Tag Archives: Facebook

Algorithms: The Illusion Of Democracy

Facebook recently announced that they are tweaking their news feed algorithm to give us less of what we don’t want and more of what we do. Ostensibly, this will include showing us less of the content we don’t really want to see.

How? By reducing the content that publishers like Buzzfeed are able to shove into our newsfeed on their own. That last part is important, because you’ll still see all of the Buzzfeed clickbait stories that your friend Jeff relentlessly shares every morning as he chugs his grande sugar free latte.

And that, my friends, is the inherent problem with algorithms. Whether you are using Facebook or Google or Amazon or any other modern online service, what you see is largely dictated by (a) what the masses want to see and (b) what you’ve looked at in the past.

Click on a story on Yahoo (still one of the most visited sites on the internet, believe it or not), and you’ll see what I mean. Their algorithm will immediately expand the news feed to include four more articles that are just like the article you just read or the video you just watched – sometimes exactly the same.

One of my wife’s aunts constantly shares pre-made posts about all sorts of things, from small dogs to recipes prominently featuring Velveeta to nostalgic visuals of toys from the 1960s – but she recently shared something that stood out to me. It was another pre-made graphic, but it said something like “I am part of the 10% of the world who has never seen Game of Thrones. Hit Like if you are too!”

The fact that somebody felt strongly enough about this issue to fire up Photoshop and build a graphic about it indicates that there are at least a few folks out here who are sick and tired of their newsfeed being clogged with the latest fan theories about Westeros and photos of Kit Harrington’s oddly permed hair. But as long as all of her friends are talking about GOT, my wife’s aunt will be doomed to watch their exchanges, even though she has no interest in the program itself.

Not only do algorithms encourage this “forced democracy,” they discourage you from coming across new ideas. Companies like StumbleUpon (they call themselves a discovery engine instead of a search engine) offer alternatives, but for now, they are few and far between. Instead, we get big data making choices about what we really want to see instead of using their teams of developers to actually let us choose what we want to see.

The number of personal stories posted on Facebook has dropped 21% in the past year or so. And yet your newsfeed hasn’t gotten any shorter, meaning it’s filled with 21% more shares of news stories, celebrity makeup videos, sponsored content and overall flotsam and jetsam.

Algorithms are letting us down, and I for one hope that we can inject a little more heart into the web. Perhaps this decision by Facebook is the first step, but I doubt it. Ironically, I think that real change will need to come from the proletariat themselves, a revolution that I can’t wait to be a part of.

SEO, Science And Snake Oil

One of our clients recently contacted me with a series of questions about her website that were prompted by the visit of a gentleman from a national “all things to everyone” web management company. The client was confused because the salesman had made some fantastic claims about his company’s ability to improve her website and how visible it was on search engines and in social media. She even told me that his company could make her good reviews more prominent and her bad reviews less obvious. That’s when I got suspicious.

You see, I’ve been working with search engines and social media for almost as long as they’ve existed, and saying that you can control them is like rolling into town with a wagon full of snake oil and vitamin elixirs: nobody can tell if they work or don’t work, so those purveying these wonder drugs can play fast and loose with the facts. When things improve, it’s thanks to the medicine – when they don’t, other factors were to blame. In the meantime, you’ve spent a lot of money burping up fizzy soda pop that tastes like dishwater.

Why can’t anyone really control search results and reviews? Because if they could, search results and reviews would be meaningless. That would be bad for business for the companies that run the world (not the Internet world, the world world) like Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, etc. All of these companies sell trust, after all, and who would trust anything on the Internet if we would simply remove something we don’t like? 

Google’s #1 product is an accurate, helpful search result (which they use to glean your vital information and sell to everybody and their mother – nobody said it was pretty). Do you think they’re going to let you – or anybody else – screw up their #1 product? They modify the algorithm – the software behind their search engine – dozens of time each week in order to overcome those who try to do just that. 

Think about that. You can either work to live in harmony with Google, Facebook etc., doing what you can to make their systems work for your company – or you can take your chances by poking them in the eye and messing with their business model. I’ve seen what can happen when you go all in trying to game Google’s algorithm, and it isn’t pretty. I had an associate who hired a hot company out of Chicago to take his online business to the top of the search results no matter what. He called me one day and told me that Google had adapted the algorithm to negate the tricks that his friends in Chicago were using and pow! He was out of the search results – entirely. He was also out of business in just a few months.

Those who seek to manipulate online reviews are running into similar problems. Regulators in the state of New York got the ball rolling by investigating – and fining – companies who were posting fake reviews online (including some of the nation’s largest “reputation-building” companies) and many other states have since joined the crusade.

Does this mean that all search engine optimization (SEO) is worthless? Nope. Let me take the vitamin elixir analogy one step further. Just like in real life, healthy lifestyle choices are smarter than magic potions. Eat nutritious foods, stay active and maybe take a few vitamins, and you can look and feel great. Keep your website up to date with new content (search engines love that), include all of the things that your customers want to see (keywords, etc.) and spend the resources needed to keep your technology fresh (for example, Google is now looking very harshly on sites that are not friendly toward mobile devices), and you will have a healthy web presence. It’s not as easy as chugging that bottle of snake oil, but it’s a lot more likely to work (and not send you sprinting to the bathroom).

And since when has the right answer been the same as the easy answer, anyway? Here’s the good news – Code Roadies and other companies like us can do a lot of that work for you. We can build you a WordPress website that allows for easy content updates, agile SEO additions and optimum viewing on everything from smartphones to laptops. We can even help you to fill your site with everything your customers – and search engines – want to see.

Work with search engines, social media and review sites rather than against them, and you’ll discover quickly that effort pays off more than a quick fix every time.