Has Google Gone Too Far with the Bias Toward Its Own Content?

Posted by ajfried

Since the beginning of SEO time, practitioners have been trying to crack the Google algorithm. Every once in a while, the industry gets a glimpse into how the search giant works and we have opportunity to deconstruct it. We don’t get many of these opportunities, but when we do—assuming we spot them in time—we try to take advantage of them so we can “fix the Internet.”

On Feb. 16, 2015, news started to circulate that NBC would start removing images and references of Brian Williams from its website.

This was it!

A golden opportunity.

This was our chance to learn more about the Knowledge Graph.

Expectation vs. reality

Often it’s difficult to predict what Google is truly going to do. We expect something to happen, but in reality it’s nothing like we imagined.

Expectation

What we expected to see was that Google would change the source of the image. Typically, if you hover over the image in the Knowledge Graph, it reveals the location of the image.

Keanu-Reeves-Image-Location.gif

This would mean that if the image disappeared from its original source, then the image displayed in the Knowledge Graph would likely change or even disappear entirely.

Reality (February 2015)

The only problem was, there was no official source (this changed, as you will soon see) and identifying where the image was coming from proved extremely challenging. In fact, when you clicked on the image, it took you to an image search result that didn’t even include the image.

Could it be? Had Google started its own database of owned or licensed images and was giving it priority over any other sources?

In order to find the source, we tried taking the image from the Knowledge Graph and “search by image” in images.google.com to find others like it. For the NBC Nightly News image, Google failed to even locate a match to the image it was actually using anywhere on the Internet. For other television programs, it was successful. Here is an example of what happened for Morning Joe:

Morning_Joe_image_search.png

So we found the potential source. In fact, we found three potential sources. Seemed kind of strange, but this seemed to be the discovery we were looking for.

This looks like Google is using someone else’s content and not referencing it. These images have a source, but Google is choosing not to show it.

Then Google pulled the ol’ switcheroo.

New reality (March 2015)

Now things changed and Google decided to put a source to their images. Unfortunately, I mistakenly assumed that hovering over an image showed the same thing as the file path at the bottom, but I was wrong. The URL you see when you hover over an image in the Knowledge Graph is actually nothing more than the title. The source is different.

Morning_Joe_Source.png

Luckily, I still had two screenshots I took when I first saw this saved on my desktop. Success. One screen capture was from NBC Nightly News, and the other from the news show Morning Joe (see above) showing that the source was changed.

NBC-nightly-news-crop.png

(NBC Nightly News screenshot.)

The source is a Google-owned property: gstatic.com. You can clearly see the difference in the source change. What started as a hypothesis in now a fact. Google is certainly creating a database of images.

If this is the direction Google is moving, then it is creating all kinds of potential risks for brands and individuals. The implications are a loss of control for any brand that is looking to optimize its Knowledge Graph results. As well, it seems this poses a conflict of interest to Google, whose mission is to organize the world’s information, not license and prioritize it.

How do we think Google is supposed to work?

Google is an information-retrieval system tasked with sourcing information from across the web and supplying the most relevant results to users’ searches. In recent months, the search giant has taken a more direct approach by answering questions and assumed questions in the Answer Box, some of which come from un-credited sources. Google has clearly demonstrated that it is building a knowledge base of facts that it uses as the basis for its Answer Boxes. When it sources information from that knowledge base, it doesn’t necessarily reference or credit any source.

However, I would argue there is a difference between an un-credited Answer Box and an un-credited image. An un-credited Answer Box provides a fact that is indisputable, part of the public domain, unlikely to change (e.g., what year was Abraham Lincoln shot? How long is the George Washington Bridge?) Answer Boxes that offer more than just a basic fact (or an opinion, instructions, etc.) always credit their sources.

