became the preferred search engine and we users became unable to search for stuff differently, web designers started to figure out how to entice the SE into ranking their pages higher (I guess part was discovery and part was about following Google’s own recommendations). The endless war between SEO specialists and Google started, and Google dance became a popular entertainment for web masters and content creators.

So, because users got to pages mostly via Google, and not via directories, portals or simply their own, personal, manual search, it became just logical for designers that the first and foremost user, the key one to “satisfy” was the Google algorithm: humans were not as important, because they would simply follow Google (this is a pretty simplified view, but you know what I mean). And this is where we are now. For instance, we build links because Google ranks them high, right? (Of course it very much depends on the quality: there is crap and there is Wikipedia, Google itself, official sites, etc. You can check many specialized sites on the subject, like this one). Not because they make really sense from the human user’s point of view. After all, you may very well be interested in a given piece of content even if no site at all has a link to it. Are we all supposed to ‘work’ the same way?

Then, of course, there are many (mostly SE-invisible pages) with great content that (this is typical for scientific and academic research: I do not have the proofs, but can help suspecting that this is related with the subjects not having an obvious chrematistic meaning), as a user, you would love to be able to find quickly and, guess what, search engines simply ignore them (if you suspect that almost every single piece of good content is in the internet, I tend to agree with you… but finding them is a different thing).

Another side-effect is that pages appear in the first positions (which essentially means that they are visible) if they are heavily commercial (or, well, Wikipedia). Google own sites (such as Google Scholar) may make it to the top as well, of course, but it would be excessive to call that non-commercial.

Some reflections:

  • To what extent will Google strive to reproduce human behavior? Will it care, or will it be satisfied with monopolizing the SE market?
  • By the way, does ever Google think about the possibility that different people search differently? I suspect, the answer is ‘no way’: no long tail here! You will just have the options that Google offers you to the left of your screen (well, or the right, if you use Arab, for instance) – that’s your long tail here!
  • Will it be tempted (again) to be the one who decides what is human and what is not? I would say so: the algorithm will not be shared and you will have to live with the results it gives you.
  • Are changes in the way we search for stuff limiting Google’s ability to improve its understanding of (genuinely) human behavior – because we decide to let the SE do all the work? The thing is: when you stop researching according to your own ways and simply rely on the tool, you are not revealing how your brain works – in fact, it has ceased to work creatively, and just adapted to the SE operation.
  • Alternative competitive algorithms may be very important for Google itself to improve. I suspect that if Bing has a meaningful organic (i. e., not sponsored) success, there would be valuable feedback for Google.
  • What would it take for users to revert to more intelligent/human approaches to searching? Or is this a definite change in human nature, like standing on our two feet?
  • To what extent are social networks a substitute for users a bit fed up with SE results? E. g.: either we trust our own capacities to find the right stuff, or we resort to our contacts, instead of simply relying on search engines.
  • Will we ever again be able to consider Google a neutral SE? I suspect, ‘no way’, because (a) this is essentially big business (b) price bid will never go away [and maybe (b) is just a result of (a)] and (c) This kind of things.

Regarding the article on Linkedin’s report about the most over-used buzzwords (NB: the report is about USA; there may be some variations by country, but chances are that there will be many similarities), I wonder to what extent this is different from old word wearing-out (ever heard of comparing teeth with pearls, or lips with ruby?).

Here you are, for your convenience, the 10 expressions: Creative, Organizational, Effective, Extensive Experience, Track Record, Motivated, Innovative, Problem Solving, Communication Skills and Dynamic. Which specific phrases or expressions make it to the top ten is irrelevant, by the way.

Well, what’s the message? I do not have any conclusions for you, but have myself a number of questions:

  • Is it not legitimate to be creative, innovative, or cost-conscious, or whatever? What if this is what I am? Is there anything wrong with using in my profile the natural words to say so? What would else humans expect me to say in a conversation!?
  • Should I just look for synonyms as word get worn out? (Good idea: then I would have to change my profile more often and this would improve my results!)
  • Hey, in that case, is it not unfair that other, competing profiles are displayed because they use the most popular terms instead of the ‘original’ or ‘creative’ ones I came up with as a replacement, in order for the HR guy to like my profile more?
  • Will my profile look better in the eyes of the HR person… who may never find me if I use alternative, unusual wording for, say, “track record”?
  • By the way, LinkedIn does provide information about the “performance” of keywords (e. g., your skills), and suggests that I benefit of it by using ‘more successful’ options. Does it mean that I should use them for the SE to find me… but, hey, maybe not, because humans reviewing it after finding me may not like it (as the article mentioned indicates)?
  • Are you going to (have me) create a front-page profile for the SE (not visible for HR folks), and a second page linked to it so that humans like it, or come up with an similar invention? Should we rely on some future robot, capable of analyzing if all the wording in the profile bears a genuine relationship with the keywords used?

Maybe it is just me… I would love to have your views on this. After all, this blog does not intend to teach anybody anything – it is more about jotting down personal reflections and (ideally) having others opinions & views to enrich mine.

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