How SEO Has Shaped the Web

January 19, 2018

With the benefit of hindsight, big-name thinker Anil Dash has concluded that SEO has contributed to the ineffectiveness of Web search. He examines how we got here in his article, “Underscores, Optimization & Arms Races” at Medium.  Starting with the year 2000, Dash traces the development of Internet content management systems (CMS’s), of which he was a part. (It is a good brief summary for anyone who wasn’t following along at the time.) WordPress is an example of a CMS.

As Google’s influence grew, online publishers became aware of an opportunity—they could game the search algorithm to move their site to the top of “relevant” results by playing around with keywords and other content details. The question of whether websites should bow to Google’s whims seemed to go unasked, as site after site fell into this pattern, later to be known as Search Engine Optimization. For Dash, the matter was symbolized by a question over hyphens or underbars to represent spaces in web addresses. Now, of course, one can use either without upsetting Google’s algorithm, but that was not the case at first. When Google’s Matt Cutts stated a preference for the hyphen in 2005, most publishers fell in line. Including Dash, eventually and very reluctantly; for him, the choice represented nothing less than the very nature of the Internet.

He writes:

You see, the theory of how we felt Google should work, and what the company had often claimed, was that it looked at the web and used signals like the links or the formatting of webpages to indicate the quality and relevance of content. Put simply, your search ranking with Google was supposed to be based on Google indexing the web as it is. But what if, due to the market pressure of the increasing value of ranking in Google’s search results, websites were incentivized to change their content to appeal to Google’s algorithm? Or, more accurately, to appeal to the values of the people who coded Google’s algorithm?

Eventually, even Dash and his CMS caved and switched to hyphens. What he did not notice at the time, he muses, was the unsettling development of the  entire SEO community centered around appeasing these algorithms. He concludes:

By the time we realized that we’d gotten suckered into a never-ending two-front battle against both the algorithms of the major tech companies and the destructive movements that wanted to exploit them, it was too late. We’d already set the precedent that independent publishers and tech creators would just keep chasing whatever algorithm Google (and later Facebook and Twitter) fed to us. Now, the challenge is to reform these systems so that we can hold the big platforms accountable for the impacts of their algorithms. We’ve got to encourage today’s newer creative communities in media and tech and culture to not constrain what they’re doing to conform to the dictates of an opaque, unknowable algorithm.

Is that doable, or have we gone too far toward appeasing the Internet behemoths to turn back?

Cynthia Murrell, January 19, 2018

Facebook Experiment Harming Democracy

January 16, 2018

Facebook seems to be the last place on the Web to negatively affect democratic governments, but according to The Guardian it will in, “‘Downright Orwellian’: Journalists Decry Facebook Experiment’s Impact On Democracy.”  Facebook is being compared to Big Brother in a news feed experiment that removed professional media stories from six countries.  Let the article break it down for you:

The experiment, which began 19 October and is still ongoing, involves limiting the core element of Facebook’s social network to only personal posts and paid adverts.

So-called public posts, such as those from media organisation Facebook pages, are being moved to a separate “explore” feed timeline. As a result, media organisations in the six countries containing 1% of the world’s population – Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Bolivia, Cambodia, Serbia and Slovakia – have had one of their most important publishing platforms removed overnight.

In other weeks, “Eek!”  These countries have very volatile governments and any threat to their news outlets is very bad if free speech is going to live.  Also the news outlets in these countries do not have the budgets to pay for Facebook’s post boosting fees.  Facebook was used as a free service to spread the news, but it fell more than 50% in many of the countries where this experiment was tested.

Even if Facebook were to stop the experiment some of the media outlets would not recover.  It is curious why Facebook did not test the news feed experiment in another country.  Oh wait, we know why.  It did not want to deal with the backlash from western countries and the countless people who whine on the Internet.  In the smaller countries, there is less culpability, but more home front damage. Nice job Facebook!