There are four possibilities when it comes to Google referencing content:

  • Option 1: It credits the content because someone else owns the rights to it
  • Option 2: It doesn’t credit the content because it’s part of the public domain, as seen in some Answer Box results
  • Option 3: It doesn’t reference it because it owns or has licensed the content. If you search for “Chicken Pox” or other diseases, Google appears to be using images from licensed medical illustrators. The same goes for song lyrics, which Eric Enge discusses here: Google providing credit for content. This adds to the speculation that Google is giving preference to its own content by displaying it over everything else.
  • Option 4: It doesn’t credit the content, but neither does it necessarily own the rights to the content. This is a very gray area, and is where Google seemed to be back in February. If this were the case, it would imply that Google is “stealing” content—which I find hard to believe, but felt was necessary to include in this post for the sake of completeness.

Is this an isolated incident?

At Five Blocks, whenever we see these anomalies in search results, we try to compare the term in question against others like it. This is a categorization concept we use to bucket individuals or companies into similar groups. When we do this, we uncover some incredible trends that help us determine what a search result “should” look like for a given group. For example, when looking at searches for a group of people or companies in an industry, this grouping gives us a sense of how much social media presence the group has on average or how much media coverage it typically gets.

Upon further investigation of terms similar to NBC Nightly News (other news shows), we noticed the un-credited image scenario appeared to be a trend in February, but now all of the images are being hosted on gstatic.com. When we broadened the categories further to TV shows and movies, the trend persisted. Rather than show an image in the Knowledge Graph and from the actual source, Google tends to show an image and reference the source from Google’s own database of stored images.

And just to ensure this wasn’t a case of tunnel vision, we researched other categories, including sports teams, actors and video games, in addition to spot-checking other genres.

Unlike terms for specific TV shows and movies, terms in each of these other groups all link to the actual source in the Knowledge Graph.

Immediate implications

It’s easy to ignore this and say “Well, it’s Google. They are always doing something.” However, there are some serious implications to these actions:

  1. The TV shows/movies aren’t receiving their due credit because, from within the Knowledge Graph, there is no actual reference to the show’s official site
  2. The more Google moves toward licensing and then retrieving their own information, the more biased they become, preferring their own content over the equivalent—or possibly even superior—content from another source
  3. If feels wrong and misleading to get a Google Image Search result rather than an actual site because:
    • The search doesn’t include the original image
    • Considering how poor Image Search results are normally, it feels like a poor experience
  4. If Google is moving toward licensing as much content as possible, then it could make the Knowledge Graph infinitely more complicated when there is a “mistake” or something unflattering. How could one go about changing what Google shows about them?

Google is objectively becoming subjective

It is clear that Google is attempting to create databases of information, including lyrics stored in Google Play, photos, and, previously, facts in Freebase (which is now Wikidata and not owned by Google).

I am not normally one to point my finger and accuse Google of wrongdoing. But this really strikes me as an odd move, one bordering on a clear bias to direct users to stay within the search engine. The fact is, we trust Google with a heck of a lot of information with our searches. In return, I believe we should expect Google to return an array of relevant information for searchers to decide what they like best. The example cited above seems harmless, but what about determining which is the right religion? Or even who the prettiest girl in the world is?

Religion-and-beauty-queries.png

Questions such as these, which Google is returning credited answers for, could return results that are perceived as facts.

Should we next expect Google to decide who is objectively the best service provider (e.g., pizza chain, painter, or accountant), then feature them in an un-credited answer box? The direction Google is moving right now, it feels like we should be calling into question their objectivity.

But that’s only my (subjective) opinion.

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Headline Writing and Title Tag SEO in a Clickbait World – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

When writing headlines and title tags, we’re often conflicted in what we’re trying to say and (more to the point) how we’re trying to say it. Do we want it to help the page rank in SERPs? Do we want people to be intrigued enough to click through? Or are we trying to best satisfy the searcher’s intent? We’d like all three, but a headline that achieves them all is incredibly difficult to write.

In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand illustrates just how small the intersection of those goals is, and offers a process you can use to find the best way forward.

For reference, here’s a still of this week’s whiteboard!

