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

Have the latest updates to Google's always evolving algorithm signaled the beginning of user generated content bubbles? The future of website optimization has changed...again.

“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.

Google’s ambition of delivering the results we want is coming to fruition with the painful realization that what we know we want may pale in comparison to the ever greater alternative of finding something we didn’t know we wanted.

On a side note…

There should also be a discussion surrounding the correlations between specific interests and how, even though you may only engage with users on specific topics, your social group is now able to influence the results you see across other topics with which you have no similar interests.

Let’s take another fictitious example. Let’s say you’re a fan of the imaginary sports team “The Red Sand Ballers”. It so happens that a statistically relevant majority of Red Sand Baller fans are Martians, and a statistically relevant majority of Martians are also staunch Anarchists. Via socialized optimization, you may find yourself stumbling across and viewing more content that is favored by Anarchists. OK that was a little out there, but by taking an exaggerated and fantastical example, hopefully this illustrates the pervasive implications of this concept.

Content saturation… a solution?

I do believe that socialized optimization is a double-edged sword and, where I’ve already highlighted my concern over one negative aspect, the positive I see centers on Google’s increased ability to provide even more relevant and personalized information.

Another positive note I’ll offer is one of enlightened self-interest: socialized optimization helps mitigate the dangers of content saturation.

As a digital marketer I am painfully aware that, at the end of the day, we are more parts “content creator” than anything else. One thing that has always terrified me is the question: “What happens when we reach content saturation?”

While this is a greater danger in some industries than in others it is still something that we should consider, especially for industries that are more static on the “frequency of change” spectrum.

A specific example: one of our clients is a large pediatric dentist group in Phoenix. In a little under a year, we’ve been able to bring them up to the top half of the first page for nearly every single key phrase they’ve thrown at us.

While I could pretend that this is because I’m an absolute genius at SEO, the truth is that our success has been in large part due to the fact that they are in an industry that is very plainly behind the times. Their competitors don’t create compelling content so they don’t rank.

The question I’m forced to ask myself however, is what happens when the competitors do catch on? What will the landscape look like when every single dentist in Phoenix  understands the massive importance of high-value content creation and begins flooding the digital airwaves with good quality, creative content?

I believe the digital marketing arena already has in some respects, especially in regards to social media strategies. The reason socialized optimization abates this problem is that, where all else is equal from a quality content perspective, you now have the opportunity to best your competition through the aggregation of individuals who have a robust social network.

Socialized optimization creates a brand new playing field on which to capitalize. When content creation is no longer the end game, socialized optimization will begin the hunt for social demographic hubs.

“Social Demographic Hubs”

I use the term “social demographic hub” to refer to a person who has a large network in any specific demographic. This is not the same thing as a thought leader or social influencer. A thought leader is a well-known expert for an industry or subject, and a social influencer is a person who is effective at sharing and spreading online conversations.

Both thought leaders and social influencers are leaders and are proactive with their digital presence. Social demographic hubs (which I’ll refer to plainly as “hubs” from now on) are not necessarily either of these.

While a thought leader or social influencer can be a hub, a hub doesn’t need to be a thought leader or social influencer. There are far more hubs than there are thought leaders and social influencers combined. A hub’s greatest distinction is that s/he has a large network of people that fit within a specific demographic; they don’t even have to be extremely active on social media.

With the rise of socialized optimization, hubs are going to become the new golden needles in the digital marketing haystack. Getting hubs to interact with your brand (like, +1, share, comment, etc.) will expose your brand to their entire database. Because hubs aren’t, as a necessity, extremely active (at least not as active as thought leaders or social influencers) determining who and where they are is going to be a challenge and will vary in difficulty, based upon the target demographic.

Using my earlier example of the pediatric dentist: for this client we might seek out members of a few local PTAs and offer them a special promotion on their children’s dental cleaning or exams. Even though they’re not social influencers in the traditional sense of the term the fact that they’re entrenched socially with our target demographic makes their social interaction just as valuable.

In fact, the hub’s value is potentially higher than a social influencer, since the context is far more subtle and organic. As soon as a hub engages with our brand, the “trap” is set. The immediate benefit is nominal but in a day/week/month/year from that point when someone in their network searches for “pediatric dentists” we are now far more likely to show up in their organic rankings.