Whitney Grace, January 16, 2018

Indian Regulators Pursue Market Manipulators Around Web

January 11, 2018

Apparently, efforts by India’s market watchdog have driven manipulators in that country to explore alternative methods of communication. So we learn from the article, “Market Manipulators Take To Dark Web, Whatsapp As Sebi Steps Up Surveillance” at India’s NDTV. Note that a “multi-bagger” is a deal promising multi-fold returns. We’re told:

Market manipulators have hooked onto dark web and private chat groups on messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram for sharing ‘multibagger’ stock tips and unpublished price sensitive information about listed firms. This has prompted the exchanges and the regulator to beef up the ‘whistleblower’ framework to encourage people, including investors and those working with various market intermediaries, to anonymously give a tip-off on such groups. The shift to these platforms follow an enhanced vigil by the capital markets watchdog Sebi (Securities and Exchange Board of India) and the stock exchanges on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, while the regulator can also seek call data records from telecom firms for its probe.

The article notes that both the National Stock Exchange of India and the Bombay Stock Exchange have tip-off systems in place and that officials are considering ways to reward whistleblowers. Both exchanges are using social media analytics to monitor for rumors and news reports about companies they have listed. They are also analyzing the last year’s worth of trade data for such companies, hoping to spot any breaches of norms. So far, Sebi has taken action against some parties for providing investment advice without a registration. The article observes that last year, Sebi suggested banning the exchange of “unauthorized trading tips” through chat apps, social media, and securities-related games and competitions; however, no such regulation has been put in place as of yet.

Cynthia Murrell, January 11, 2018

LinkedIn: Not Just for Job Seekers and Attention Junkies

January 8, 2018

Last year I spotted this write up: “Spies Are Watching … on LinkedIn.” My first reaction was, “This is news?” I set the item aside, and I watched my newsfeeds to see if the story had “legs.” It did not. I thought I would document the existence of the write up and invite you, gentle reader, to figure out if this is old news, new news, or just flim flam news.

The main point is that an outfit known as BfV, shorthand for Bundesamt für Verfassungsschut) monitors LinkedIn for espionage actors. The main point of the write up strike me as:

Chinese intelligence has used LinkedIn to target at least 10,000 Germans, possibly to recruit them as informants.

I wonder if other intelligence agencies monitor LinkedIn. I suppose that is a possibility.

The write up include these faked profiles:

“Rachel Li”, identified as a “headhunter” at “RiseHR”

“Alex Li”, a “Project Manager at Center for Sino-Europe Development Studies”

“Laeticia Chen”, a manager at the “China Center of International Politics and Economy” whose attractive photo was reportedly swiped from an online fashion catalog, according to a BfV official

I have not spotted any recent information about the number of faked profiles on LinkedIn. My hunch is that most of the résumés on the service might qualify as faked, but that’s just my supposition.

With Microsoft’s ownership of LinkedIn making small, yet meaningful, changes in the service, I wonder how these “fake” spy-related profiles and discussions, if any, will be filtered.

Next time you accept a “friend” on LinkedIn, will you ask yourself, “Is this fine person a spy?”

Stephen E Arnold, January 8, 2018

Sisyphus Gets a Digital Task: Defining Hate Speech, Fake News, and Illegal Material

January 2, 2018

I read “Germany Starts Enforcing Hate Speech Law.” From my point of view in Harrod’s Creek, Kentucky, defining terms and words is tough. When I was a debate team member, our coach Kenneth Camp insisted that each of the “terms” in our arguments and counter arguments be defined. When I went to college and joined the debate team, our coach — a person named George Allen — added a new angle to the rounded corners of definitions. The idea was “framing.” As I recall, one not only defined terms, but one selected factoids, sources, and signs which would  put our opponents in a hen house from which one could escape with scratches and maybe a nasty cut or two.

The BBC and, of course, the author of the article, Germany, and the lawmakers were not thinking about definitions (high school), framing (setting up the argument so winning was easier), or the nicks and bumps incurred when working free of the ramshackle structure.

The write up states:

Germany is set to start enforcing a law that demands social media sites move quickly to remove hate speech, fake news and illegal material.

So what’s hate speech, fake news, and illegal material? The BBC does not raise this question.

