‘American Dirt’ was supposed to be a publishing triumph. What went wrong?

From The Los Angeles Times:

It was poised to be a blockbuster long before copies arrived in bookstores last week: a thrilling contemporary migration story following a mother and her son, desperate to cross Mexico and reach the United States.

Its publisher, Flatiron Books, an imprint of Macmillan, paid a seven-figure advance after outbidding several competitors for the novel. It snagged a coveted selection in Oprah’s Book Club and had been shipped to key celebrity influencers, including Stephen King, Sandra Cisneros and Salma Hayek. A reported first run of 500,000 copies was printed. The film rights were sold.

But by week’s end, the novel “American Dirt” had garnered attention that its boosters likely didn’t expect: angry charges of cultural appropriation, stereotyping, insensitivity, and even racism against author Jeanine Cummins, who herself said in the book’s author’s note, “I was worried that, as a nonmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among migrants.”

Despite the backing of towering figures in American media, Cummins’ page-turning portrayal of a mother on the run is now at the center of the first bonafide literary controversy of the year, and is forcing a hard reflection on the state of Latinos in a cultural field that remains overwhelmingly white.

In the face of critiques, Cummins is pushing back in public. Her publisher released a statement encouraging discussion around the title, while some authors and booksellers have come to Cummins’ defense. In a culture that is used to debating black and Asian representation and stereotypes, the entrenchment around “American Dirt” is fueling even more complaints over the ease with which popular culture still employs Latino-related stereotypes in contemporary movies, television and fiction.

“American Dirt” is also highlighting factors that observers say have contributed a near shutout of contemporary Mexican and Mexican American voices from the top tier of the publishing publicity machine — the sorts of books that are guaranteed handsome sales by virtue of projection.

What went wrong?

As passages from the novel began emerging last month, Mexican and other Latino voicesbegan raising red flags. The author’s portrayal of Mexican culture was called outlandish, littered with stereotypes, stilted bilingualism and an awkward peppering of italicized Spanish phrases.

. . . .

“American Dirt” has also sparked an emotional discussion about how far the publishing industry still must go to more richly represent the scope and diversity of the Latino experience, said authors, literary agents and other industry figures in interviews last week. It’s a discussion focused on a complicated question: Who gets to frame others’ stories, and how?

. . . .

“American Dirt” has opened a window into the ways a few select books are brought to the public’s attention at a time when many authors have to hire their own publicists or arrange their own book readings and events. The roll-out to some took on the veneer of insult to Central American trauma and pain surrounding the treacherous passage through Mexico.

“They’re handling it like they handle a Marvel comics movie,” said Roberto Lovato, a Salvadoran American writer in San Francisco, who is finalizing an upcoming memoir. “But this industry will make you dance the minstrel salsa dance or the minstrel cumbia dance,” he added, in reference to the tenor of Latino-themed titles that are deemed palatable to wide audiences.

Indeed, the operation behind “American Dirt” made what many describe as cringe-worthy errors even before the book hit stores.

. . . .

More criticism followed among Latino writers, from the fringes to the center of the literary power establishment. Mexican author Valeria Luiselli, a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient, called the book the “worst possible” pick for Oprah’s nod. Francisco Goldman, the celebrated Guatemalan American novelist and journalist who divides his time between New York and Mexico City, said in an interview he was “shocked” by the “tone-deaf” publicity roll-out. “And these are supposedly sophisticated people.”

. . . .

Kate Horan, the director of the McAllen Public Library in Texas, posted portions of a letter she sent to the American Library Assn. and Oprah’s Book Club, declining to participate in a recorded “unboxing” event meant to push “American Dirt.” Horan said she felt compelled to turn down the offer from Oprah’s Book Club after seeing the reactions among Latinx writers she and her staff admire

. . . .

“When we took the book out, our hearts dropped,” Horan said in a telephone interview from Philadelphia, where the American Library Assn. is holding its mid-winter conference. “There followed many conversations with people in my community, and of course reading the book, I can only compare it to a telenovela. It’s so hyper stereotyped, that it’s harmful.” 

