Entries in the new york times (1)

Sunday
Feb132011

Search Sure is Topical Lately

Most of us in the working world can get through a day, week...even a month without thinking about the black alchemy that goes on behind Google's search results.

But recently, a fair amount of ink and commentary has brought the web's best kept secret into mainstream tech news circles.

It began last Monday with an announcement from an American media company searching for relevancy in our new digital age. When AOL made their acquisition of the left-wing news and commentary site The Huffington Post, some cheered...and most leered secretly.

The long term future of the famously independent, longtime Wilco fansite, has since been regular trolling fodder. What will happen now that there are corporate paymasters – will the liberal left of America decide that they’d rather source their opinions from somewhere that they can pretend isn’t run by The Man?

At MaintainPR, we believe this story is best left framed and discussed in the context of the Microsoft-Nokia conjunction, but we would like to briefly touch on the HuffPo's search engine ramifications and specifically how the site made it work so well for them and their journalists.

There seems to be a consensus that the Huffington Post has had a policy of supporting their ‘proper’ journalism – their political writing, essentially – with fluff posts about celebrities and music and so forth. We tend to disagree with this interpretation. It seems to suppose that, for starters, people aren’t interested in reading about politics on the net and secondly, that people who do, don’t care about popular culture.

In addition to this analysis, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what ‘search engine optimization’ of content actually is, that somehow, a focus on visibility is at odds with investigation, breaking news, and so forth. This, frankly, is the poor writer’s defence. The reason that the Huffington Post has been successful, in blunt terms, is because it delivers what their audience wants – opinions they can echo in a bar to sound educated, be it on mildly provocative center left politics or pop bands your older brother likes.

And this, ultimately, is the lesson of ‘optimizing’ the content of your web site for search visibility – there are a variety of techniques that can be layered on top of any given piece, in terms of architecture, linkage, titling and so on and so forth – but the success of any venture is predicated on delivering something that your audience finds useful. If you’re good at what you do, you will attract links, you will attract social and search visibility, and you will attract visitors, and you will have a long term, sustainable business plan.

So, respect to AOL to recognizing a property that could drag them back to relevancy, and respect to Arianna Huffington for making the leap into the mainstream. As much as we are not ever that interested in what the HuffPo has to say, or Wilco for that matter, we do think it’s a very interesting venture, and wish them every success.

The opposite side of going about search -- and equally if not more blogged about coverage-wise -- came just days ago when the New York Times exposed what appears to be a major link purchasing scheme taking advantage of Google's PageRank architecture for better listing results effecting the U.S. retailer J.C. Penney. We should note we use the word "appears," because Penney's flat out denies any knowledge of the campaigns, and have fired their SEO firm.

This was a bomb shell of a piece by David Segal for The Times, because he had rare immediate and direct feedback from the team of antispammers at Google (which is headed by Matt Cutts) and it resulted in J.C. Penney's search listings being manually downgraded in results -- something everyone on the web could participate in watching happen in real-time, thanks to Segal highlighting keyword phrases in the piece.

Responses to both these news items by search watchdogs and players keep on coming. But if you'd like to get a more humorous view, albiet different from ours above, we recommend this Slate piece by Farhad Manjoo on the Huffington Post acquisition. If you want a fuller understanding of the decisions and algorithms involved, Vanessa Fox at Search Engine Land has a detailed analysis of PenneyGate...and of course, if you just want unbridled criticism that serves as an industry call to arms, it's all Arrington on TechCrunch: Search Still Sucks.