Monday, February 24, 2014

A Sea of Content Nobody Can Find

king of spades card
"Content is king" has pretty much been the mantra for over a decade to those looking to influence search engine results. It has always been true too. In the old days not long ago, if you didn't have some content worth linking to then sometimes your website wouldn't even get indexed. Now there's a whole industry built around content creation that is generating tens of thousands of pages of new content every day. Much of it no one will ever see. Is it time for something new to deal with it all or is the rate of creation unsustainable?

As search engine optimization knowledge matured, getting good search listings was easy just by periodically writing some decent content and getting a few links to it. The time to get indexed shrunk from months, or never, down to just 4 - 6 weeks. It was not difficult to write an article or a guide of some kind that got a top 3 listing and stayed there for 2, 3, 4 years or more with just a small collection of 10 - 20 backlinks. That ease of entry and relatively short waiting period for validation is what fueled and sustained the growth of the web after the dot com bubble burst on wall street at the end of the 90's. For much of the next decade, big brands rested on their notoriety, their traditional marketing channels, and eventually PPC to attract visitors online.

Jump forward to today and the web is big business like never before. The mantra is the same, but the rules of the game have changed considerably. First, the time to get content indexed has dropped to just days and sometimes just hours. Google especially has put an emphasis on quality content creation in their guidelines for getting indexed regularly. The spread of web based applications and social media has made content generation easier and more available to anyone with the penchant to write.

Fuzzy Brand
Big companies with big budgets now recognize the value of organic search listings and are paying small armies of content creators to pump out content daily in an effort to monopolize the top listings for the brand search terms that matter to them. Adsense and affiliate marketing in general has given incentive to a whole new generation of independent writers looking to cash in with little investment.

So now we're at a point where the web is flooded on a daily basis with new content, and not because new content is necessarily needed, but because the business of content marketing demands it. This leads me to wonder, does search need to change to accommodate it all and make more of it readily accessible? Or, if that doesn't happen soon enough, will the industry of content creation shrink because the money that's fueling it is not getting enough return on investment?

Searchers rarely click past the first page of search results anymore. My teenage kids laugh whenever they see me do it. With the emphasis on quality being required of content now, we will presumably get to point where the difference in quality between the 1st search result and the 50th or 100th is marginal. Is it fair, or even healthy for the web in general, that only 10 of those results will get the majority of views?

To sustain the abundance of quality content and give it a chance to be seen by any audience, I believe the future of search has to include some level of random rotation of the top X percent of search results for any given search term. Without that, the incentive to create new content is eventually not going to be as strong as it is now.

This is not a new concept. Some people much smarter than myself proved in a paper published almost 10 years ago that randomization of search results would lead to significantly higher quality overall results. Of course, we could be seeing that research already in play now and just don't realize it due to the massive amount of new content being randomized in at a very low percentage rate. If that is the case then, in my opinion, we're not seeing enough of it. All too often when I do a search I get static results with the same big name players always at the top or very outdated results that are 2, 3, or as much as 6 years old included throughout the top 20 listings.

If randomization isn't the cure for better and broader search results to accommodate all the quality content being generated then maybe content classification categories would be a better answer. All relevant search results now currently are returned in a single list format and there's no indication that sorts fact from fiction or proof from opinion. It's clear that something needs to change since all search engines scored lower satisfaction ratings last year, with some getting their lowest scores ever.

Info Card Examples
Unfortunately, many experts think Google and other search engines may go in the exact opposite direction and offer up less results at a time instead of more. Mobile usage is on the rise. So are wearable devices and voice recognition. Embedded or implanted devices are the obvious next evolution beyond something you wear or carry. Lists of textual search results are difficult to use on tiny screens and so Google has been experimenting with alternative options known as info cards. Info cards are stacked and swiped through like the pages of a book. So in the near future, instead of getting a list of several results to choose from instantly you could get several stacked on individual info cards with only 1 result being the first thing you see. How many of those do you think future searchers will flip through before settling or giving up?

The lack of or slow pace of diversity in search for all this new content being generated is leading many producers into cultivating their own audience directly through social media. That makes a lot of sense, however a backlash has started to form against unwanted commercialization there. That is not likely to change the practice though. If anything, the expansion of social media and the development of direct audiences could fragment the web as we know it into networks of users who never venture outside of the primary social network of their choice. If all the information they ever want is available to them, or even spoon fed to them, through pushed notifications, regular status updates, and closed network searches then why bother ever going anywhere else?

Something has to give if this extremely high level of new content generation is to continue. The big money suppliers that are driving it want to see measurable results in terms of number of times a piece of content has been accessed and how many sales resulted from a certain piece of content. They track that kind of thing now, but over time, big money wants to see growth per unit of whatever they invest in. That's not going to happen as things stand today.

So if you're a content marketer, are you getting ready for the oncoming purge? Or are you planning ahead for the next evolution of search? Or are you counting on a dedicated following to develop to keep you viable and relevant for whatever comes next? The writing is on the wall that something different has to happen. The only question is will it come in time before the business of content marketing has it's financial plug pulled or not.