. . . .

By week’s end, as the U.S. commercial publishing industry was reeling from the expanding maelstrom over what its critics called a cartoonish melodrama about contemporary Mexico, Cummins still hit the road on a book tour. At an industry conference last week in Baltimore, she defended her right to write the novel from the perspective of the Mexican woman at the heart of her book.

Her character Lydia, 32, is middle-class, college-educated wife and mother who owns a bookshop in the resort city of Acapulco and survives a bloody massacre at a family quinceañera. With her journalist husband and other family members killed, the bookish protagonist and her 8-year-old son make a desperate run for the U.S. border, partly on the freight train La Bestia. Critics have mocked the narrative ploy as implausible for anyone of Lydia’s class stature, who can usually buy airline or bus tickets.

In Baltimore, Cummins said the migrants she met during her research for the novel “made me recognize my own cowardice” as she grappled with early failed drafts and doubts about authenticity. “When people are really putting their lives on the line, to be afraid of writing a book felt like cowardice,” she said, according to a report for the trade site Publishers Lunch.

The author, who did not respond to a request for comment for this article, identified as white as recently as 2016. On Wednesday, Cummins, whose grandmother was from Puerto Rico, said she was “a Latinx woman” while addressing the negative reactions to the book among Mexican, Central American and Chicano readers who have vigorously questioned her authorial integrity. “Not everyone needs to love my book,” she said.

On Friday, Cummins turned up her defense during an interview with NPR: “I am a white person. … I am a person who has a very privileged life. I am also Puerto Rican. … That fact has been attacked and sidelined by people who, frankly, are attempting to police my identity.”

But her critics weren’t buying it.

Gurba and others accused Cummins of profiting off Latina identity and transforming her own ethnicity over time to suit professional interests. “She became a person of color for the sake of financial convenience,” Gurba told The Times. “I call that POC, a person of convenience.”

Another set of earlier photos of Cummins with barbed-wire decorated fingernails brought even more criticism. “Every day I see something new that pertains to this, that it seems like it can’t get worse, and it gets worse,” said YA author Rivera.

Cummins’ somewhat apologetic author’s note also fanned the flames. In it, she says she wished someone “slightly browner” than her had written her book. She also argued that her effort seeks to counter depictions of immigrants as a “faceless brown mass.” Goldman, reached in New York, called the phrase an admission to the book’s “pornographic feedback of violence.”

“It’s just unbelievable,” he said Thursday. “How mediocre, third-rate and sleazy it is for a fiction writer to appropriate violence and suffering that way.”

In her note, he added, Cummins also writes, “we seldom think of [migrants] as human beings.”

. . . .

The controversy doesn’t look to go away soon. On Saturday, a group of writers including Lovato, Gurba and others said they sent a letter to Macmillan promising more “action” if the publishing house doesn’t respond more directly to their critiques. Industry players are abuzz with the topic, book agents said, as a string of “American Dirt”-inspired Twitter parodies by brown writers took flight, mocking the publishing industry’s devotion to tired Latino tropes involving gangs and grandmothers.

Eddie Schneider, vice president of JABerwocky Literary Agency, and who represents author Rivera, said Flatiron Books made a string of mistakes in rolling out “American Dirt” and isn’t correcting them. On Thursday, the publishing house defended the title in a statement to The Times.

“I’m baffled I haven’t seen any apology yet,” Schneider said. “Maybe not for the book, but certainly it seems like an apology is in order for the insensitivity of the roll-out.”

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Times and thanks to Karen and Elaine for the tip.

PG says that indie authors must admit that, for executing a really big book release, nobody can match the world-class talent and savvy that a major New York publisher brings to the task.