What’s interesting to me about the thought of targeting hubs is the fact that the content required in their acquisition isn’t necessarily going to be directly related to an organization’s products/services. This brings about the issue of content relevance.

The question of content relevance

In the content marketing game, the key factor in determining content quality has always been (and will continue to be) relevance. Google’s search results are based upon relevance. When dealing with socialized optimization and the need to attract hubs, the relevance question that organizations ask themselves will change from “relevant to what?” to “relevant to whom?”

Take the example of a plumbing company. Plumbing doesn’t have a long term sales cycle, nor does it allow for an exceptionally high degree of ongoing user engagement (how often do you want to hear from your plumber?). However, a plumber can begin to provide content that isn’t necessarily relevant to their industry but is relevant to their demographic in order to take advantage of socialized optimization. Here’s an example:

Let’s assume our plumber is looking for recurring relationships and wants to target landlords. While there’s a fair amount of content that can be created around the need for quality plumbing when dealing with renters, at some point we’ll reach a content saturation threshold. Unless their target demographic is exceptionally proactive, they won’t happen across this content unless they’re explicitly looking for it.

This puts the plumbing company at a distinct disadvantage since they’re unable to prove engagement until the moment someone’s toilet is overflowing, at which point the engagement opportunity is extremely short-term.

The plumber can mitigate this risk however, by taking advantage of socialized optimization and begin providing content that is relevant to his/her target demographic with the aim of engaging their hubs. For instance, a content initiative revolving around the proper procedures when a landlord takes on a new renter; complete with checklists and downloads this type of initiative could include steps that also relate to plumbing but might (as a whole) have very little to do with the organizations direct service offerings.

However, the plumbing company has now positioned themselves for engagement with users who are their target demographic and, when the opportunity presents itself, will be more likely to engage with the plumbing company.

In providing this information to their target demographic (even though the content isn’t specifically relevant to their service) the company has also exposed their brand to the entire network of landlords for any hub they engage. Let’s say a landlord gives one of their content pieces a +1, this does little for them in the short term but ensures that any search for their service done by that landlord’s entire network is much more likely to yield their organization as a result.

Focusing their content strategy on being relevant to their target demographic instead of focusing their strategy on being relevant to specific key phrase searches surrounding their services positions them for long term success.

The example of a plumbing company is purposefully simplistic but I’m sure you can imagine the far reaching effects of this type of strategy. Organizations can (and should) begin creating content in an effort to attract their target demographic, and specifically their hubs, regardless of direct relevance to their products or services.

I do believe that, for the sake of credibility, an organization should strive to make some connection (even if indirect) between the content and their core service offering but that relevance has become secondary within the confines of this strategy.

The importance of shareability

The last topic of discussion is the increasing importance of optimized shareability within the realm of content creation. Because social cues are becoming an integral part in proving relevance the manner in which we create and distribute content needs to adjust accordingly. While the end game should still be to create highly relevant content there should also be an added emphasis on making sure that content is also highly shareable.

The most important step towards shareable content is ensuring that you make it easy for readers by providing social sharing prompts in convenient locations around your content. While this might sound like an obvious statement, I’m often surprised at how little thought goes into the positioning of social prompts.

In fact, the WordPress default position for the social sharing bar is at the top of the page. The problem with this, especially for longer articles, is that I’m at the bottom of the page by the time I’m done reading. Make sure your social prompts are positioned in a place that engages users at an appropriate point in the sharing process.

Another fantastic step towards increased shareability is re-purposing content. A 3,000 word blog (like this one) might not be quite as shareable as the infographic made to accompany it. Slideshare presentations and videos are also fantastic ways to re-purpose existing content in a way that makes it more appealing to a social browser. Visual media is more effective at engagement in the context of social media so even making sure to include images within your content whenever appropriate could increase its shareability.

Socialized optimization has a wide range of implications and it’s difficult to gauge just how disruptive it will be in the long term.

Image credit: Used under license.

Category Content
Kasim Aslam Founder at Solutions 8

Kasim is the founder and CEO of Solutions 8, a Certified Agency, and the author of The 7 Critical ...

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

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