How Google Interferes With Its Search Algorithms and Changes Your Results

16 November 2019

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 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

15 November 2019

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

Finding and Using Competing Book Titles in Your Book Marketing

10 November 2019

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog:

As an author you’ve probably been told to look at competing titles through multiple stages of your journey from writing, to publishing, to book promotion.

Competing book titles can be lucrative references for cover design, book length, and choosing your categories and keywords. They’re also helpful in deciding how to price your book and determining the best strategies for marketing to potential buyers in your genre or topic, and more!

. . . .

Keyword research will show you who else is showing up on Amazon for the keywords you’d like to be ranking for. This is beneficial not only because you’ll start developing a list of titles, but it will also clue you in if you’re not on the right path with your keywords, or sometimes your branding. But we can fix that!

For example, what if a keyword search brings up a bunch of books that make you say, “My reader wouldn’t be interested in these!” That’s a sign you might be using the wrong keywords.

. . . .

Maybe your keywords are on track but the books coming up just don’t look like the kinds of books you had in mind. Then perhaps you need to do some cover comparisons once you have a solid list of competing titles to work with. It may mean you should consider tweaking the branding of your covers to align with your readers’ expectations for your genre or topic.

. . . .

Similar to keyword research, category research is just another layer of ensuring you’re aligned with your reader market’s expectations.

Get on Amazon and I recommend the Kindle search because there are so many more categories to choose from. That way you can get really niche with your comparisons. Start digging into categories you’d like to rank in. Take notes of which books come up along the way, and go as far as you can down the rabbit hole of refine by terms that fit your book because this is how you find the competing book titles that are most like yours.

. . . .

The “also bought items” section on your book page on Amazon is a great place to look for competing book titles.  It will give you insight into buyer behavior. Be prepared for some surprises here. Not every book will be a direct competitor of yours. But it’s a good reminder than a lot of readers, especially in fiction, will bounce between different subgenres.

. . . .

Once you have a solid list of competing book titles, be sure you’re not only reading as many of the books as you have time for. Definitely read the reviews for the books as well.

Reviews tell you what readers like, what they don’t like, what stood out as special, what they found distracting or too complex. They’re another great tool for gathering insight into how to compete in your genre or topic.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog

Public Speaking

31 October 2019

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

I never meant to become a public speaker, although I did train for it. I was in competitive forensics (public speaking) in 8th and 9th grade, although I transferred over the debate in high school. Even though I went to State both years (once with a poem I wrote myself), I didn’t like memorizing and declaiming. I was much more comfortable with debate—learning a topic and arguing it in front of judges.

. . . .

I learned how to speak in front of groups then because speaking in front of groups terrified me. That tends to be my M.O. If something frightens me, I confront it. If it’s a “silly” fear, like public speaking, I learn how to overcome it—enough.

(I also had a career in radio, but it doesn’t translate: what terrified me was being seen, not the speaking part.)

. . . .

One other side effect of being a “famous” author was attending a lot of banquets, many of which had speakers. I had to go to every major event in science fiction when I was the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which gave me a heck of a speech-survival instinct (still!). Back then, I could flee a room faster than anyone except Jack Williamson and Robert Silverberg at the very whiff of a bad speaker. (Oh, dear, I would say to my seatmates, I need to hit the restroom. And then I would vanish…until the speaker was done. You see, it’s not polite to return to your seat while a speech is in progress…)

I’ve given speaking a lot more thought than I usually admit. Here’s what I do.

  • I make sure I know the topic I’m asked to talk about. (You’d be surprised how many folks don’t.)
  • I make sure I’m as entertaining as I can be. Or as shocking as I can be. (Sometimes I want writers in the audience to think about what I’m discussing.)
  • I leave time for questions, because that’s often the best part of a presentation. People ask questions about things I’ve never thought of. If I don’t know the answer, I say so. If I do, I pontificate a bit. And often, I end up thinking about that topic for a while thereafter. That’s one reason why I started doing Ask Kris Anything, because I can’t travel, and I miss the questions.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

PG has also done a lot of public speaking. One of the results is that he has developed a love/hate relationship with Powerpoint.

When Powerpoint is good, it is very, very good, but when it is bad, it is horrid.

PG has a tendency to push Powerpoint toward its theoretical maximum. When he has been dealing only with Powerpoint, it generally manages not to embarrass PG by doing something different during the presentation than it was doing while PG was practicing with it in his hotel room.

PG’s worst Powerpoint disasters have occurred when he has used third-party programs or programettes to do things Powerpoint can’t do on its own. On those occasions, what looked wonderful and entertaining in his hotel room has sometimes crashed and burned when a couple of hundred people were watching it on a large screen. A general rule is that a computer takes ten times as long to reboot when other people are watching than it does when PG is the only viewer.