The 9 Best Apps to Create Fast Graphic Designs

PG recently posted some links to discussions about online graphic design programs for authors. Here are some other possibilities

From Makeuseof:

In today’s world where selfies rule and videos are king among content, there’s no doubt killer visuals are important. But adding visual elements to your written content can feel like a major time-suck, especially when you don’t have any design skills to lean on.

Here are the best apps to create fast graphic designs.

1. Klex

klex editing app

Want to create beautiful graphics at warp speed? Well, Klex has got you covered. This application is best used to customize visual assets with stock photos, vectors, and illustrations, and add in text, fonts, and backgrounds that meet your needs.

Add your own photography or use the stock photos they provide. What I like about Klex is this platform gives you some space to mess around with a whole host of effects. It’s also not hard to use.

Klex uses the same technology behind Gravit Designer, but the aim here is to give users something much easier to work with. The app includes templates for everything from properly sized social graphics to posters, cards, and blog graphics.

. . . .

5. Desygner

Desygner Templates

Desygner is one of the best web-based apps for graphic design. The process is much more smooth than you’ll find with some of the other apps, such as Pixlr, which can feel a little clunky at times.

Where Desygner shines is in its mobile functionality. It’s perfect for social media users designing on the go, as Desygner has virtually eliminated the frustrating dragging and pinching process you’ll find in other tools.

We like that there’s a web app and a mobile version, as this potentially can save you a lot of time if you’re sick of wasting time on graphics when that’s not your main job, or it feels like a chore.

But as far as features go, this app is similar to Canva, but not as robust. Meaning, you do miss out on some features, but you also get a simplified experience where you can rearrange items, add layers, text, and customize photos with ease.

Desygner is free but offers a $6.95 monthly plan for access to more templates and features.

6. Google Drawings

Google Drawing interface

Want to create a customized PNG image with a transparent background? All you need to get started is a Google account, and who doesn’t have one of those?

Now, Drawings isn’t the most sophisticated tool; you’re essentially working in a Google Doc. However, it’s quite convenient. All you need to do to get started is install the extension. From there you can edit photos and create little graphics just as easily as a Google Doc.

Still, adding little labels or designs on top of a photo or plain backdrop can be a great way to incorporate humor or helpful instructions into your visuals. And once you get the hang of the “drawing” aspect, you’ll realize just how incredibly intuitive this tool is.

Link to the rest at Makeuseof

OverDrive Reports Record Digital Borrowing in 2019

From Publishers Weekly:

Public libraries around the world generated a record level of digital content circulation in 2019, providing patrons access to more than 326 million e-books, audiobooks and digital magazines, a 20% increase over the previous year, according to a report by Rakuten OverDrive, a digital distribution vendor for libraries

According to the report, 73 public library systems in five countries each loaned over 1 million digital books over the past year, including eight systems that hit the million loans mark for the first time. Among the top digital library lending systems are the Toronto Public Library (6.6 million digital loans), Los Angeles Public Library (the top U.S. library with 5.9 million digital loans); and the National Library Board of Singapore (the top lender outside of North America with 4.2 million loans).

According to the OverDrive report, the increase in digital borrowing represents the “library’s role as a valued discovery channel” for publishers and authors. Nevertheless, the OverDrive report on digital lending comes in the wake of continuing concerns by publishers that digital borrowing may undermine book sales. These concerns have led to a continuing dispute between publishers and libraries over efforts by some publishers to restrict the ability of libraries to offer digital access to their titles.

According to the OverDrive data, the number of e-books borrowed rose 15% in the year to 211 million; digital audiobooks borrowed jumped 30%, to 114 million, and 59 million children’s/young adult checkouts took place, a gain of 27% over 2018.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG thought publishers’ concerns about consumers borrowing physical titles from the library instead of buying them at bookstores had been resolved a long time ago. If lending libraries and the consumer behavior they enable were dangerous or fatal to publishers and physical bookstores, such damage would have manifested itself long ago.

