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  • Consensus Bias

    The Truth About Subjective Truths

    A few months ago there was an article in New Scientist about Google's research paper on potentially ranking sites based on how factual their content is. The idea is generally and genuinely absurd.

    For a search engine to be driven primarily by group think (see unity100's posts here) is the death of diversity.

    Less Diversity, More Consolidation

    The problem is rarely attributed to Google, but as ecosystem diversity has declined (and entire segments of the ecosystem are unprofitable to service), more people are writing things like: "The market for helping small businesses maintain a home online isn’t one with growing profits – or, for the most part, any profits. It’s one that’s heading for a bloody period of consolidation."

    As companies grow in power the power gets monetized. If you can manipulate people without appearing to do so you can make a lot of money.

    If you don't think Google wants to disrupt you out of a job, you've been asleep at the wheel for the past decade— Michael Gray (@graywolf) March 13, 2015

    We Just Listen to the Data (Ish)

    As Google sucks up more data, aggregates intent, and scrapes-n-displaces the ecosystem they get air cover for some of their gray area behaviors by claiming things are driven by the data & putting the user first.

    Those "data" and altruism claims from Google recently fell flat on their face when the Wall Street Journal published a number of articles about a leaked FTC document.

    That PDF has all sorts of goodies in it about things like blocking competition, signing a low margin deal with AOL to keep monopoly marketshare (while also noting the general philosophy outside of a few key deals was to squeeze down on partners), scraping content and ratings from competing sites, Google force inserting itself in certain verticals anytime select competitors ranked in the organic result set, etc.

    As damning as the above evidence is, more will soon be brought to light as the EU ramps up their formal statement of objection, as Google is less politically connected in Europe than they are in the United States:

    "On Nov. 6, 2012, the night of Mr. Obama’s re-election, Mr. Schmidt was personally overseeing a voter-turnout software system for Mr. Obama. A few weeks later, Ms. Shelton and a senior antitrust lawyer at Google went to the White House to meet with one of Mr. Obama’s technology advisers. ... By the end of the month, the FTC had decided not to file an antitrust lawsuit against the company, according to the agency’s internal emails."

    What is wild about the above leaked FTC document is it goes to great lengths to show an anti-competitive pattern of conduct toward the larger players in the ecosystem. Even if you ignore the distasteful political aspects of the FTC non-decision, the other potential out was:

    "The distinction between harm to competitors and harm to competition is an important one: according to the modern interpretation of antitrust law, even if a business hurts individual competitors, it isn’t seen as breaking antitrust law unless it has also hurt the competitive process—that is, that it has taken actions that, for instance, raised prices or reduced choices, over all, for consumers." - Vauhini Vara

    Part of the reason the data set was incomplete on that front was for the most part only larger ecosystem players were consulted. Google engineers have went on record stating they aim to break people's spirits in a game of psychological warfare. If that doesn't hinder consumer choice, what does?

    @aaronwall rofl. Feed the dragon Honestly these G investigations need solid long term SEOs to testify as well as brands.— Rishi Lakhani (@rishil) April 2, 2015

    When the EU published their statement of objections Google's response showed charts with the growth of Amazon and eBay as proof of a healthy ecosystem.

    The market has been consolidated down into a few big winners which are still growing, but that in and of itself does not indicate a healthy nor neutral overall ecosystem.

    The long tail of smaller e-commerce sites which have been scrubbed from the search results is nowhere to be seen in such charts / graphs / metrics.

    The other obvious "untruth" hidden in the above Google chart is there is no way product searches on Google.com are included in Google's aggregate metrics. They are only counting some subset of them which click through a second vertical ad type while ignoring Google's broader impact via the combination of PLAs along with text-based AdWords ads and the knowledge graph, or even the recently rolled out rich product answer results.

    Who could look at the following search result (during anti-trust competitive review no less) and say "yeah, that looks totally reasonable?"

    Google has allegedly spent the last couple years removing "visual clutter" from the search results & yet they manage to product SERPs looking like that - so long as the eye candy leads to clicks monetized directly by Google or other Google hosted pages.

    The Search Results Become a Closed App Store

    Search was an integral piece of the web which (in the past) put small companies on a level playing field with larger players.

    That it no longer is.

