I've been thinking a lot, like many of you have been, about big data and it's impact on audiences. All the stuff in the news about Google's algorithm changes and what it's done to some sites traffic, traffic farms, and the supposed attempt of some to game the search system only in the end to lose, badly. For more details on that ongoing debacle, I'd recommend Tim Fernholz's article titled "Anonymous's first stock tip: Buy the internet company Wall Street hates".
I could have convened a focus group, sent out a survey to my email database or polled the visitors to my website, and asked if any of them cared about any of this news. I suspect not a single person would have responded. You know why? Because they don't care about big data, or SEO or any of the other buzz words around how they "fit in" by our digital big brothers. They care I concede to the extent that their privacy is constantly being brought into question, but savvy web and social media platform participants have figured out ways to protect themselves from threat.What they do, is quality content, that speaks to them, and their needs. We need to create art that informs, entertains and garners an audience on its own merit, instead of worrying about how it's page rank is going to end up. The truth is, that strong content that resonates with an audience, I suggest, will always rise to the top organically, and there is no cheating your way to that top.
We are all guilty of being obsessed with gaming the system instead of actually thinking about our audiences and creating quality content for them. We all tweak meta tags for higher search rank, we all strategize around a better way for our website to show up when somebody "googles" us. If you own a website for commercial gain in 2014 and don't have some kind of SEO "optimization" going on, either you are lying, or have no clue what any of this is about and are content with whatever traffic the "internets" are bringing you. SEO optimization is a huge industry and some of the practices are legit and significant while others are questionable to say the least. Listen, I'm not saying we shouldn't SEO some of our content, but the lengths to which some of us do it, is well, inhumane. By the way mathematical ranking isn't limited to our browser experience. Our social media channels are also filled with algorithms that sort our content and serve it up in some supposed way we want to see it. Today it's Facebook, tomorrow it will be Twitter.
Our obsession with crunching the numbers doesn't end I'm afraid with SEO. Big Data is about tracking every click and figuring out virtually everything about an audience so that it can predictably decide what ads we see, what content we see and indeed how we're guided around our digital merry go rounds. What the analysts don't realize is that we've all become numb to on-line ads, cookie tracking and the rest of it. Granted, I'm in the minority, but I legitimately don't see ads when I read on-line. I generally focus on the middle of my screen on the content I'm reading or watching. Oh and I always "skip ad" when I can and if I can't, I look at my phone while a disruptive 30 second ad for toilet paper rolls across my screen. Bypassing advertising isn't anything new, and with so many disruptive technologies we all do it as much as we can. From DVRs, to Netflix, to digital music streaming services, we all want on-demand unobtrusive experiences and are willing to pay for it. Imagine that, the desire for quality content is actually driving our digital economy, not SEO or the ad universe. That's why Netflix is killing it, why digital music streaming is on the rise (Apple just spent $3 billion USD for Beats, and one of the reasons is for Beat's Music), and why traditional media companies are struggling to stay a float. They are dying cause audiences want quick access to content, that speaks to them, their needs, and their interests. They don't want more ads, consulted playlists, or playing to the largest audiences possible. They want what they want, and they want it now.
I can't pretend to know the first or last thing about how SEO or Big Data work to track my every move. I am a life long story teller and content creator, so for me at least, when I think about content creation and optimizing my content I legitimately do it with my intended audience in mind. It's a bit naive I suppose and I'm sure you're no different then I am. I use Google like I used the Dewey Decimal system back in the day, to find stuff I'm looking for. I rarely go to Google so that it can serve up a million things that I don't want or need. I go, because it's easier to find, as an example the last post from my favourite writer about my beloved Toronto Blue Jays than trying to guess the address of that item. I know that there are a billion people who use it differently, but I'd suggest as branded apps proliferate our lives, and digital publishers serve up content to me in non-web browser environments we are getting the content we need without Googling for it. Which brings us back to the need for quality content first, content is king after all, isn't it?
I guess the frustration for me as a lifelong story teller is that we often forget our audience in favour of making a big splash with sophisticated mathematical traps instead of legitimately great content. There is no substitute, no magic bullet, no cheat sheet for creating quality audience centric content. No bots, traffic farms or SEO tricks can replace a well thought out, audience intended piece of content. There are tools, that can legitimately help you shape your content, the way style guides, dictionaries have helped us over time, but the art of creativity can never be replaced by a Orwellian set of data centres filled with un-emotional, un-inspired, inhumane robots. At least.... I hope not.