If it makes sense for publishers to sell physical books to libraries with the understanding that the library is going to lend the book and the publisher will receive no incremental income from such loans, nothing about ebooks should really change the underlying business considerations. With the specialized software the library uses to lend a copy of an ebook and delete it from the reader’s device at the end of the loan, the likelihood that ebooks lent through the library are going to be pirated is lower than those sold (licensed) through Amazon where no such automatic deletion function is built into the ebook management system (at least to PG’s knowledge).

Here’s an excerpt from the help file of Libby, a popular (the most popular?) lending software used in the United States:

Books are automatically returned to the library on their due date. When they’re returned, they’re also removed from your Loans and deleted from your device (if downloaded).

PG has noted before that on a scale of most to least sophisticated marketers and advertisers, traditional publishers are at the bottom, just below used car lots and payday lenders.

Why?

Free samples are a long-time staple of advertising and promotion campaigns for a variety of products.

Perhaps there are physical bookstores that do not allow visitors to leaf through and read parts of books as part of the shopping process, but PG is not aware of their existence. Such consumer behavior is sampling. Amazon permits the same behavior in its bookstore. No one expects that everyone who samples a product will purchase it.

If sampling was not a reliable method of increasing sales, PG expects retail establishments would end the practice.

If a reader borrows an ebook from a library by an author she hasn’t read before, from the reader’s perspective, that’s another form of sampling. (In this case, the publisher receives some compensation from the library for licensing the book in the first place.)

If this instance of book sampling is successful and the reader enjoys the book, then returns it to the library and looks for the next book in the series or another book by the same author and finds a two-month waiting list to borrow that next book, the reader is only a few clicks away from buying the next ebook by that author on Amazon and starting to read it in a couple of minutes. The reader may even purchase a printed version of the book she has borrowed and enjoyed for her own physical library, sign up for the author’s and/or publisher’s email list, etc.

Discovering a great new author and buying other books written by that author is a far more frictionless process with ebooks than it is with physical books. Going to a physical bookstore to buy that book requires transporting oneself to that store, hoping the store stocks the book, etc., etc. Buying a physical copy of the book from Amazon involves a wait of at least one or two days.

The incremental cost of goods for the publisher in creating, storing, transporting, etc., a copy of the second ebook is probably zero. The same costs for a physical book are definitely more than zero.

A sophisticated seller would be overjoyed to sell products with no incremental costs of producing and transporting those products instead of dealing with the costs and friction involved in selling physical products. Bill Gates, Microsoft and a lot of other people and business organizations have become extremely wealthy from selling organized collections of electrons.

Harrogate stands by author exclusion clause

From The Bookseller:

Harrogate International Festivals has stood by its author exclusion clause, saying the exclusivity option only applies to 5% of its authors.

On Friday, The Bookseller reported that Harrogate’s special guest authors are required to appear exclusively at Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival and not as a special guest at other crime fiction festivals taking place in the same calendar year. The requirement was branded “predatory” by crime fiction event CrimeFest.

Now, Harrogate has clarified its stance saying: “While 95% of authors who take part in the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Festival are not subject to an exclusivity option, for our special guests we make this request at invitation stage to ensure that our offering for both authors and visitors is protected, and this is something which is carefully discussed and considered on an individual basis in conjunction with each author. As a not-for-profit arts charity, rather than a convention or commercial venture, Harrogate International Festivals relies heavily on ticket sales to deliver our year-round literacy development programmes, and our curated offering therefore must be as distinctive as possible, ensuring authors and guests alike enjoy the best possible experience.”

The statement added Harrogate’s policy is to “offer authors fees and accommodation, and to support smaller publishers in taking part—something which some other events do not provide”.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

The Best Book Covers of 2019

From BookRiot:

It’s the season of best of lists, and with the bonus of this being the end of a decade, we’re being treated to double the number of best of lists this year. What shouldn’t be overlooked among those lists are the incredible book covers that graced shelves this year. Works of art in and of themselves, it’s an outdated belief that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. The reality is we do and that we should. In honor of that, let’s take a peek at the best book covers of 2019.

