The Dangers of ‘Socialized Optimization’: Are You Living in a Content Bubble?

“Socialized optimization” is what I’m calling Google’s use of social cues in order to determine the value and/or relevance of content. While Google has been known to use social cues for quite some time (as we’ll discuss later in this post) their new approach has some potentially massive impacts on the future of content marketing. But before I can dive in, we need to lay some groundwork and discuss…

The “problem” with Google:

Google is a peer review system. When you search for something, the results you are given are the results that Google deems most relevant to your search criteria: the keywords you use, your geographic location, the device you’re on, etc.

This “relevance” however is tainted. Because Google relies so heavily on user behavior and engagement in order to determine what is (or is not) relevant, the results we are given rely equally as heavily on the peer group with which we share our queries.

The sad truth about Google’s method of “learning” is that it can only be as effective in measuring relevance as its users are in identifying the “best” result.

Imagine, for a moment, a system like Google prior to the common knowledge of the existence of bacteria. In this fictional scenario, a minority of people (the experts and educated outliers) are aware bacteria exists, but the majority of people have yet to accept or even be exposed to the concept.

Now imagine using Google to find illness prevention tips or cooking advice. Because the largest portion of Google’s user base is completely unaware of a basic requirement in gauging the quality of the available information, the results you receive will be tainted by the lack of that specific filter.

Even though better information exists, its quality can’t yet been appreciated by the average user. User engagement will of course be low for content that the aggregate user base doesn’t know enough to appreciate and, in turn, the ranking for that content will be low, possibly non-existent.

I’m by no means suggesting that I have a better system. (In fact I am quite the fan of Lord Google, hallowed be thy name). The dissemination of paradigm-changing information has always faced an uphill battle towards widespread acceptance. In a world where “we don’t know what we don’t know” it’s safe to assume that we’ll continue to have massive paradigm shifts that change what information we deem to be relevant. In the interim we’re placed at the mercy of “common knowledge”, especially when a computer is determining content value based upon a group’s response.

A fast track to exacerbation – ‘Socialized Optimization’

While the utilization of social signals has been a well documented factor in Google’s algorithm, this factor has been largely “white label” for lack of a better term. If a piece of content is engaged with socially, the social signals tend to correlate (greatly) with that content’s organic ranking.

However, socialized optimization is taking yet another massive leap forward on its quest to dictate search results; this is due (in large part) to Google+ and its impact on search results. Eric Enge wrote a great post for Search Engine Watch on how Google+ impacts search results. The issue here is that we’re beginning to see large shifts in search results based upon a user’s personal social network. If a piece of content is engaged with socially by someone in your network, the content’s organic ranking may increase for your search specifically.

A comparison, in plain English:

Using social cues as a general indicator: “If a bunch of people share [this] then it must be relevant for other people.”

Using social cues in relation to individual users: “If your friend Johnny shares [this] then it must be relevant to you because you’re friends with Johnny.”

Essentially, the results you’ll begin to see will be altered based upon your social network (again, big emphasis on Google+ here) and what your personal network deems relevant for whatever key phrase you’re searching for. Google continues its use of peer review, only now the peer group is your online peer group. There are some pretty staggering implications here; some are good, some are not so good and some I’m not sure about yet.

The implications of socialized optimization: limited content exposure?

My very first concern surrounding socialized optimization is the creation of “content bubbles”. Online social groups carry the same level of stratification as “real” social groups in that people generally engage with people of like mind or similar interests. Your friends are your friends because of the common ground you share. This is a seemingly excellent reason for Google to begin using your personal social network’s online interaction in order to custom tailor your search experience. It’s a very safe assumption that what is relevant for your friend(s) will also end up being relevant for you.

The way I see it, Google has taken a very bold step in personalizing search results by using your social network in order to build a digital paradigm from which it can assume you are viewing the content world. The grave danger here however is the fact that, while they may be honing their ability to deliver the content you may want to see, they’re inhibiting your ability to discover content you may not be aware of. This is especially true for users of limited social variation, which I believe to be far more prevalent than we may be willing to admit.

An example that comes to mind: If a person with certain political leanings searches “global warming” they may receive much different results than someone with diametrically opposed political leanings.

