CT No.42: Algorithmic equity in crisis

Finding and distributing content in a time of crisis if you're not a health organization

This week I’ve been thinking about an insidious acronym characters used in Succession: NRPI. It stands for No Real Person Involved. In the show, it was used to describe a situation in which a person was killed, but the fatality was not an employee or a customer of the company. “No Real Person Involved.”

The acronym itself is a fictionalized account of exactly what the U.S. is doing now: covering up and “opening the economy,” even though 70,000+ very real people have died and the numbers are only going up. As I watch businesses rush to deem themselves “essential” to get employees back in the office (even though they were working just fine from home), I think about the transportation workers, the cleaning crews, and healthcare workers that we’re so busy “saluting” and not protecting.

I think about all the people actively denying the current death toll, the spread of the disease, arguing that “for the sake of the economy” we must sacrifice the vulnerable. As if there is no other alternative. As if we cannot imagine another way of supporting each other besides working people to death.

All Real People Involved.

Anyway. Today’s newsletter is about the Google algorithm, but the people are very much on my mind.

On Tuesday, I partnered with Qordoba on a webinar about narrative and storytelling during the era of COVID-19. It was a great experience and very cool to talk narrative theory and marketing at the same time. If you missed it, you can access the recording and slides here. Some observations:

  • Giving a Zoom webinar with absolutely no understanding of how the audience is feeling is really strange! Usually I try to scan faces and see what’s resonating, but I had no idea what anyone thought. I was glad I could at least see the face of my awesome host, Qordoba CEO May Habib. But literally no one else! It was surreal. #babysfirstwebinar

  • Based on one of the questions I received, I realized I was using the terms storytelling and narrative interchangeably, and I wished I’d clarified that ahead of time. They aren’t always interchangeable! Note to self: define your terms.

  • It’s hard to be a communicator right now. (It is hard to be a person right now.) We’re all exhausted from reading and responding, heartbroken from empathizing, feeling completely worn out and powerless. You’re doing a good job (unless you’re bullying someone into “reopening the economy,” in which case, I don’t know why you’re here). But you’re doing a good job, communicators.

Search equity in an ever-evolving crisis

While seeking examples for the webinar, I had a difficult time finding the examples in Google I knew that I needed. Any term with “coronavirus” or “COVID-19” appended to a search term is immediately being directed to health content, as it should be.

Google’s algorithm didn’t understand my queries of “content marketing examples during coronavirus.” The search engine either provided me with very old examples of content marketing OR coronavirus-related health content.

Queries with COVID and Coronavirus terms are either being managed directly by people (editorial), or they’re processed by a separate algorithm (partial editorial?).* The search engine results pages (SERPs) for corona-related queries have new features. They’re highly touched.

The rest of the queries are subject to Google’s normal standards for Authority, which means they’re subject to the equity a website has built up over time.

*If Google creates a new version of its algorithm to handle brand new public health issues, does that count as editorial? I think so…

What is SEO equity?

Here’s my original explanation of How Search Algorithms Work, if you want to know how I understand this whole rigamarole. Equity is one of many ranking signals.

Search Equity describes how well a website has stood the test of time. Like equity in a home or company, SEO equity describes how much authority Google believes a specific website has around a topic, as represented by current placement in search results and traffic. If a website has more equity in a specific topic area (or entity), it will generally rank higher.

Equity gets mentioned most during redesigns, as it’s closely tied to a URL. If you change the URL of a page, ever, you need to ensure that a 301 redirect is in place so you do not lose that search equity. If you change a URL and do not redirect it, your SEO pro will yell at you to your face or curse you behind your back, depending on your relationship.

What an SEO pro says if you redesigned your website without an equity audit and proper redirect map

Equity is hard won and easily lost. These days, failing to implement 301 redirects is less catastrophic and slightly more reparable than it used to be, especially if you’re an established brand. (But your SEO pro will still curse at you behind your back if you don’t take care of your redirects ahead of time.)

Equity also represents Google’s institutional memory. It’s how blogs that were established in the early 2010s remain at the top of search results even though they provide very little new, or poorly updated information. It’s why we add “2020” to all our Google-able questions that might pull up some old info (like bad email marketing stats): “Content marketing best practices 2020.”

Generally older websites have more equity, as long as they’ve been managed properly. Bigger brands are able to develop equity quicker than newer brands, more likely because they have more resources to optimize for search.

If that same janky blog post from 2009 is still one of your top landing pages, even though you’re producing way cooler stuff now, it’s probably because the post has a lot of equity.

Google equity only ever wants you to play your hit songs, even when you have better new material.

Again: equity is one of many ranking signals, but the algorithm tends to reward the same websites over time. Resources like IMDB and Wikipedia have a seemingly infinite amount of equity, even though they have not been updated in years. The websites that were considered most valuable ten years ago are still considered most valuable today for non-news-related search queries.

Equity is why a successful entrepreneur friend can’t get a short film she made 15 years ago out of her core search results, even though she is in the news for her more recent, far more high-profile business. IMDB > TechCrunch/Twitter/etc when it comes to the Knowledge Graph, I guess.