    WOW. RT @aimclear: 89% of domains that ranked over the last 7 years are now invisible, #SEO extinction. SRSLY, @marcustober #SEJSummit— Jonah Stein (@Jonahstein) April 15, 2015

    "What kind of a system do you have when existing, large players are given a head start and other advantages over insurgents? I don’t know. But I do know it’s not the Internet." - Dave Pell

    The above quote was about app stores, but it certainly parallels a rater system which enforces the broken window fallacy against smaller players while looking the other way on larger players, unless they are in a specific vertical Google itself decides to enter.

    "That actually proves my point that they use Raters to rate search results. aka: it *is* operated manually in many (how high?) cases. There is a growing body of consensus that a major portion of Googles current "algo" consists of thousands of raters that score results for ranking purposes. The "algorithm" by machine, on the majority of results seen by a high percentage of people, is almost non-existent." ... "what is being implied by the FTC is that Googles criteria was: GoogleBot +10 all Yelp content (strip mine all Yelp reviews to build their database). GoogleSerps -10 all yelp content (downgrade them in the rankings and claim they aren't showing serps in serps). That is anticompetitive criteria that was manually set." - Brett Tabke

    The remote rater guides were even more explicitly anti-competitive than what was detailed in the FTC report. For instance, requiring hotel affiliate sites rated as spam even if they are helpful, for no reason other than being affiliate sites.

    Is Brand the Answer?

    About 3 years ago I wrote a blog post about how branding plays into SEO & why it might peak. As much as I have been accused of having a cynical view, the biggest problem with my post was it was naively optimistic. I presumed Google's consolidation of markets would end up leading Google to alter their ranking approach when they were unable to overcome the established consensus bias which was subsidizing their competitors. The problem with my presumption is Google's reliance on "data" was a chimera. When convenient (and profitable) data is discarded on an as need basis.

    Or, put another way, the visual layout of the search result page trumps the underlying ranking algorithms.

    Google has still highly disintermediated brand value, but they did it via vertical search, larger AdWords ad units & allowing competitive bidding on trademark terms.

    If Not Illegal, then Scraping is Certainly Morally Deplorable...

    As Google scraped Yelp & TripAdvisor reviews & gave them an ultimatum, Google was also scraping Amazon sales rank data and using it to power Google Shopping product rankings.

    Around this same time Google pushed through a black PR smear job of Bing for doing a similar, lesser offense to Google on rare, made-up longtail searches which were not used by the general public.

    While Google was outright stealing third party content and putting it front & center on core keyword searches, they had to use "about 100 “synthetic queries”—queries that you would never expect a user to type" to smear Bing & even numerous of these queries did not show the alleged signal.

    Here are some representative views of that incident:

    • "We look forward to competing with genuinely new search algorithms out there—algorithms built on core innovation, and not on recycled search results from a competitor. So to all the users out there looking for the most authentic, relevant search results, we encourage you to come directly to Google. And to those who have asked what we want out of all this, the answer is simple: we'd like for this practice to stop." - Google's Amit Singhal
    • “It’s cheating to me because we work incredibly hard and have done so for years but they just get there based on our hard work. I don’t know how else to call it but plain and simple cheating. Another analogy is that it’s like running a marathon and carrying someone else on your back, who jumps off just before the finish line.” Amit Singhal, more explicitly.
    • "One comment that I’ve heard is that “it’s whiny for Google to complain about this.” I agree that’s a risk, but at the same time I think it’s important to go on the record about this." - Matt Cutts
    • "I’ve got some sympathy for Google’s view that Bing is doing something it shouldn’t." - Danny Sullivan

    What is so crazy about the above quotes is Google engineers knew at the time what Google was doing with Google's scraping. I mentioned that contrast shortly after the above PR fiasco happened:

    when popular vertical websites (that have invested a decade and millions of Dollars into building a community) complain about Google disintermediating them by scraping their reviews, Google responds by telling those webmasters to go pound sand & that if they don't want Google scraping them then they should just block Googlebot & kill their search rankings

    Learning the Rules of the Road

    If you get a sense "the rules" are arbitrary, hypocritical & selectively enforced - you may be on to something:

    • "The bizrate/nextag/epinions pages are decently good results. They are usually well-format[t]ed, rarely broken, load quickly and usually on-topic. Raters tend to like them" ... which is why ... "Google repeatedly changed the instructions for raters until raters assessed Google's services favorably"
    • and while claimping down on those services ("business models to avoid") ... "Google elected to show its product search OneBox “regardless of the quality” of that result and despite “pretty terribly embarrassing failures” "
    • and since Google knew their offerings were vastly inferior, “most of us on geo [Google Local] think we won't win unless we can inject a lot more of local directly into google results” ... thus they added "a 'concurring sites' signal to bias ourselves toward triggering [display of a Google local service] when a local-oriented aggregator site (i.e. Citysearch) shows up in the web results”"

    Google's justification for not being transparent is "spammer" would take advantage of transparency to put inferior results front and center - the exact same thing Google does when it benefits the bottom line!