I noted:

Germany’s justice ministry said it would make forms available on its site, which concerned citizens could use to report content that violates NetzDG or has not been taken down in time.

And what do the social media outfits have to do?

As well as forcing social media firms to act quickly, NetzDG requires them to put in place a comprehensive complaints structure so that posts can quickly be reported to staff.

Is a mini trend building in the small pond of clear thinking? The BBC states:

The German law is the most extreme example of efforts by governments and regulators to rein in social media firms. Many of them have come under much greater scrutiny this year as information about how they are used to spread propaganda and other sensitive material has come to light. In the UK, politicians have been sharply critical of social sites, calling them a “disgrace” and saying they were “shamefully far” from doing a good job of policing hate speech and other offensive content. The European Commission also published guidelines calling on social media sites to act faster to spot and remove hateful content.

Several observations:

  1. I am not sure if there are workable definitions for the concepts. I may be wrong, but point of view, political orientation, and motivation may be spray painting gray over already muddy concepts.
  2. Social media giants do not have the ability to move quickly. I would suggest that the largest of these targeted companies are not sure what is happening amidst their programmers, algorithms, and marketing professionals. How can one react quickly when one does not know who, what, or where an action occurs.
  3. Attempts to shut down free flowing information will force those digital streams into the murky underground of hidden networks with increasingly labyrinthine arabesques of obfuscation used to make life slow, expensive, and frustrating for enforcement authorities.

Net net: We know that the BBC does  not think much about these issues; otherwise, a hint of the challenges would have filtered into the write up. We know that the legislators are interested in getting control of social media communications, and filtering looks like a good approach. We know that the social media “giants” are little more than giant, semi-organized ad machines designed to generate data and money. We know that those who allegedly create and disseminate “hate speech, fake news and illegal material” will find communication channels, including old fashioned methods like pinning notes on a launderette’s bulletin board or marking signs on walls.

Worth watching how these “factors” interact, morph, and innovate.

Stephen E Arnold, January 2, 2018

If You Want Search Engines to Eliminate Fake News, Cautiously Watch Russia

December 21, 2017

There is a growing rallying cry for social media and search to better police fake news. This is an admirable plan, because nobody should be misled by false information and propaganda. However, as history has told us, those in charge of misinformation and propaganda can often use changes like this to their advantage. Take, for example, the recent Motherboard story, “How Russia Polices Yandex, Its Most Popular Search Engine,” which detailed how Russia aimed to get rid of its “fake news” but really only encourages more of it.

The story says,

This year, the “news aggregator law” came into effect in Russia. It requires websites that publish links to news stories with over one million daily users (Yandex.News has over six million daily users) to be responsible for all the content on their platform, which is an enormous responsibility.

 

‘Our Yandex.News team has been actively working to retain a high quality service for our users following new regulations that impacted our service this past year,’ Yandex told Motherboard in a statement, adding that to comply with new regulations, it reduced the number of sources that it aggregated from 7,000 to 1,000, which have official media licenses.’

In short, since the government oversees part of Yandex, the government can make it harder to publish stories that are not favorable to itself. It’s food for thought, especially to the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world calling for more government oversight in social media. You might not get exactly what you hoped for when a third party starts calling the shots.

Patrick Roland, December 21, 2017

Pinterest Searches Now Powered by Dollars

December 15, 2017

Oh, Pinterest why did it take you so long?  Search Engine Watch shares the long awaited and non-surprising news that: “Pinterest Moves Into Paid Search: What You Need To Know.”  If you have a craft, design, decoration, wedding, book, dog, clothing, etc. business, then Pinterest Ads Manager is now open for business and ready to host your ads.  Pinterest hopes that its new ad platform will deliver a competitive advertising experience similar to Google AdWords.

This announcement comes at the end of a lengthy campaign to get the product right, with early partners including eBay, Target, and bid management platform Kenshoo. The newly released self-serve paid search platform provides the same experience these early partners have enjoyed, without the need to go through Pinterest or a third party to get started. The Ads Manager allows brands to create and optimize their promoted Pins and will also track and report on campaign performance.