 

 

The Ash Family by Molly Dektar

Cover design and illustration by Kimberly Glyder.

This is one of those covers of which I would happily buy a print and hang on my wall in the center of the living room. The shades of blue and orange contrast against each other beautifully. That stark contrast gives off the feeling of turmoil amidst the calm of the forest—imagery that aligns with life in the Ash Family commune.

 

 

 

 

. . . .

 

 

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Cover Art by Noah Saterstrom.

I saw Patchett speak in Chicago shortly after her new novel’s release. She said: “Book jackets are like your birthday.” A week before, you insist you don’t know what you want to a friend and say you don’t want anything, “and when that person gives you nothing, and you go to bed on your birthday hurt and bitter, it’s only your own fault.” So she fought for her version of the cover. She didn’t want a house—she wanted that to exist in the reader’s imagination—but she thought it would be wonderful to have it feature the portrait of 9-year-old protagonist Maeve, an object that is important within the novel. Her first choice for artist, Noah Saterstrom, delivered the art that would become this gorgeous, richly colored cover.

 

. . . .

 

Medieval Bodies by Jack Hartnell

Cover Design by Peter Dyer.

I found this in a book fair. It was the only copy in show and it caught my eye instantly. It is printed in a silky paperback, with lots of different textures and gold foiling. Plus it is an amazing piece that incorporates both amazing graphic design and medieval art work.

(PG note: Evidently somebody with influence didn’t like the original cover. Here’s a link to the more predictable current cover he found on Amazon.)

 

 

 

Link to the rest, including lots more covers, at BookRiot

PG was struck by the note that Ann Patchett had to fight for her preference for a cover. Ms. Patchett has made a great deal of money for her publisher(s) and PG expects she would be well-connected with the thoughts and feelings of her readers.

PG suspects that an author who hadn’t sold as many books might well have been less successful in a fight for a good cover. It’s not difficult to find a prolific traditionally-published author who has one (or more than one) horror story about being saddled with a terrible cover that doesn’t do anything useful to sell the book.

Absent a quite unusual clause in a traditional publishing contract, the author has no say about what her/his cover looks like.

Indie authors, on the other hand, hire their cover artist, share their ideas and collaborate with the artist to develop a cover the author really likes.

Do all author have great tastes where covers are concerned? Of course not. Do all underpaid editors at traditional publishers (who are almost always dealing with a limited production budget) have greate tastes where covers are concerned? Ditto. If the editors are familiar with the applicable genre (not always the case), they may be more concerned with a cover that fits in rather than stands out on the shelf or Amazon product page.

One additional point PG will make is that it is very, very difficult to persuade a typical publisher to pay for a cover refresh for a book once it has been published. The experience of many authors who are able to wrangle back their rights to a traditionally-published book is that their new cover choices for the indie version can have a very beneficial effect on sales.

Promote Your Book with Local Collaborations

From The Book Designer:

I often advise authors to start their book marketing locally. Local “gatekeepers” – retailers, librarians, and reporters – will nearly always be more open and friendly to a new author with a great book than their counterparts in distant locations will be.

This approach applies to distribution and publicity opportunities, of course, but what if you used your local know-how to collaborate with a wider range of local businesses?

. . . .

When a local physician spoke about the health benefits of chocolate at the grand opening of a candy shop near me, I was disappointed that he wasn’t an author. If he had written a book about that topic – or even about healthy eating in general – opening day chocoholics would have been eating out of his hand and buying his book.

Think about the potential for partnering with a range of local retailers or other business owners in a way that benefits all parties. What can you do that will attract news media attention – publicity – along with increased traffic for the business and book sales for you?

Here are just a few ideas to show you how this could work:

  • A young adult author can talk about writing at a tutoring center.
  • The author of a financial planning book can present to bank customers.
  • A romance novelist can speak at the grand opening of a lingerie store.
  • A parenting book author can offer toddler parenting tips to parents touring a new daycare center.
  • The author of a local historical novel can host a themed dinner at a landmark restaurant.