    Around the same time Google hard-codes the self-promotion of their own vertical offerings, they may choose to ban competing business models through "quality" score updates and other similar changes:

    The following types of websites are likely to merit low landing page quality scores and may be difficult to advertise affordably. In addition, it's important for advertisers of these types of websites to adhere to our landing page quality guidelines regarding unique content.

    • eBook sites that show frequent ads
    • 'Get rich quick' sites
    • Comparison shopping sites
    • Travel aggregators
    • Affiliates that don't comply with our affiliate guidelines

    The anti-competitive conspiracy theory is no longer conspiracy, nor theory.

    Key points highlighted by the European Commission:

    • Google systematically positions and prominently displays its comparison shopping service in its general search results pages, irrespective of its merits. This conduct started in 2008.
    • Google does not apply to its own comparison shopping service the system of penalties, which it applies to other comparison shopping services on the basis of defined parameters, and which can lead to the lowering of the rank in which they appear in Google's general search results pages.
    • Froogle, Google's first comparison shopping service, did not benefit from any favourable treatment, and performed poorly.
    • As a result of Google's systematic favouring of its subsequent comparison shopping services "Google Product Search" and "Google Shopping", both experienced higher rates of growth, to the detriment of rival comparison shopping services.
    • Google's conduct has a negative impact on consumers and innovation. It means that users do not necessarily see the most relevant comparison shopping results in response to their queries, and that incentives to innovate from rivals are lowered as they know that however good their product, they will not benefit from the same prominence as Google's product.

    Overcoming Consensus Bias

    Consensus bias is set to an absurdly high level to block out competition, slow innovation, and make the search ecosystem easier to police. This acts as a tax on newer and lesser-known players and a subsidy toward larger players.

    Eventually that subsidy would be a problem to Google if the algorithm was the only thing that matters, however if the entire result set itself can be displaced then that subsidy doesn't really matter, as it can be retracted overnight.

    Whenever Google has a competing offering ready, they put it up top even if they are embarrassed by it and 100% certain it is a vastly inferior option to other options in the marketplace.

    That is how Google reinforces, then manages to overcome consensus bias.

    How do you overcome consensus bias?

    Categories: 


  • Designing for Privacy

    Information is a commodity. Corporations are passing around consumer behavioral profiles like brokers with stocks, and the vast majority of the American public is none the wiser of this market’s scope. Very few people actually check the permissions portion of the Google Play store page before downloading a new app, and who has time to pore over the tedious 48-page monstrosity that is the iTunes terms and conditions contract?

    With the advent of wearables, ubiquitous computing, and widespread mobile usage, the individual’s market share of their own information is shrinking at an alarming rate. In response, a growing (and vocal) group of consumers is voicing its concerns about the impact of the effective end of privacy online. And guess what? It’s up to designers to address those concerns in meaningful ways to assuage consumer demand.

    But how can such a Sisyphean feat be managed? In a world that demands personalized service at the cost of privacy, how can you create and manage a product that strikes the right balance between the two?

    That’s a million dollar question, so let’s break it into more affordable chunks.

    Transparency

    The big problem with informed consent is the information. It’s your responsibility to be up front with your users as to what exactly they’re trading you in return for your product/service. Not just the cash flow, but the data stream as well. Where’s it going? What’s it being used for?

    99.99% of all smartphone apps ask for permission to modify and delete the contents of a phone’s data storage. 99.9999% of the time that doesn’t mean it’s going to copy and paste contact info, photos, or personal correspondences. But that .0001% is mighty worrisome.

    Let your users know exactly what you’re asking from them, and what you’ll do with their data. Advertise the fact that you’re not sharing it with corporate interests to line your pockets. And if you are, well, stop that. It’s annoying and you’re ruining the future.

    How can you advertise the key points of your privacy policies? Well, you could take a cue from noted online retailer Zappos.com. Their “PROTECTING YOUR PERSONAL INFORMATION” page serves as a decent template for transparency.

    Zappos Privacy Policy Page

    They have clearly defined policies about what they will and won’t do to safeguard shopper information. For one, they promise never to “rent, sell or share” user data to anyone, and immediately below, they link to their privacy policy, which weighs in a bit heavy at over 2500 words, but is yet dwarfed by other more convoluted policies.