Equity is why you can’t get that embarrassing HuffPo you wrote in your 20s out of your search results, even though you may have written way better work since then.

I don’t know when or how Google flushes its equity measure. When does it say “ok 2012 is a really long time ago and human behavior has changed significantly since then. Let’s find some more recent authoritative results”?

Equity wasn’t as much of a problem five years ago, when there were five years fewer search results, but the current crisis is certainly shining a light on how many of our systems are inadequate, including the digital ones created to handle authority.

How Google handles time-sensitive material

Google’s news results have always been a workaround for brand new, time-sensitive information. Qualified publishers with correctly implemented markup are listed in the news feed. (Many small publishers still haven’t implemented this markup yet, which is a massive problem in the local news industry, but… that’s another tangent.)

I haven’t done a ton of work trying to figure out the news algorithm, but its equity favors news sites with a reputation, versus new sources. The New York Times and CNN are far more likely to show up because they have significant brand trust and equity. (How this impacts so-called filter bubbles is another issue… so many parentheticals and footnotes!)

Branded content is not listed in the News tab ever, and especially not in a public health crisis. Google is being extra cautious about only showing reputable sources during a public health crisis. So, basically: unless you work for a highly authoritative news source, the COVID-19 awareness or informational content you’ve created is not showing up in search results.

How to distribute coronavirus-related content when Google isn’t going to index it for you

Eventually, in trying to find good examples of coronavirus-related content, I turned back to my inbox. Google really failed me for the first time in… a while. All y’all’s email newsletters had what I was looking for.

First off, I’m giving this advice in good faith that you’re only providing the resources that your business has authority to provide. Please please please don’t spread misinformation and link to qualified sources when applicable!

But content that provides information about your business, comfort, distractions for children, new examples of creativity, or personal stories of how people are coping: that’s all welcome for the audiences who want to find it.

Right now, if you’re publishing any coronavirus crisis resources or business information for new or existing clients or customers, I’d recommend the following owned media distribution strategy:

  • Link new resources that help customers/clients with information on your homepage so people can easily find information.

  • Email! Clearly I’m an email fan, but a well-written empathetic newsletter with good links is worth its weight in gold. Email newsletters have been enormously helpful in connecting me with financial and personal resources.

  • Social channels, of course. My partner goes to Instagram first these days to find information about restaurants or local businesses. (I go to websites first.)

  • Keep your info updated and keep re-distributing. Resources that may have missed an audience the first time around may find a new audience a few weeks later. I’m far more open to new content now than I was three weeks ago, and other audiences are feeling the same.

  • Keep in mind: You won’t hit the same traffic numbers that you did this time last year, or any time before March 2020. Accept that, and understand your audience’s new state of mind. Establish new benchmarks.

Don’t expect Google to keep up-to-date information, is what I’m saying.

Are you new here? You can

A tool to solve the worst part of my job: ContentSnare

The worst thing about being in any sort of editorial or web or app or design or publishing position is having to ask for content. Over and over again. You are always chasing the content.

You are chasing content from the people who you like but who are busy and have forgotten about their deadlines. You are chasing the content from the people you dislike and they missed their deadlines of course they would. And then when you get it, it’s not right. Even if you put all of the requirements in a project management platform or an email, the person who has the content didn’t go back and read the email or the Trello card.

You are always chasing the content. You are always following up. “Hi your blog post is due on Friday just a reminder,” you send to random stakeholder on Wednesday. On Monday you follow up again, “Still did not receive that blog post hey.” And so on.

You say to your colleagues, I never signed up to be a project manager. And the project managers say, I don’t like it any more than you do.

And everyone is annoyed and you still don’t have the content.

Enter ContentSnare.

ContentSnare at a glance

ContentSnare automates content requests and reminders. That’s it. It’s a single-use tool that’s an easy add-on to an existing process. ContentSnare capabilities include:

  • Setting up templates for commonly requested content types, like web templates, articles, or analytics information

  • Client-specific guidelines and deadlines

  • Client/user-specific dashboards so they can see everything they have due at once

  • Automated reminders when content is due

  • Automated follow-ups when content is not due

  • Collects all content in the same place

ContentSnare’s target audience is web designers, but can be applied to any content-chasing role, like conference programmer, client intake information, or designer/editor. The thing about automated reminders: there are no feelings involved. The reminder goes out, and the content collector doesn’t have to feel like they’re bugging anyone. You can send a reminder every day after the deadline if you want to!

(I mean, clients can ignore automated emails just as easily as they can ignore personal ones, but there’s a certain point where you just need to send the content already.)

Giant multiservice content platforms on the market also provide similar features, but one-size-fits-all tools with multiple features have a way of complicating operations that were already working (i.e., word processing). ContentSnare is incredibly intuitive.

It’s fairly new on the market, so it doesn’t integrate with outside tools yet, but for my use cases, it doesn’t really need to.

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