Video transcription

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re going to chat about writing titles and headlines, both for SEO and in this new click-bait, Facebook social world. This is kind of a challenge, because I think many folks are seeing and observing that a lot of the ranking signals that can help a page perform well are often preceded or well correlated with social activity, which would kind of bias us towards saying, “Hey, how can I do these click-baity, link-baity sorts of social viral pieces,” versus we’re also a challenge with, “Gosh, those things aren’t as traditionally well performing in search results from a perhaps click-through rate and certainly from a search conversion perspective. So how do we balance out these two and make them work together for us based on our marketing goals?” So I want to try and help with that.

Let’s look at a search query for Viking battles, in Google. These are the top two results. One is from Wikipedia. It’s a category page — Battles Involving the Vikings. That’s pretty darn straightforward. But then our second result — actually this might be a third result, I think there’s a indented second Wikipedia result — is the seven most bad ass last stands in the history of battles. It turns out that there happen to be a number of Viking related battles in there, and you can see that in the meta description that Google pulls. This one’s from Crack.com.

These are pretty representative of the two different kinds of results or of content pieces that I’m talking about. One is very, very viral, very social focused, clearly designed to sort of do well in the Facebook world. One is much more classic search focused, clearly designed to help answer the user query — here’s a list of Viking battles and their prominence and importance in history, and structure, and all those kinds of things.

Okay. Here’s another query — Viking jewelry. Going to stick with my Viking theme, because why not? We can see a website from Viking jewelry. This one’s on JellDragon.com. It’s an eCommerce site. They’re selling sterling silver and bronze Viking jewelry. They’ve actually done very classic SEO focus. Not only do they have Viking jewelry mentioned twice, in the second instance of Viking jewelry, I think they’ve intentionally — I hope it was intentionally — misspelled the word “jewelry” to hopefully catch misspellings. That’s some old-school SEO. I would actually not recommend this for any purpose.

But I thought it was interesting to highlight versus in this search result it takes until page three until I could really find a viral, social, targeted, more link-baity, click-baity type of article, this one from io9 — 1,000 Year-old Viking Jewelry Found On Danish Farm. You know what the interesting part is? In this case, both of these are on powerful domains. They both have quite a few links to them from many external sources. They’re pretty well SEO’d pages.

In this case, the first two pages of results are all kind of small jewelry website stores and a few results from like Etsy and Amazon, more powerful authoritative domains. But it really takes a long time before you get these, what I’d consider, very powerful, very strong attempts at ranking for Viking jewelry from more of your click-bait, social, headline, viral sites. io9 certainly, I would kind of expect them to perform higher, except that this doesn’t serve the searcher intent.

I think Google knows that when people look for Viking jewelry, they’re not looking for the history of Viking jewelry or where recent archeological finds of Viking jewelry happened. They’re looking specifically for eCommerce sites. They’re trying to transact and buy, or at least view and see what Viking jewelry looks like. So they’re looking for photo heavy, visual heavy, potentially places where they might buy stuff. Maybe it’s some people looking for artifacts as well, to view the images of those, but less of the click-bait focus kind of stuff.

This one I think it’s very likely that this does indeed perform well for this search query, and lots of people do click on that as a positive result for what they’re looking for from Viking battles, because they’d like to see, “Okay, what were the coolest, most amazing Viking battles that happened in history?”

You can kind of see what’s happened here with two things. One is with Hummingbird and Google’s focus on topic modeling, and the other with searcher intent and how Google has gotten so incredibly good at pattern matching to serve user intent. This is really important from an SEO perspective to understand as well, and I like how these two examples highlight it. One is saying, “Hey, just because you have the most links, the strongest domain, the best keyword targeting, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll rank if you’re not serving searcher intent.”

Now, when we think about doing this for ourselves, that click-bait versus searched optimized experience for our content, what is it about? It’s really about choosing. It’s about choosing searcher intent, our website and marketing goals, or click-bait types of goals. I’ve visualized the intersection here with a Venn diagram. So these in pink here, the click-bait pieces that are going to resonate in social media — Facebook, Twitter, etc. Blue is the intent of searchers, and purple is your marketing goals, what you want to achieve when visitors get to your site, the reason you’re trying to attract this traffic in the first place.