    They also describe their efforts to safeguard user data from malicious hacking threats through the use of SSL tech and firewalls. Then they have an FAQ addressing commonly expressed security concerns. Finally, they have a 24/7 contact line to assure users of personal attention to their privacy queries.

    Now it should be noted that this is a template for a good transparency practices, and not precisely a great example of it. The content and intention is there, so what’s missing?

    Good UX.

    The fine print is indeed a little too fine, the text is a bit too dense (at least where the actual privacy policy is concerned), and the page itself is buried within the fat footer on the main page.

    So who does a better job?

    CodePen has actually produces an attractively progressive solution.

    CodePen Terms of Service

    As you can see, CodePen has taken the time to produce two different versions of their ToS. A typical, lengthy bit of legalese on the left, and an easily readable layman’s version on the right. Providing these as a side by side comparison shows user appreciation and an emphasis on providing a positive UX.

    This is all well and good for the traditional web browsing environment, but most of the problems with privacy these days stem from mobile usage. Let’s take a look at how mobile applications are taking advantage of the lag between common knowledge and current technology to make a profit off of private data.

    Mobile Permissions

    In the mobile space, the Google Play store does a decent job of letting users know what permissions they’re giving, whenever they download an app with its “Permission details” tab:

    Instagram Mobile App Permissions

    As you can see, Instagram is awfully nosy, but that’s no surprise. Instagram has come under fire for their privacy policies before. What’s perhaps more surprising, is the unbelievable ubiquity with which invasive data gathering is practiced in the mobile space. Compare Instagram’s permissions to another popular application you might have added to your smartphone’s repertoire:

    Brightest Flashlight Free App Permissions

    Why, pray tell, does a flashlight have any need for your location, photos/media/files, device ID and/or call information? I’ll give you a clue: it doesn’t.

    “Brightest Flashlight Free” scoops up personal data and sells it to advertisers. The developer was actually sued in 2013 for having a poorly written privacy policy. One that did not disclose the apps malicious intentions to sell user data.

    Now the policy is up to date, but the insidious data gathering and selling continues. Unfortunately, it isn’t the only flashlight application to engage in the same sort of dirty data tactics. The fact is, you have to do a surprising amount of research to find any application that doesn’t grab a bit more data than advertised, especially when the global market for mobile-user data approaches nearly $10 billion.

    For your peace of mind, there is at least one example of an aptly named flashlight application which doesn’t sell your personal info to the highest bidder.

    flashlight free no permissions

    But don’t get too enthusiastic just yet. This is just one application. How many do you have downloaded on your smartphone? Chances are pretty good that you’re harboring a corporate spy on your mobile device.

    Hell, even the Holy Bible takes your data:

    Holy Bible App Permissions

    Is nothing sacred? To the App developer’s credit, they’ve expressed publicly that they’ll never sell user data to third party interests, but it’s still a wakeup call.

    Privacy and UX

    What then, are some UX friendly solutions? Designers are forced to strike a balance. Apps need data to run more efficiently, and to better serve users. Yet users aren’t used to the concerns associated with the wholesale data permissions required of most applications. What kind of design patterns can be implemented to bring in a bit of harmony?

    First and foremost, it’s important to be utilitarian in your data gathering. Offering informed consent is important, letting your users know what permissions they’re granting and why, but doing so in performant user flows is paramount.

    For example, iOS has at least one up on Android with their “dynamic permissions.” This means iOS users have the option of switching up their permissions in-app, rather than having to decide all or nothing upon installation as with Android apps.

    Cluster App User Permissions

    http://techcrunch.com/2014/04/04/the-right-way-to-ask-users-for-ios-permissions/

    Note how the Cluster application prompts the user to give access to their photos as their interacting with the application, and reassures them of exactly what the app will do. The user is fully informed, and offers their consent as a result of being asked for a certain level of trust.

    All of this is accomplished while they’re aiming to achieve a goal within the app. This effectively moves permission granting to 100% because the developers have created a sense of comfort with the application’s inner workings. That’s what designing for privacy is all about: slowly introducing a user to the concept of shared data, and never taking undue advantage of an uninformed user.

    Of course, this is just one facet of the privacy/UX conversation. Informing a user of what they’re allowing is important, but reassuring them that their data is secure is even more so.

