Tuesday, March 11, 2014

On Algorithm Bias & the Important Work of Organic SEO

Recently we offered five simple Facebook algorithm hacks to increase your Facebook profile's views, likes, and shares. When we wrote the title for that post, we paused at the word, "hacked." Did we really want to associate with a word that has come to define entire fields, like life hacking or bio hacking, known explicitly for trendy tips and tricks?

After all, SEO is not about tricks and tips. It's about the real work of matching unique browsers with unique content--work that we admire, and which our sponsor, Alex Stepman, has always advocated as the true job of an SEO specialist. And this work is all about the algorithms. Yes, beyond the word "hack," the true operative word in that post (and really for the entire SEO world) is "algorithm."

From Facebook to Netflix, most major websites structure algorithms to streamline the site's core functions. Facebook uses its algorithm, for example, to highlight certain types of posts, while Netflix's algorithm attempts to match users and movies.

An algorithm is simply a formula for solving a problem. And of course, algorithms determine much more than a site's core functions. But when we talk about algorithms, we tend to talk "big problems." For Google, for example, the "problem" is search--how to connect websites and people. For Facebook, the "problem" is sociability--how to inspire people to share. For Netflix, the problem is predicting people's movie tastes (a problem that many believe Netflix has yet to solve).

When we talk about algorithms we also tend to talk about cold precision--as if the algorithms are purely mathematical, and neutral.

This weekend at SXSW in Austin, Gilad Lotan from the startup incubator Betaworks and Kelly McBride from The Poynter Institute disputed this notion of "algorithm neutrality," in a discussion about how algorithms influence what news stories we see and how this influence effects democracy. 

McBride writes about the subject quite elegantly on Poynter.org:

"Algorithms control the marketplace of ideas. They grant power to certain information as it flies through the digital space and take power away from other information...

This used to be the job of editors, whom we described as gatekeepers. Those editors were flawed human beings, biased by their own perspectives. And it was hard to hold them accountable because their process for making decisions was a private one.

But algorithms are by their very nature biased, meant to give priority to some information and de-emphasize other information. And it’s even harder to determine the biases of an algorithm than it is to determine the biases of a human editor.

If you’re concerned with democracy, you’re in favor of holding algorithms accountable for their impact on the marketplace of ideas."

The important implication for SEO here is the notion of algorithm bias.

As we noted above, we end to think about algorithms as neutral, but really, although engineers base algorithms on mathematical principles, most of the judgements about those principles are exactly that--judgements, made by biased humans.

To display this bias, Lotan used the example of Twitter's trending topics. In the infancy of Twitter, Justin Bieber's fanatically active fans helped the pop star dominate the worldwide trending topics. For better or worse, Justin Bieber was what people were talking about. But Twitter's engineers tweaked the algorithm to "normalize" the content. As Lotan said at the conference:

"They normalized content…meaning it was much harder for Justin Bieber to trend."

Then McBride added: “Until he gets arrested in Miami and has to pee in front of a camera, and the video is then released. Then Justin Bieber will trend!"

The point here is that algorithms are made by biased humans. And for Lotan and McBride the problem is in that very word, "normalized."

As The Guardian reports in its review of the talk:

"Problems? Maybe. McBride noted that in the 20th century marketplace of ideas, the gatekeepers were editors, who tended to be white middle-class men reinforcing their own ideas about what stories and ideas were important – a problem, initially, for areas like the civil rights and women’s rights movements.

The question now is whether it’s white, middle-class software engineers whose decisions when building their algorithms are having unintended consequences on the kind of news that finds an audience."

Now, SEO is often viewed by its critics as a mere "gaming of the system."

We do not support this view. SEO is not the algorithm's adversary. Recently, in fact, we wrote about how organic SEO and Google can actually function as mutually beneficial partners. Read: "Google & Organic SEO: Dynamic Partners."

And yet, the SXSW talk inspires another view: What if SEO is the algorithms adversary, and SEO specialists are trying to "game" or "hack" the system? Is that so bad?

In light of the "normalized" bias, for example, isn't the SEO specialist's duty similar to the journalist's duty in uncovering the bias of SEO? 

McBride speaks about a recent paper written by Nicholas Diakopoulo for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism: "Algorithmic Accountability Reporting: On the Investigation of Black Boxes."

McBride believes that journalists "are the natural check on powerful algorithms," and she offers this solution to algorithm bias:

"How can journalists demystify algorithms? First by observing and describing how certain algorithms are working. Then by questioning the assumptions. And finally by reverse-engineering those algorithms to force more transparency into the system."

This is precisely the work of the organic SEO specialist. And why does an organic SEO specialist perform this work? To better connect browsers with the most relevant information.

We believe this work is noble.

And in light of the SXSW talk, we simply have one more way to view the hard work of organic SEO. As the organic SEO specialist works to "demystify," he or she is working like a journalist, and trying to make the Internet a more democratic place--a place where the top page of Google is not dominated by those with money or power, but with those who perform the hard work of creating relevant, high quality content.

Hard work is the key here, and isn't that the American Dream, so often recited by President Obama: that prosperity is dependent upon hard work? We believe so. And that is why we honor and respect the practice of organic SEO.