Pinterest has long desired to monetize its search and the image-driven social platform is perfect to suggest products and services to consumers.  Monetizing search has its own unique challenges, but they are practically the same ones Facebook had when they launched their own ad platform.  Pinterest used its statistics to lure potential advertisers:

          97% of Pinterest searches are non-branded

There are now over 200 million Pinterest users (up from 150

million in 2016)

More than 2 billion searches take place on Pinterest each                    month

75% of all Pins saved by users come from businesses.

Pinterest heavily borrowed search ideas from other social networks, such as the keyword targeting.  However, Pinterest wants to be seen as a separate and highlight its unique features as different Google’s AdWords.  It is another market to target users and get attention to products.  It is brand new and exactly the same!

Whitney Grace, December 15, 2017

Big Shock: Social Media Algorithms Are Not Your Friend

December 11, 2017

One of Facebook’s founding fathers, Sean Parker, has done a surprising about-face on the online platform that earned him billions of dollars. Parker has begun speaking out against social media and the hidden machinery that keeps people interested. We learned more from a recent Axios story,Sean Parker Unloads on Facebook ‘Exploiting’ Human Psychology.

According to the story:

Parker’s I-was-there account provides priceless perspective in the rising debate about the power and effects of the social networks, which now have scale and reach unknown in human history. He’s worried enough that he’s sounding the alarm.

According to Parker:

The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’

 

And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments.

What’s at stake here isn’t just human psychology being exploited, though. It’s a major part of the story, but, as Forbes pointed out, we are on the cusp of social engineering via social media. If more people like Parker don’t stand up and offer a solution, we fear there could be serious repercussions.

Patrick Roland, December 11, 2017

Twitter Changes API Offerings and Invites Trouble

December 8, 2017

Twitter has beefed up its API offerings to users, but it comes with an increasing price tag. While that is not a huge issue for many people, it will invite some problem if not played properly. We discovered this interesting change in a recent Venture Beat piece, “Twitter’s New Premium APIs Give Developers Access to More Tweets, Higher Rate Limits.”

According to the story:

Twitter is offering a solution for developers who are angry about limitations imposed on their apps when they use the service’s free APIs. The company has now introduced premium APIs to bridge the gap between the free service and the enterprise-level tools it provides through Gnip.

 

Developers will likely welcome this solution, though many will also say it’s long overdue. After the company’s mea culpa at its Flight conference in 2015, Twitter has made efforts to understand developers’ needs and has reallocated resources, including selling its Fabric mobile developer platform to Google.

Time will tell if this uptick in API accessibility will help Twitter financially. The company has long been seeking a financial home run since going public. While there are several ways APIs can solve outside problems and bring stability to a company, this can also fall flat on its face. Especially if developers don’t want to pay the fees or if the APIs don’t live up to the hype. Fingers crossed.

Patrick Roland, December 8, 2017

Some Think the Time Has Come for Government Regulation of Social Media

December 7, 2017

In this era of fake news and data hacking, some people think it’s time for the government to step in and help. As the stakes get higher, commentators think that we can no longer police ourselves on the internet. This thought was brought up in a recent Bill Moyers piece, “The Facebook Inside Facebook.”

According to the story:

But in the US, it’s time to consider more dramatic measures. Speaking of disclosure, many social scientists outside the company would like Facebook to open up more of its data — for one reason among others, to understand how their algorithms work. There are those in the company who say they would respond reasonably if reformers and researchers got specific about what data they want to see. What specifically should they ask?

 

Should there be, along British lines, a centrally appointed regulatory board? Since 2003, the UK has had an Office of Communications with regulatory powers. Its board is appointed by a Cabinet minister.

This is an interesting prospect. Perhaps an FCC-style regulatory commission could help weed out all the quirks that make social media potentially dangerous. Even Mark Zuckerberg’s mentor thinks the time has come. However, all of this would require Facebook to open up their algorithms to outside eyes and, as anyone remotely interested in social media knows, those codes are the company’s bread and butter. We think it’ll be a snowy day in Death Valley before Silicon Valley welcomes oversight.

Patrick Roland, December 7, 2017

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