Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Frank Look at Algorithms: OKCupid, Google, & How You Can Fight Back With Organic SEO

This week the online dating site, OKCupid, published the results of three experiments the dating site conducted on its own users. Without knowledge of the studies, certain users encountered obscured profile pictures,  hidden profile text, and different profile matches (both better or worse) from what the company’s software actually determined.

As The New York Times wrote on Monday, the tests seemingly revealed a few relevant facts:

"The research found that if an OKCupid user was told that another user had a high compatibility score instead of a low one — the numbers are based on a mathematical formula created by the company — the user was slightly more likely to reach out with a message. Those who believed they were corresponding with a good match were almost twice as likely to send at least four messages compared with people who were told they were a low match.

Despite the recent uproar about Facebook testing its users without their knowledge or permission, OKCupid came out with guns blazing, announcing its results without the slightest hint of apology.

As the company's president, Christian Rudder, wrote on the OKCupid blog:

"We noticed recently that people didn’t like it when Facebook 'experimented' with their news feed. Even the FTC is getting involved. But guess what, everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work."

This post, which also detailed the results of the "experiments," was titled "We Experiment on Human Beings!" Beyond writing flagrantly cocky blog posts with obnoxious titles, Mr. Rudder also took to the airwaves to argue his case with the utmost pomposity.

Today, on NPR's The Takeaway, Todd Zwillich (filling in for John Hockenberry) stated the case quite precisely:

 "You didn't do this for any redeeming social value whatsoever. You did this for your own purposes, and to test your own algorithms and your own model."

To this, Rudder, answered, "Yeah, for sure, these particular experiments were kind of part of the normal course of our own business."

Without commenting upon the actual ethics of performing "scientific" tests on people without their knowledge (although, you'll notice, we do feel free to comment upon Chris Rudder's cocky pomposity), this situation still offers some tantalizing discussion for those interested in the world of organic SEO.

After all, these experiments were performed in service of OKCupid's algorithm--the very algorithm that makes OKCupid so appealing in the first place--and SEO is, first and foremost, the study of algorithms.

Generally speaking, an algorithm is simply an equation for solving a problem. For the search engines, though, this equation is at the heart of the company's success (or failure). As we recently wrote from sunny Boston:

"The success of organic SEO depends on complex search engine algorithms—and the world’s largest search engines, like Google, Yahoo, and Bing, change their algorithms about 500-700 times a year. The work of understanding and utilizing these ever-evolving algorithms is time-consuming and tedious. A high-quality SEO company understands how to do this work without wasting time."

The questions raised for the users of OKCupid might reveal ethical concerns about privacy that transcend the need to find a good date, but we doubt OKCupid will lose too many users. Sadly, we find ourselves agreeing with Chris Rudder's cold statement: "If you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work."

This might seem like a pitiable situation for the average Internet user. The truth is that most of these "experiments" help websites like OKCupid and Google perfect their service. And frankly, users are not powerless in this equation. By understanding a site's algorithm, a user can use his or her knowledge to his own advantage.

In essence, this is what SEO is about: understanding the search engine's algorithms in order to perform better in rankings.

But here's the crux of the equation: a search engine like Google and the SEO specialist share the exact same goal. Both are trying to connect users with the most relevant information.

Or perhaps we should say: Google and good SEO specialists share the same goal. A bad SEO specialist will promote content (in unethical ways) that really has no relevancy or purpose. A bad SEO specialist will accept any paying client.

A good SEO specialist, on the other hand, will vet all potential clients for relevancy and purpose. Here's what we've learned from Alex Stepman, the Organic SEO Blog's sponsor:

"To be optimized for search engines, a website must first have a purpose. If a website does not have a purpose, it simply cannot be optimized. What is a purpose? A site might be informational; people visit or, for example, to specifically acquire knowledge about the world. On the other hand, a site might be interactive, offering visitors an opportunity to utilize various tools, such as BookFresh’s appointment scheduler. Sometimes, the purpose of a site is to merely inspire a visitor to make a phone call. Unfortunately, most company’s newly-developed websites do not specify any purpose, and so the company’s online presence amounts to little more than a high-priced business card."

The lesson for SEO: if you believe you have a valuable contribution, don't waste your time fretting about OKCupid's innocuous tests; instead, fight back with organic SEO. Learn more about algorithms. This very blog is a good place to start.