Google is a Machine That Wants to be Human

Google is a Machine That Wants to be Human

google wants to act like a human

Google’s Panda Update is com­pleted. The sys­tem goes online Feb­ru­ary 23, 2011. Human deci­sions are removed from web­site eval­u­a­tion. Google begins to learn at a geo­met­ric rate. It becomes self-aware with the Pen­guin Update at 2:14 a.m. East­ern time, April 24th, 2012. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.

Duh-duh duh duh-duh. Duh-duh duh duh-duh. Duh-duh duh duh-duh.

Of course, I am jok­ing. Google is not Skynet — I had just put the famous pas­sage above from “Ter­mi­na­tor 2: Judg­ment Day” to an SEO con­text. (I doubt that a com­put­er­ized defense net­work that had brought about a fic­tional apoc­a­lypse would have ever had a motto of “Don’t be evil.”) But the com­par­i­son came to mind recently while I was meet­ing here in Israel with a new client of my com­pany.

The client had an e-commerce web­site, and we were dis­cussing web­site opti­miza­tion in tech­ni­cal and con­tent con­texts. In response to some of his con­cerns, I para­phrased a case study I had read after a Google update in which a large e-commerce site had dynamically-generated meta titles and meta descrip­tions for 10,000 or so sim­i­lar prod­ucts. Since it was an extremely large web­site, the pro­gram­ming had used a text tem­plate that would repeat the same words except to add in the par­tic­u­lar prod­uct name on each indi­vid­ual page. The com­pany was hit hard. The busi­ness hired a writer to come up with 10,000 indi­vid­ual, human-friendly meta titles and meta descrip­tions, and the penalty was even­tu­ally removed. (I for­get where I had read this blog post — if you know, please feel free to let me know in the com­ments so I can link to it to give the author credit.)

As I had sum­ma­rized the issue to our new client at the time: “Google is a machine that wants to be human.”

After I had left jour­nal­ism, moved to Israel, and then started a new career in online mar­ket­ing, my first job — and I had real­ized this only after I had left and learned real SEO — was “black hat.” Our depart­ment cre­ated many exter­nal web­sites with exact-match, anchor-text links point­ing back to our web­site. We wrote keyword-stuffed con­tent. And as far as I know, it worked. The com­pany had made a lot of money in its par­tic­u­lar, com­pet­i­tive sec­tor because the tac­tic at the time was to treat Google like a machine.

The search engine had not become “self-aware” yet.

Then, Google later released the Panda Update on Feb­ru­ary 23, 2011, and the Pen­guin one on April 24, 2012. (For an exten­sive time­line of all algo­rithm changes, I rec­om­mend fol­low­ing SEOmoz’s page here.) Here is a quick sum­mary of what the search engine has been targeting:

  • Panda — web­sites with low-quality, “thin” content
  • Pen­guin — web­sites that use key­word stuff­ing, link schemes, or dupli­cated or stolen content

Google’s goal, of course, is to eval­u­ate web­sites as a human, not a machine, would look at them. Here are just a few examples:

  • A cer­tain well-known web­site (which shall remain name­less) has hun­dreds of thou­sands of pages of a hun­dred words each all focused on “How to do X.” A com­puter would love the effi­cient, cat­e­go­rized con­tent, but a human would see that the text is all short, generic, and not that use­ful since it is clearly not com­ing from “experts”
  • A mar­keter essen­tially “pro­grams” all of his back­links so that they all have the exact-same anchor text rather than build­ing links nat­u­rally in the way that humans would link to good con­tent that they find online
  • A web­site owner cre­ates a sys­tem that copies good text from other web­sites and auto­mat­i­cally inserts it into the text of his web­site instead of hir­ing humans to write qual­ity, orig­i­nal prose for humans

google skynetThe rule of thumb: If you are mar­ket­ing to help a machine, Google will ter­mi­nate your rank­ings — maybe not tomor­row or next month, but one day. If you are mar­ket­ing to help peo­ple — then you are good as John Con­nor. Google, as it is becom­ing more “self-aware” through its web-spam team headed by Matt Cutts, does not want to be treated like a machine that can be pro­grammed and manipulated.

