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Engineering Search Documentary

As the EU antitrust probe of Google begins, it’s a fitting time for a documentary about the role of search in society. I’ll be appearing one on CBC Radio on Dec. 5; here’s some background on the program, called “Engineering Search: The story of the algorithm that changed the world.” It “tracks the evolution of search engine optimization, particularly in regards to Google,” as producer Ira Basen explains:

[M]any of the search engine optimization (SEO) consultants I met were either former or current PR practitioners.
The similarities are interesting. For example, a good PR person knows how to draft a news release that will attract the attention of his or her targeted media. These PR practitioners know what journalists are looking for and how to deliver that information. But there’s no guarantee there will be any pick-up, because there are lots of variables that will determine whether the story will get selected or not.

SEO is much the same thing, except you replace the journalist with the search algorithm. An SEO expert knows how to create a website or blog that will attract the attention of a search engine, because they presumably have a deeper understanding of what the algorithm is looking for than the ordinary person (I’m talking about organic links here, not paid links). But because the algorithm is secret and changes an average of once a day, there is no guarantee that the Google gods will be pleased by your site and reward you with a high ranking on the result page. So in both cases, you can only go so far, but your fate ultimately rests in forces beyond your control.

A recent post by Owen Thomas on Venture Beat explores some of the consequences of the changing algorithm for a big Google takeover target, Groupon:

You can’t go anywhere online these days without spotting a Groupon ad. The company is clearly spending a lot of money with Google. And as Sency founder Evan Britton recently pointed out, Groupon’s ads are distinctly effective on Google’s AdSense platform . . . . The problem is that growth is dependent on Google, which is famously opaque about the workings of its ad systems. As much as Groupon may know about what works when placing ads with Google, Google always knows more. And Google could change the rules at any time.

It’s far from insider trading, but it is quite an advantage.