The scariest word for marketers these days is “algorithm.” It’s the “invisible hand” of digital content. It’s unknown and unknowable. Its influence on your company is the most powerful arbiter of your success or failure. But does it have to be?
The first algorithm that achieved notoriety on the Internet was Google PageRank. PageRank prioritized web pages that would appear in search results. And so birthed the cottage industry of Search Engine Optimization experts. Now SEO is dead. Why? Google’s algorithms got so good they could no longer be gamed (or more politely, “optimized”). The only thing that works for search relevance is being engaging, genuine and to write lots of great content. This is more true than ever after the latest algorithm update.
When Facebook launched, it had no algorithm, just a running feed in chronological order. Now we see only what Facebook’s algorithms want us to see. And Twitter? Well, like Facebook, it was an algorithm-free home for news and social updates. Not anymore.
Your company, your online presence, and your digital marketing’s success will live or die based on your adherence to an algorithm—or at least that’s what the cottage industry of SEO and media experts want to scare you into believing. No one really knows what these algorithms are or what they do—except for the companies creating them. The rest of us, experts included, trade on the occasional table scraps of information those companies give us. And once we’ve devoured those, we speculate.
How did we get here?
“Yesterday’s Fried Chicken Recipe is Today’s PageRank Algorithm”
Before the Internet, corporate trade secrets typically involved innocuous patents like Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken recipe (11 secret herbs and spices!) or the secret ingredients in Coca-Cola (COCAINE!).
How quickly times change.
Yesterday’s fried chicken recipe is today’s Google PageRank algorithm. And whether it’s KFC or Google search, you have no idea how they make their end product, but you can’t stop going back for more. The fate of entire companies hangs on whether or not they show up on the first page of Google search results. In a very real sense, it’s like you don’t have a web presence at all if you’re on the second or third page — that’s the power of PageRank.
And the hardest part for marketers about this enormous power is how unpredictable it can be. Consider that almost every content marketing article listed on this page could easily be rendered moot the minute Google makes any significant changes to its PageRank algorithm. One line of code on one algorithm could turn an industry on its head or crush a business.
Algorithms Affect Many. But Concentrate Power for Few.
Algorithms can be cruel and unpredictable, but their profound impact on our digitized world is here to stay. They influence user experience and engagement, business marketing strategies, and the overall dissemination of digital information — which is, at this point, essentially everything.
So what happens when a company motivated primarily by profit tries to create “a better, more engaging experience” for users — while also promoting its own financial interests?
No one knows, exactly, because despite their enormous influence, these algorithms are proprietary trade secrets.
And that ambiguity begs some scary questions. John Naughton in The Guardian considers the power of Google’s PageRank: “On the one hand, the algorithm is a closely guarded commercial secret – for obvious reasons: if it weren’t, then the search engine optimisers would have a field day and all search results would be suspect. On the other hand, because it’s secret, we can’t be sure that Google isn’t skewing results to favour its own commercial interests, as some people allege.”
Chris Steiner, author of Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World, asserts that we’re “already halfway towards a world where algorithms run nearly everything. As their power intensifies, wealth will concentrate towards them. They will ensure the 1%-99% divide gets larger. If you’re not part of the class attached to algorithms, then you will struggle.”
Though he’s specifically referring to Wall Street here, algorithms allow the same concentration of industry influence in the tech world. The few entities that own the most powerful algorithms have control over enormous swaths of digital real estate — and this concentration can only increase.
There is pushback
As a society living in an era of “big data,” we understand that the algorithms companies use to separate the signal from the noise do have some benefits for the consumer. However, algorithms are also becoming the mathematical skirt these companies hide behind when their customers scrutinize how they use that data in their business practices.
This past June, during Facebook’s summer of discontent, the company manipulated the news feeds of 700,000 users by removing content associated with either positive or negative emotions. In the name of research, Facebook wanted to understand how these filters impacted users’ emotions and subsequent online activity. The outraged backlash over the invasiveness of this one experiment underscores the considerable influence Facebook and its algorithms wield — but also the considerable discomfort users feel about having their online experience be so nakedly manipulated.
And one of the most controversial factors changing Facebook’s news feed involves the increasing propagation of paid advertising. Facebook has to carefully balance the distribution of a friend’s status update with an ad: “Get 50% off all full language sets” (an actual ad I transposed after going to my Facebook news feed. Thanks Rosetta Stone!). This balancing act has hit a few snags as businesses like ours started to see a significant drop off in organic reach. You can read about the demise of our organic reach here. And guess what, it’s gotten worse. Facebook has plans to further diminish the reach of small businesses’ organic reach if they don’t pay to play.
Though it’s unlikely that Facebook is going to backtrack on any of this to placate a few angry users, it’s clear that most digital citizens would rather not cede control of their online experience to algorithms. They’re still hungry for real content that they have a chance of discovering organically — even though by now, “organic” may not mean much of anything.
Where Do Content Marketers Go From Here?
So how do we negotiate this brave new world of digital media run by emotionless algorithms that seem to change week to week without warning? Where does the “optimization” rat race end?
The best thing any company can do to improve their online presence is still to create great content. That’s not because the algorithms tell us so, it’s because that’s what people want. It’s what people have always wanted. With or without an algorithm, people are suckers for relatable, engaging content. They’ll find you if you give them a reason to and a way to.
As an inbound content marketer, I’m particularly interested in content’s role in business and the impact algorithms have on our clients and our business. There are no guarantees that what worked today will work tomorrow in your marketing (and in life, I guess). For companies, it’s all about creating easy channels for your fans, customers, and users to maintain a dialogue with your brand. If your brand vanished from the search engines and social media sites tomorrow due to an algorithm change, would you still have a way to get your content out?
If Google makes another change to its algorithm (which isn’t a questions of “if”, but “when”) and you’ve been condemned to the second page of Google search results (OH, THE HUMANITY!), you’d better make sure there are other ways fans and potential customers can find you. Great content will transcend an algorithm. If you’re able to capture consumers’ imagination and interest, they’ll come back (directly, instead of via Google, Facebook, or Twitter) and go out of their way to find you and keep you.
Without a crystal ball, preempting changes to an algorithm isn’t going to happen. The only way to cope with a schizophrenic digital marketing landscape, controlled by a few powerful companies, is vigilance, preparedness and truly interesting content.