. . . .

Naturally, some authors are high-profile enough locally that they receive invitations to speak at these types of gatherings without making any effort. Most of us, though, have to look for or create those opportunities.

This requires getting plugged in locally so you know what’s going on and what’s coming up. There are a number of ways to do that:

  • Like and follow Facebook pages for businesses that reach your book’s target audience.
  • Subscribe to the mailing lists of businesses that reach your book’s target audience.
  • Monitor retail storefronts for remodeling and the “coming soon” signs that go along with that activity.
  • Be an active member of your Chamber of Commerce.
  • Participate in business membership groups such as Rotary and the National Association of Women Business Owners.
  • Read the local daily and weekly newspapers for relevant announcements.
  • Follow local leaders and elected officials on Twitter for advance information.

Link to the rest at The Book Designer

With no disrespect to the author of the OP or Book Designer Joel, the OP reminded PG of the sort of busywork that low-level operatives at publishers used to suggest to authors because it cost the publisher nothing and might generate a small payoff for the publisher. The author’s time cost nothing.

PG is happy to be corrected if he misperceives the value of this type of activity for an indie author, but the idea that there is a broad general market for all but a handful of books is hearkening back to a much earlier era when the US (and perhaps many other countries) were more homogeneous in their tastes and media consumption than they are today.

Online promotion and interaction with the particular slice of the reading world that is interested in what the author is writing about seems a much more useful activity than speaking at the local Rotary Club.

But PG could be wrong.

How Google Interferes With Its Search Algorithms and Changes Your Results

From The Wall Street Journal:

Every minute, an estimated 3.8 million queries are typed into Google, prompting its algorithms to spit out results for hotel rates or breast-cancer treatments or the latest news about President Trump.

They are arguably the most powerful lines of computer code in the global economy, controlling how much of the world accesses information found on the internet, and the starting point for billions of dollars of commerce.

Twenty years ago, Google founders began building a goliath on the premise that its search algorithms could do a better job combing the web for useful information than humans. Google executives have said repeatedly—in private meetings with outside groups and in congressional testimony—that the algorithms are objective and essentially autonomous, unsullied by human biases or business considerations.

The company states in a Google blog, “We do not use human curation to collect or arrange the results on a page.” It says it can’t divulge details about how the algorithms work because the company is involved in a long-running and high-stakes battle with those who want to profit by gaming the system.

But that message often clashes with what happens behind the scenes. Over time, Google has increasingly re-engineered and interfered with search results to a far greater degree than the company and its executives have acknowledged, a Wall Street Journal investigation has found.

Those actions often come in response to pressure from businesses, outside interest groups and governments around the world. They have increased sharply since the 2016 election and the rise of online misinformation, the Journal found.

Google’s evolving approach marks a shift from its founding philosophy of “organizing the world’s information,” to one that is far more active in deciding how that information should appear.

More than 100 interviews and the Journal’s own testing of Google’s search results reveal:

• Google made algorithmic changes to its search results that favor big businesses over smaller ones, and in at least one case made changes on behalf of a major advertiser, eBay Inc., contrary to its public position that it never takes that type of action. The company also boosts some major websites, such as Amazon.com Inc. and Facebook Inc., according to people familiar with the matter.

• Google engineers regularly make behind-the-scenes adjustments to other information the company is increasingly layering on top of its basic search results. These features include auto-complete suggestions, boxes called “knowledge panels” and “featured snippets,” and news results, which aren’t subject to the same company policies limiting what engineers can remove or change.

• Despite publicly denying doing so, Google keeps blacklists to remove certain sites or prevent others from surfacing in certain types of results. These moves are separate from those that block sites as required by U.S. or foreign law, such as those featuring child abuse or with copyright infringement, and from changes designed to demote spam sites, which attempt to game the system to appear higher in results.