For an already polarizing topic, Google is essentially contributing to the polarization by limiting the results a user receives to only those they’ll find most aligned with their own political viewpoint. In a very strange way, it is agreement by omission where Google is allowing us the opportunity to guard ourselves against opposing viewpoints.

While the example above is fairly linear, the implications are much more complex. Students on the east coast may end up with less visibility of colleges on the west coast (or vice versa), researching “flu remedies” will see holistic approaches pushed down in rankings if you have a few Doctors in your network, you may have never discovered “50 Shades of Grey” if your book club is also your Bible study group, etc.

The use of a person’s social circle as an indicator of content relevance has the potential to place them in a content bubble. This content bubble can limit the information available to them, not necessarily through omitting alternative content (the content still exists) but by pre-filtering that content according to the actions their peers have taken towards the topic.

Kasim Aslam
Kasim Aslam is a digital marketer and principal of Solutions 8, a digital marketing and website design firm that provides a relative one-stop shop for all of your digital marketing needs. Solutions 8 specializes in strategic SEO, web design, marketing automation, and content creation. Follow Kasim on twitter @kasimaslam.
Kasim Aslam

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12 thoughts on “The Dangers of ‘Socialized Optimization’: Are You Living in a Content Bubble?

  1. Wonderful article, Kasim! I agree with you that some industries only rank because their competitors are behind the times and don’t produce enough fresh content on a daily or weekly basis.

    I also wonder if Google will factor in what Facebook has already figured out — that not everyone you’re “friends” with is your friend. I don’t care to see something one of my “frienemies” liked on the internet, and I certainly don’t want what they liked to rank in my search results.

    Good thoughts all around on this subject. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for the note James!

      I love the idea of Google pulling together some type of friendship hierarchy to determine ranking impact. I hadn’t thought of that but it seems like a very logical step. A brand new blog is materializing in my mind :-) The question would be whether or not they have enough visibility within social networks outside of Google + to pull something like that off. I’m assuming friends would be ranked according to interaction (and that interaction ranked according to topic) but I have little knowledge of how much Google can “see” behind the curtain of networks like Facebook. Time for some research…

      1. You’re very welcome! I’m glad I inspired you to delve deeper into that issue. I would love to know myself.

      2. Google already ranks your connections. You mention criticism I also have of the socialization of search. But as I see developments going now Google is doing pretty well with the combination of social and semantic search. And I suspect they are way ahead of the curve. I highly advise you to become more active on Google+ where you can experience developments at first hand.

  2. Jason,

    This is an extremelyvwell constructed piece and I applaud for recognizing this important shift. That said, this has been coming for a long time, and some linking strategists have been warning and advising about content (and link saturation) for years. You may find this column from 2007 especially relevant “Your Site’s Manifest Link Destiny”

    Things are finally getting interesting. It’s no longer about who has the least worst spam, it’s about who has the best solution to the searchers needs and how strategically they spread that solution, whether it’s a web page, app, video, or whatever content form, as google gets more and more content type agnostic.

    The content promotion strategy artist will control the future.

    Eric Ward
    Content Promotion Strategies Since 1994. Yes, 1994.

    1. Thanks for the note Eric – content promotion is becoming so much more multi-faceted than many of us dreamed would be possible. From reading your article it looks like you were ahead of the trend. I tip my hat :-)

  3. Well, details of this post are thought provoking! One begins to wonder if Google is readily turning out “relevant” searches for its interest or for the interest of searchers.

    The socialization optimization theory and the content saturation hint should not be entirely ignored by marketers. These could really prove the trend and future of search and marketing. Better knowledge is still helpful to make solid decision!

    1. Thanks for the comment! The lines are definitely getting more and more blurred as time wears on in regards to what “relevant” really means. Contextual search is another piece of the puzzle that I didn’t really touch upon here but adding that to the mix makes the future of optimization a little confusing.

  4. Thanks for this article. What concerns me about Google is their control over how successful we will be online and now I discover that they also determine what I will see from a Google search, based on their perception of my interests.

    In my opinion, they have too much power. ‘Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

    I want my life back Google!.

    1. Haha! They definitely have quite the handle on making themselves indispensable. Over all I’m a pretty big fan of the company and what they’ve been able to accomplish but if they ever do go rogue we’re all in a lot of trouble :-)