CT No.8: What is innovation worth?

"Why men great til they gotta be great?"

MSP Content Innovators Happy Hour is on October 7! Tickets available here.

Hello, new subscribers! This is a heavier issue than most. Full gif-age will be back next week.

It matters where the money comes from. It matters who runs the show.

This past weekend Joichi Ito resigned as the director of the MIT Media Lab. Ito is a technologist and innovator. I read and enjoy his writing. He was the Chairman of Creative Commons, which is generally consider to be a good internet thing although... super flawed in many respects. As an investor, he backed many of the most innovative companies of the past 20 years like Kickstarter, Flickr, and so many others. But at the MIT Media Lab, he deliberately masked and hid that he took money from Jeffrey Epstein, even though he was a known sex offender. Read the call for resignation from MIT Media Lab student Arwa Mboya, which should have been enough, but... You can also read the story in The New Yorker.

This year is rife with news items that make me physically ill, but none disturbs me more than Epstein and all of the very rich and very powerful that he knew and indulged. I am a cynic, but an optimistic one, and I realize that optimism can be another word for myopia. I had somehow avoided news of Epstein before this year. Even in these dark times, a year ago I probably would have scoffed if you told me "There is a secret cabal of very rich and powerful men that systematically exploits teenagers for their own gratification." I would have told you that shit is for the movies.

It is not. It clearly happened. It is still happening. We need to talk about what enables the kind of behavior that minimizes others’ autonomy. It’s not a league of naive “good guys” who occasionally have to deal with “bad apples.” All of the “good guys” are far more powerful than they would care to admit. If they were to admit how much autonomy they crushed for the sake of business growth or innovation, well… that would hold them accountable.

The twentieth century American workplace held the pernicious belief that professionals do not talk about politics. That belief upholds severe racial- and gender-based inequalities in the technology industry. That belief enables businesses to compromise the autonomy of others so that we can have more money, more comfort and less day-to-day conflict. I'm happy that my generation is hacking that dictate to shreds with axes.

It's more evident than ever that money and politics are conjoined twins. As twenty-first century innovators, we need to be keenly aware of where our money comes from and where it is going. We need to focus on where our money comes from, what else it funds.

New technology and new ideas are expensive. You have to be willing to burn money if you're going to “fail fast and fail often.” I don’t really believe in venture capital, but I understand why it works for some businesses. I do believe that businesses have a responsible to understand who their funders/clients/backers are, who they associate with, and what they support. As businesspeople, we have a responsibility to say no to money made from the deliberate and knowledgable harm of other people or of the environment. As people, we have a responsibility to protect.

There is no innovation worth the oppression of other people. There is no innovation worth the destruction of the environment.

That said, I don't knowingly review or advocate for tools where business owners or executives have been accused of sexual harassment. (I don’t actively recommend Google products for this reason, btw.) That's a foundational principle of my business.

The Ito news is a disappointment. The Gates associations leave me feeling squicky, even if Bill was just meeting with Epstein because “he knew a lot of rich people.” It's disappointing that other men have come to Ito’s defense with “You need to take shit money to innovate because that’s how the system works.”

I also encourage you to read Stacy-Marie Ishmael’s essay from her weekly The Main Event, my number-one can't-miss newsletter. Kara Swisher’s op-ed, which broadens the issue, also resonated. You can also read about the Candor Clause from friends at Soona.

If we are going to fix what is broken, we need to talk about why. We have so much more work to do.

A/B testing for better search visibility: RankScience

For several recent projects, I’ve been revisiting the information-saturated, slightly redundant world of SEO software. There are virtual barrels of tools that can help with SEO, and they boast features that fall into the below four buckets:

  • Technical SEO, which analyzes factors like site speed, page structure, asset optimization, crawl budgets, etc.

  • Backlink analysis tools, which identify which websites link to yours and can aid in finding new opportunities to build relevant links between domains.

  • Keyword research and content optimization tools, which help find the terms that audiences use to describe products and services and the terms that Google identifies as important to a specific entity. I reviewed a keyword/content optimization tool called Clearscope a few weeks ago.

  • Rank trackers, which… do just that. They track positions on search engine results pages.

On-page conversion rate optimization (CRO) software tools have been fairly common for the past five years. These tools render two versions of a website/page — usually with major design changes— to determine which is most successful at producing a specific outcome. Nine times out of ten the “specific outcome” is a completed form or a call, some kind of basic marketing CTA.

So imagine my delight at finding software that A/B tests SEO outcomes!

At a glance: RankScience

RankScience is an A/B testing tool for SEO snippets and structure. Designed for large websites, particularly those with many iterations of the same type of page, RankScience splits similar pages into logical groups to test which ranking factors are most effective. Some of the SEO ranking factors RankScience can test include:

  • Title tag / meta description formats

  • Content positioning (i.e., whether the H1 should be placed above or below the hero image)

  • Structured data and schema markup format

  • Alt text format

  • More behind-the-scenes SEO goodness like seasonality and algorithm changes.

Back when I was a full-time SEO, we would try to run experiments on title tag formatting but they were riddled with human error and really weren’t very scientific at all. We were never able to come to any definitive conclusion as to whether a title tag formatted “Cool Cats (Photos) | Wow | Brand name” ranked higher or drove more clickthroughs than “Cat Photos | Cool | Wow | Brand name.” Rank Science solves that problem.

It may seem negligible, but small tweaks can make a big difference in your visibility in organic search results, which can make a big difference in engagement. (Please also note: make sure that once people click through they’re engaged and finding what they need and all that.)

RankScience is my favorite kind of automation: it solves problems at scale that humans are literally not able to solve at any scalable level that provides meaningful ROI. That said, it’s really for hardcore SEO users who have already optimized their / websites to the umpteenth degree. RankScience is not built for small businesses; it’s for websites with thousands of pages, those content-driven or ecommerce websites that have enough content to make formatting tweaks at a scalable level.

And as an SEO nerd, I have to say: it’s really cool.

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