• In auto-complete, the feature that predicts search terms as the user types a query, Google’s engineers have created algorithms and blacklists to weed out more-incendiary suggestions for controversial subjects, such as abortion or immigration, in effect filtering out inflammatory results on high-profile topics.

• Google employees and executives, including co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have disagreed on how much to intervene on search results and to what extent. Employees can push for revisions in specific search results, including on topics such as vaccinations and autism.

• To evaluate its search results, Google employs thousands of low-paid contractors whose purpose the company says is to assess the quality of the algorithms’ rankings. Even so, contractors said Google gave feedback to these workers to convey what it considered to be the correct ranking of results, and they revised their assessments accordingly, according to contractors interviewed by the Journal. The contractors’ collective evaluations are then used to adjust algorithms.

. . . .

The Journal’s findings undercut one of Google’s core defenses against global regulators worried about how it wields its immense power—that the company doesn’t exert editorial control over what it shows users. Regulators’ areas of concern include anticompetitive practices, political bias and online misinformation.

Far from being autonomous computer programs oblivious to outside pressure, Google’s algorithms are subject to regular tinkering from executives and engineers who are trying to deliver relevant search results, while also pleasing a wide variety of powerful interests and driving its parent company’s more than $30 billion in annual profit.

. . . .

Google made more than 3,200 changes to its algorithms in 2018, up from more than 2,400 in 2017 and from about 500 in 2010, according to Google and a person familiar with the matter.

. . . .

As part of its examination, the Journal tested Google’s search results over several weeks this summer and compared them with results from two competing search engines, Microsoft Corp. ’s Bing and DuckDuckGo, a privacy-focused company that builds its results from syndicated feeds from other companies, including Verizon Communications Inc. ’s Yahoo search engine.

The testing showed wide discrepancies in how Google handled auto-complete queries and some of what Google calls organic search results—the list of websites that Google says are algorithmically sorted by relevance in response to a user’s query.

. . . .

The Journal tested the auto-complete feature, which Google says draws from its vast database of search information to predict what a user intends to type, as well as data such as a user’s location and search history. The testing showed the extent to which Google doesn’t offer certain suggestions compared with other search engines.

Typing “Joe Biden is” or “Donald Trump is” in auto-complete, Google offered predicted language that was more innocuous than the other search engines. Similar differences were shown for other presidential candidates tested by the Journal.

The Journal also tested several search terms in auto-complete such as “immigrants are” and “abortion is.” Google’s predicted searches were less inflammatory than those of the other engines.

. . . .

One Google search executive described the problem of defining misinformation as incredibly hard, and said the company didn’t want to go down the path of figuring it out.

Around the time Google started addressing issues such as misinformation, it started fielding even more complaints, to the point where human interference became more routine, according to people familiar with the matter, putting it in the position of arbitrating some of society’s most complicated issues. Some changes to search results might be considered reasonable—boosting trusted websites like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, for example—but Google has made little disclosure about when changes are made, or why.

Businesses, lawmakers and advertisers are worried about fairness and competition within the markets where Google is a leading player, and as a result its operations are coming under heavy scrutiny.

The U.S. Justice Department earlier this year opened an antitrust probe, in which Google’s search policies and practices are expected to be areas of focus.

. . . .

In one change hotly contested within Google, engineers opted to tilt results to favor prominent businesses over smaller ones, based on the argument that customers were more likely to get what they wanted at larger outlets. One effect of the change was a boost to Amazon’s products, even if the items had been discontinued, according to people familiar with the matter.

The issue came up repeatedly over the years at meetings in which Google search executives discuss algorithm changes. Each time, they chose not to reverse the change, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Google engineers said it is widely acknowledged within the company that search is a zero-sum game: A change that helps lift one result inevitably pushes down another, often with considerable impact on the businesses involved.

. . . .

Many of the changes within Google have coincided with its gradual evolution from a company with an engineering-focused, almost academic culture into an advertising behemoth and one of the most profitable companies in the world. Advertising revenue—which includes ads on search as well as on other products such as maps and YouTube—was $116.3 billion last year.