    Safeguarding User Data

    Asking a user to trust your brand is essential to a modern business model, you’re trying to engender a trust based relationship with all of your visitors, after all. The real trick, however, is convincing users that their data is safe in your hands—in other words, it won’t be sold to or stolen by 3rd parties, be they legitimate corporations or malicious hackers.

    We touched on this earlier with the Zappos example. Zappos reassures its shoppers with SSL, firewalls, and a personalized promise never to share or sell data. All of which should be adopted as industry standards and blatantly advertised to assuage privacy concerns.

    Building these safeguards into your service/application/website/what-have-you is extremely important. To gain consumer trust is to first provide transparency in your own practices, and then to protect your users from the wolves at the gate.

    Fortunately, data protection is a booming business with a myriad of effective solutions currently in play. Here are just a few of the popular cloud-based options:

    Whatever security solutions you choose, the priorities remain the same. Build trust, and more importantly: actually deserve whatever trust you build.

    It hardly needs to be stated, but the real key to a future where personal privacy still exists, is to actually be better people. The kind that can be trusted to hold sensitive data.

    Is such a future still possible? Let us know what you think in the comment section.

    Kyle Sanders is a member of SEOBook and founder of Complete Web Resources, an Austin-based SEO and digital marketing agency.

    Categories: 


  • Google Mobile Search Result Highlights

    Google recently added highlights at the bottom of various sections of their mobile search results. The highlights appear on ads, organic results, and other various vertical search insertion types. The colors vary arbitrarily by section and are patterned off the colors in the Google logo. Historically such borders have conveyed a meaning, like separating advertisements from organic search results, but now the colors have no meaning other than acting as a visual separator.

    We recently surveyed users to see if they understood what the borders represented & if they felt the borders had any meaning. We did 4 surveys total. The first 2 allows a user to select a choice from a drop down menu. The last two were open ended, where a user typed text into the box. For each of the 2 survey types, we did a survey of a SERP which had an ad in it & a survey of a SERP without an ad in it.

    Below are the associated survey images & user results.


    Google recently added colored bars at the bottom of some mobile search results. What do they mean?

    answerno adswith ad
    none of the other options are correct27.7% (+2.7 / -2.5)29.9% (+2.8 / -2.7)
    the listing is an advertisement25.8% (+2.8 / -2.6)30.1% (+2.8 / -2.7)
    each color has a different meaning24% (+2.7 / -2.5)19.6% (+2.5 / -2.3)
    colors separate sections but have no meaning15.5% (+2.4 / -2.1)12.5% (+2.1 / -1.9)
    the listing is a free search result6.9% (+1.8 / -1.5)7.9% (+2.0 / -1.6)

    Given there are 5 answers, if the distributions were random there would have been a 20% distribution on each option. The only options which skewed well below that were the perceptions that the colored highlights either had no meaning or represented free/organic search results.

    Link to survey results: without ads vs with ads.

    And here are images of what users saw for the above surveys:


    For the second set of surveys we used an open ended format

    The open ended questions allow a user to type in whatever they want. This means the results do not end up biased by the predefined answer options in a quiz, but it also means the results will include plenty of noise like...

    • people entering a, c, d, k, 1, 2, 3, ggg, hello, jj, blah, and who cares as answer choices
    • some of the responses referencing the listing topics
    • some of the responses referencing parts of a search result listing like the headlines or hyperlinks
    • some of the responses highlighting the colors of the bars
    • etc.

    Like the above surveys, on each of these I ordered 1,500 responses. As of writing this, each had over 1,400 responses completed & here are the word clouds for the SERPs without an ad vs the SERPs with an ad.

    SERP without an ad

    SERP with an ad

    On each of the above word clouds, we used the default automated grouping. Here is an example of what the word cloud would look like if the results were grouped manually.

    Summary

    For a couple years Google has removed various forms of eye candy from many organic results (cutting back on video snippets, limiting rich rating snipets, removing authorship, etc.). The justification for such removals was to make the results feel "less cluttered." At the same time, Google has added a variety of the same types of "noisy" listing enhancements to their various ad programs.

    What is the difference between reviews ad extensions, consumer ratings ad extensions, and seller ratings ad extensions? What is the difference between callout extensions and dynamic structured snippets?

    Long ago AdWords advertisements had a border near them to separate them from the organic results. Those borders disappeared many years ago & only recently reappeared on mobile devices when they also appeared near organic listings. That in turn has left searchers confused as to what the border highlighting means.

    According to the above Google survey results, the majority of users don't know what the colors signify, don't care what they signify, or think they indicate advertisements.

    Categories: 


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