This intersection, as you will notice, is super, uber tiny. It is miniscule. It is molecule sized, and it’s a very, very hard intersection to hit. In fact, for the vast majority of content pieces, I’m going to say that it’s going to be close to, not always, but close to impossible to get that perfect mix of click-bait, intent of searchers, and your marketing goals. The times when it works best is really when you’re trying to educate your audience or provide them with informational value, and that’s also something that’s going to resonate in the social web and something searchers are going to be looking for. It works pretty well in B2B types of things, particularly in spaces where there’s lots of influencers and amplifiers who also care about educating their followers. It doesn’t work so well when you’re trying to target Viking battles or Viking jewelry. What can I say, the historians of the Viking world simply aren’t that huge on Twitter yet. I hope they will be one day.

This is kind of the process that I would use to think about the structure of these and how to choose between them. First off, I think you need to ask, “Should I create a single piece of content to target all of these, or should I instead be thinking about individual pieces that hit one or two at a time?”

So it could be the case that maybe you’ve got an intersection of intent for searchers and your marketing goals. This happens quite a bit, and oftentimes for these folks, for the Jell Dragon Viking Jewelry, the intent of searchers and what they’re trying to accomplish on their site, perfectly in harmony, but definitely not with click-bait pieces that are going to resonate on the web. More challenging for io9 with this kind of a thing, because searchers just aren’t looking for that around Viking jewelry. They might instead be thinking about, “Hey, we’re trying to target the specific news item. We want anyone who looks for Viking jewelry in Danish farm, or Viking jewelry found, or those kind of things to be finding our site.”

Then, I would ask, “How can I best serve my own marketing goals, the marketing goals of my website through the pages that are targeted at search or social?” Sometimes that’s going to be very direct, like it is over here with JellDagon.com trying to convert folks and folks looking for Viking jewelry to buy.

Sometimes it’s going to be indirect,. A Moz Whiteboard Friday, for example, is a very indirect example. We’re trying to serve the intent of searchers and in the long term eventually, maybe sometime in the future some folks who watch this video might be interested in Moz’ tools or going to MozCon or signing up for an email list, or whatever it is. But our marketing goals are secondary and they’re further in the future. You could also think about that happening at the very end of a funnel, coming in if someone searches for say Moz versus Searchmetrics and maybe Searchmetrics has a great page comparing what’s better about their service versus Moz’ service and those types of things, and getting right in at the end of the funnel. So that should be a consideration as well. Same thing with social.

Then lastly, where are you going to focus that keyword targeting and the content foci efforts? What kind of content are you going to build? How are you going to keyword target them best to achieve this, and how much you interlink between those pages?

I’ll give you a quick example over here, but this can be expanded upon. So for my conversion page, I may try and target the same keywords or a slightly more commercial variation on the search terms I’m targeting with my more informational style content versus entertainment social style content. Then, conversion page might be separate, depending on how I’m structuring things and what the intent of searchers is. My click-bait piece may be not very keyword focused at all. I might write that headline and say, “I don’t care about the keywords at all. I don’t need to rank here. I’m trying to go viral on social media. I’m trying to achieve my click-bait goals. My goal is to drive traffic, get some links, get some topical authority around this subject matter, and later hopefully rank with this page or maybe even this page in search engines.” That’s a viable goal as well.

When you do that, what you want to do then is have a link structure that optimizes around this. So your click-bait piece, a lot of times with click-bait pieces they’re going to perform worse if you go over and try and link directly to your conversion page, because it looks like you’re trying to sell people something. That’s not what plays on Facebook, on Twitter, on social media in general. What plays is, “Hey, this is just entertainment, and I can just visit this piece and it’s fun and funny and interesting.”

What plays well in search, however, is something that let’s someone accomplish their tasks. So it’s fine to have information and then a call to action, and that call to action can point to the conversion page. The click-bait pieces content can do a great job of helping to send link equity, ranking signals, and maybe some visitor traffic who’s interested in truly learning more over to the informational page that you want ranking for search. This is kind of a beautiful way to think about the interaction between the three of these when you have these different levels of foci, when you have these different searcher versus click-bait intents, and how to bring them all together.

All right everyone, hope to see you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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