Yes, there are many more boring and terrible Powerpoint presentations than there are good ones. However, there are many more boring and terrible speeches without Powerpoint than there are good ones as well.

Being an expert on a topic and being able to speak in a fluent and interesting manner about that topic in front of lots of people are two different things.

For some people, the speaking part seems to come naturally, but speaking fluently is often the result of a lot of practice and spending time thinking about how the speaker’s knowledge can be communicated in an interesting fashion to an audience. If attending the presentation is like reading the book, the speaker has not succeeded.

Here are a few of PG’s don’ts for making a presentation:

  1. Don’t read your speech.
  2. Don’t avoid looking at your audience – look at individual members of the audience just as you would if you were standing or sitting in a group with them having a discussion. Human beings respond to eye contact.
  3. Don’t read your Powerpoint. The Powerpoint is for the big picture, to help provide structure and continuity for your presentation. No tiny type in your Powerpoint, either.
  4. Don’t use one of the default presentation themes that come with Powerpoint. If they don’t seem boring to you in and of themselves, they are boring for at least some members of the audience who have seen those same themes before. If you spend a little time searching online, you can find lots of free and paid themes that are better than Microsoft’s and that your audience hasn’t seen before.
  5. You don’t have to use Powerpoint. Google Slides can also provide a good presentation platform if you don’t want to pay for Powerpoint. The last time PG dug deep into Google Slides, it didn’t have as many bells and whistles as Powerpoint does, but there’s no reason you can’t prepare a creative and effective presentation with Google Slides. As with Powerpoint, look for a Google Slides theme that at least some members of the audience haven’t seen lots of times before.
  6. You don’t have to run a presentation from your laptop computer. PG can’t speak for Android, but your iPhone and your iPad can provide a platform for presenting with Powerpoint. The first step is installing a Powerpoint app, which you can find online. You will want to check your presentation thoroughly using your iPhone or iPad before showing it to others. In PG’s experience, iPhone/iPad presentations are sometimes a bit different than the same one on his laptop. Fancy transitions between slides don’t always work right. He hasn’t had any similar problems with Google Slides on a smaller device, however. Make sure your iPhone/iPad has a good battery that’s charged up and bring your plugin charger just in case.
  7. Don’t trust hotel internet connections. If you have anything in your presentation that relies on a good internet connection, have a Plan B if the connection is slow or nonexistent. Most hotels have improved their internet access greatly from the net dark ages many years ago, but a presentation that works well with a wireless signal in one room in the conference center may not work as well in a different room in the conference center. Smart presenters check the internet speed in the room where they are going to present on the day or night before their formal presentations to make certain the internet connection works well. (Even doing that is not a guarantee the internet experience will be the same the next day when 500 audience members are on the same internet connection you’re trying to use, however.) If you don’t have a reliable internet connection where you are going to present, or you’re not sure and want a Plan B, you can take screen shots of your browser and drop those into your Powerpoint to create a faux online experience. You can even click on the appropriate buttons or icons in the screenshots to move forward to the next screen shot for a more believable faux experience.
  8. You don’t need a Powerpoint to make a good presentation. People have come to see and hear you, not your Powerpoint. If all else fails, be prepared to present your thoughts effectively without a big screen. PG always has a printed version of his Powerpoint that he can use to present if the technical/internet gods are displeased with him. And don’t act like the lack of your Powerpoint is a disaster that has ruined everything. Be chipper and upbeat. Generally, the audience wants you to succeed and will appreciate your pluck for forging ahead without your electronic crutch.

The 30 Scariest Author Website Mistakes And How To Fix Them

20 October 2019

From Bad Redhead Media:

I recently had the pleasure of taking part in the Wednesday evening #BookMarketingChat hosted by BadRedhead Media. Our topic was easy updates to refresh your author website. To prepare for the chat, I visited the sites of several writers, including those who have left comments here in the past. I figured I would snoop around and find out what kind of slips the average writer is making with this vital part of their online platform.

My verdict? As a community, we need to pull our socks up if we want to show our readers we value their website visits and respect their time. I saw too many websites that were dated in design, neglected in content, or both.

According to a Stanford University study, 75% of users admit to making judgments about a company’s credibility based on their website design. Readers will lose trust in your professionalism and the quality of your work if you can’t present a reasonably spiffy website to the world.

Since it’s October and Halloween is fast approaching, here are the 30 website mistakes I consider the scariest, in terms of turning your reader off. I’ll start with the ones I saw on multiple websites that are easiest to fix.