Some very big advertisers received direct advice on how to improve their organic search results, a perk not available to businesses with no contacts at Google, according to people familiar with the matter. In some cases, that help included sending in search engineers to explain a problem, they said.

“If they have an [algorithm] update, our teams may get on the phone with them and they will go through it,” said Jeremy Cornfeldt, the chief executive of the Americas of Dentsu Inc.’s iProspect, which Mr. Cornfeldt said is one of Google’s largest advertising agency clients.

. . . .

One former executive at a Fortune 500 company that received such advice said Google frequently adjusts how it crawls the web and ranks pages to deal with specific big websites.

. . . .

“There’s this idea that the search algorithm is all neutral and goes out and combs the web and comes back and shows what it found, and that’s total BS,” the former executive said. “Google deals with special cases all the time.”

. . . .

Online marketplace eBay had long relied on Google for as much as a third of its internet traffic. In 2014, traffic suddenly plummeted—contributing to a $200 million hit in its revenue guidance for that year.

Google told the company it had made a decision to lower the ranking of a large number of eBay pages that were a big source of traffic.

. . . .

Companies without eBay’s clout had different experiences.

Dan Baxter can remember the exact moment his website, DealCatcher, was caught in a Google algorithm change. It was 6 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 17. Mr. Baxter, who founded the Wilmington, Del., coupon website 20 years ago, got a call from one of his 12 employees the next morning.

“Have you looked at our traffic?” the worker asked, frantically, Mr. Baxter recalled. It was suddenly down 93% for no apparent reason. That Saturday, DealCatcher saw about 31,000 visitors from Google. Now it was posting about 2,400. It had disappeared almost entirely on Google search.

Mr. Baxter said he didn’t know whom to contact at Google, so he hired a consultant to help him identify what might have happened. The expert reached out directly to a contact at Google but never heard back. Mr. Baxter tried posting to a YouTube forum hosted by a Google “webmaster” to ask if it might have been a technical problem, but the webmaster seemed to shoot down that idea.

One month to the day after his traffic disappeared, it inexplicably came back, and he still doesn’t know why.

“You’re kind of just left in the dark, and that’s the scary part of the whole thing,” said Mr. Baxter.

. . . .

Google’s Ms. Levin said “extreme transparency has historically proven to empower bad actors in a way that hurts our users and website owners who play by the rules.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

A Comprehensive Guide to a Content Audit

From ReadWrite:

In content marketing, it is always the 80/20 rule. 20% of content brings 80% results. This holds water for every content marketing audit I have done. A handful of articles pull the maximum number of clicks and conversions. When we talk about content marketing, the first thing should be to create and distribute content that often we don’t reuse.

According to a study, most content marketers don’t feel the need to audit, which is strange as it helps improve content marketing strategy.

What is a Content Audit?

It is a process of systematically reviewing all the content on your website. The process allows you to pay special attention to the optimization efforts and see whether you meet your business objectives or not.

If performed adequately, you can find gaps in your content which can be fulfilled to serve your target audience better. Finding your target audience will not only step up your content game but will also help mature your digital strategy following the dynamic industrial trends.

. . . .

Before creating content, you must ask yourself who your audience is? What is your audience looking for? How can you solve their problems? All these questions will help you to write a clear and crisp copy that is as relevant to your audience as possible.

Once you’re done, you’ll be all set to write content copy that can move mountains. Every content marketer has their way of creating and publishing high-quality content, but there are a few things you must ponder before creating a writing piece. The first one is the audience.

Your content should resonate with your audience, so they keep on coming back to you. Seek feedback from your current customers through social media pages, emails, and surveys.

. . . .

Identify where your SEO stands:

  • Identify your high ranking web pages and keep them aside from the low ranking ones. Take the help of Google spreadsheets or any other spreadsheet while doing so.
  • Understand what content you need to remove or update on your website.
  • Check for backlinking and interlinking.

Link to the rest at ReadWrite