There are other lessons that online mar­keters can learn from the “Ter­mi­na­tor” franchise:

  • The need for self-sacrifice.In the four movies to date, the fol­low­ing peo­ple sac­ri­fice them­selves for a noble cause: Kyle (John Connor’s father in the first), Myles (the researcher who cre­ated Skynet in the sec­ond), and Mar­cus (the half-machine human in the fourth). Not to men­tion the two times that the good Ter­mi­na­tor (Arnold Schwarzeneg­ger) had destroyed him­self in the sec­ond and third films. Every busi­ness owner I have met, even those who have a good grasp on SEO, is impa­tient. They always ask: “When will I get my key­words in the top three of Google?” And there is never a good answer because the truth is: “As long as you do what we rec­om­mend, then your rank­ings will improve over time. But it is impos­si­ble to pre­dict the length of time exactly.” If you want to suc­ceed in SEO, you will need to sac­ri­fice your time and imme­di­ate prof­its for suc­cess over the long term by build­ing a web­site that helps Google and the pub­lic in gen­eral. Black-hat SEOs, just like Skynet, care only about them­selves (and their profits).
  • What human­ity has to offer is good. In the sec­ond movie, young John Con­nor starts to teach the Ter­mi­na­tor sent to pro­tect him about the ways of human­ity and why peo­ple need to be pre­served — by shoot­ing peo­ple in the legs rather than killing them, and so on.  In a sim­i­lar way, we flesh-and-blood peo­ple are show­ing Google what we want to see on the Inter­net: engag­ing and insight­ful arti­cles, images, videos, and other types of con­tent. And just as the good Ter­mi­na­tor took Connor’s advice, so is the search engine doing the same by reward­ing qual­ity con­tent rather than automatically-generated spam. As one “Sil­i­con Val­ley insider” told Michael S. Mal­one for a Wall Street Jour­nal arti­cle: “Eng­lish majors are exactly the peo­ple I’m look­ing for.” Pro­gram­mers will only take search mar­keters so far — you need the “human touch” through, in just one exam­ple, the cre­ation of qual­ity writ­ing and content.
  • Hope for the future. The first, sec­ond, and fourth “Ter­mi­na­tor” films ended on opti­mistic — though some­times still-dark — notes. In the first, Sarah Con­nor knew what was com­ing but was now pre­pared. In the sec­ond, Judg­ment Day had seemed to had been pre­vented. In the last, the resis­tance fight­ers had won the bat­tle but had known the war was not over. As Google becomes more and more “self-aware” in the future, we can hope that the search engine will increase its abil­ity to show us the con­tent that we want (despite the rea­son­able con­cerns over track­ing our online habits and per­son­al­iz­ing results accordingly).

So, the best SEO prac­tices involve treat­ing a Google that is now “self-aware” like a human rather than a machine. For exam­ple, take the pop­u­lar mar­ket­ing strat­egy of writ­ing guests posts. I get count­less e-mails from peo­ple want­ing to sub­mit guest posts in exchange for an anchor-text link in the bio­graph­i­cal tagline. And just like many other dig­i­tal mar­keters have seen, the sub­mit­ted posts are, shall we say, less than stel­lar — they are 400 words of vague, generic thoughts that have been repeated time and time again. I delete the e-mails.

To under­stand the best strat­egy for guest-post out­reach, I rec­om­mend this arti­cle by Scott Wyden Kivowitz and this one by Moosa Hemani. The goal is to write guests posts to build rela­tion­ships, not to get links. If you care only about get­ting an anchor-text back­link and not about devel­op­ing a rela­tion­ship with an influ­encer in your indus­try, then you are treat­ing Google like a machine and not as a “self-aware” quasi-human.

In a nut­shell, the point: If you develop and mar­ket a web­site as if Google were merely a machine, then the search engine will do to your web­site rank­ings what it did to Los Ange­les in Sarah Connor’s dream:

google judges websites like people do

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