Dated items, which show how long you’ve neglected your website. For example:

  1. Blog post dates
  2. A book page which announces a title is “Coming Spring 2018”
  3. An events page with nothing forthcoming or recent
  4. Copyright year not current

. . . .

 Links to social media accounts that you no longer use. Watch out in particular for an icon advertising Google Plus, which shut down 6 months ago!

. . . .

Cluttered sidebars. Sidebars are a magnet for outdated distractions, for example: tag clouds, tiny photos of your followers, or badges for everywhere you’ve ever been featured. A little social proof is important, but too much looks desperate.

. . . .

No “About” page, and/or no contact information. Even if you’re writing with a pen name, you should still give visitors some context to connect with. Your readers want to get to know you, not just your work.

. . . .

Unless you’re using a free service, you don’t have to declare which theme you’re using, or that you’re powered by WordPress. Professionally designed websites don’t do this, so you needn’t either.

Link to the rest at Bad Redhead Media


How to Use MailerLite (So You Can Dump MailChimp)

20 October 2019

From Social Media Just for Writers:

Yep, I gave the boot to MailChimp and am a happy MailerLite customer.

In the past I raved about MailChimp. I wrote blog posts about it. I even recommended it to clients.

 But over the years, I liked it less and less. Their customer services degraded as their prices climbed. 

 A terrible combination.

. . . .

MailerLite’s customer service is superb. Whereas before, I would wait four days for an email response from MailChimp’s tech support, with MailerLite, it’s just a few hours.

 Learning MailerLite’s system took a bit of time, but their tech support made it a smooth transition.

 And it’s cheaper than MailChimp while offering the same services.

 I’m paying $30/month for MailerLite (MailChimp was $75/month) because I want extra features. You can use it for free if you’d like to.

. . . .

Let’s face it; email marketing is more effective than social media marketing. 

 And consider this fact: if Instagram or Facebook disappeared or changed into a format you couldn’t make sense of, what would you do?

 All those people you were connecting with would be gone. 

 Consider email marketing as an insurance policy and an excellent way to connect with your readers.

Link to the rest at Social Media Just for Writers

9 Most Frequent Mistakes in Author Press Releases

20 October 2019

From the Nonfiction Authors Association:

When an author snail-mails me a new book, whether or not I’ve asked for it, I page through it to see if I can find a press release that will help me decide if I want to read it.

Nine times out of 10, the release is missing.

But if I find one and it includes seven tips from your nonfiction topic that interests me, or tells me about the wild adventure thriller your novel is going to take me on, chances are good I’ll set it aside to read later.

Seldom does a press release perform that important duty.

Too often, author press releases land with a thud. They’re boring. They lack the important details that explain what the book is about. Almost always, the author or publicist fails to include information that helps make the author make money aside from selling the book.

. . . .

Mistake #1:
Not taking advantage of the many opportunities to write releases.

Your book launch is just one of many events that warrant a press release. Others include book awards you’ve won, speaking engagements and book signings, a second edition of your book, getting a celebrity endorsement, convincing a celebrity or influencer to write the foreword to your book, library appearances and classes you’re teaching.

. . . .

Mistake #2:
Cutesy headlines that offer no clue what the release and book are about.

The writer relies on a pun or bad alliteration to be clever but only confuses the reader. A confused reader does one thing. Leaves.

Don’t worry about writing headlines that are too long. One of the new rules of today’s press releases is that we can bypass the media gatekeepers and write for consumers, not only journalists.

. . . .

Mistake #7:
No links to high-resolution photos of the book cover and the author.

Magazine editors are practically begging for high-resolution (300 dpi) images of book covers. Editors have told me that they’d love to feature books in their “New Products” section but can’t if they don’t have an image that will reproduce well. Again, a missed opportunity!

Link to the rest at the Nonfiction Authors Association

Facebook has begun hiding likes (in Australia)

1 October 2019

From C/Net:

Facebook began hiding likes on Friday, Sept. 27, making the number of reactions, views and likes visible only to a post’s author. The test kicked off in Australia, the social media giant confirmed last week, and includes ads.

“We are running a limited test where like, reaction and video view counts are made private across Facebook,” a Facebook spokesperson told CNET in an emailed statement on Sept. 26.

. . . .

As of Sept. 30, Facebook said it is still expanding the experiment to more people in Australia, but it should be out to the majority of people in the country within the next day or two.

The social network indicated earlier in September that it might experiment with hiding likes, after testing the approach on Facebook-owned Instagram this year. In August, Facebook said the Instagram test was meant to “remove the pressure of how many likes a post will receive” on Instagram, and that Facebook was “excited by the early test results.”

Link to the rest at C/Net

PG would be interested in comments from serious Facebook users about whether this is a good/bad/whatever idea for authors who use FB as an important part of their promotional efforts.

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