Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Popularity vs. Accuracy

I've been in a few discussions lately on the topic of the Google search algorithm - specifically, with people who suspect that it is geared toward promoting the "big" sites and/or making sure that the smaller sites are hard to find.

Aside of conspiracy paranoia and the irrational fear of bigness (put the term "big" in from of anything and it's automatically regarded as evil: big business, big government, big media, big fruit), there's a shred of logic beneath the hysteria.

While Google keeps its ranking algorithm a trade secret (which is understandable, though it feeds the panic and suspicion), the general notion is that it ranks "big" sites first - a site that's already popular with a lot of people, by virtue of clicking it in the search results or making links to it from other sites, is likely to be more relevant to the search phrase than one that no-one seems to be paying attention to.

The problem is: that makes it difficult for a new site or page that is more closely related to a given topic to overcome the "power" that has been built up by existing pages on the same topic.

Hence, a one-paragraph blurb on Wikipedia far outranks an entire site that contains comprehensive information on the very same topic - not because it's a better source of information, but because it's been around longer, so more people know about it, have clicked it in the search results, have linked to it from their own pages.

As such, a search engine that relies upon (past) popularity and relevancy will, over time, serve to maintain the prominence of less informative or authoritative sources of information. I'm stuck for an answer to the problem, short of blowing out the buffers to reset the balance of power from time to time.

On the upside, Google's practice has largely overcome the problem of SEO spamming, which was a widespread problem in the era when search engines used the content of a page to determine its meaning - and companies that wanted to attract attention would lace their pages with popular search terms to mislead users into visiting their sites when they were looking for something else. Not that the practice is entirely dead, but it's much less prevalent than it once was.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Transcending Mimesis

On my commute this evening, I stopped at a light and saw a car with faux-wood paneling. The funny thing is that it wasn't a 1970's Oldsmobuick driven by an old man with thick spectacles and a hat with earflaps, but a relatively recent model - a PT Cruiser. It was the goofiest thing I'd seen lately, risible yet confounding: why would they do that?

I expect that wood paneling on cars was done back in the early days: the automobile was a newfangled contraption, and adding wood paneling made it look more like the horse-drawn carriages that people of that time found more familiar and comforting. Though it was patently unnecessary, inefficient, and just plain bad design, I suppose it made the transition a bit more comfortable for consumers.

But it's just not needed anymore, and seems rather silly. I'm sure that I'm not the only person for whom the sight of wood paneling seems ridiculous. But before you snicker, take a look at your rims ... don't they look a lot like chrome-plated wagon wheels? Are those thick spokes even necessary anymore? Aren't they aerodynamically inefficient?

And for that matter, do they really need to look like wagon wheels? It's doubtful that anyone living today has ever had to travel by horse-drawn wagon, so I don't expect it has the same psychological effect as wood paneling, nor is it needed. It's a vestigial tail that evolution hasn't quite transcended.

This put me in mind of the design principles of the early Internet, back in the mid-nineties when the "population" of the Internet was doubling every six months ... which meant that 50% of your user base was brand-new to the Internet, and presumably found it to be a weird, unfamiliar, and scary place.

The design guidance to overcome this was to try to make Web sites mimetic of real-world interactions. The goal for an e-commerce site was to resemble a real-store experience to make users more comfortable with this newfangled way of shopping. Fortunately, the limitations of bandwidth and the primitive state of interactive animation at the time prevented this from being achieved.

I say "fortunately" because the store experience, while familiar, is anything but efficient. It involves a lot of time and effort that, in a real-world environment, doesn't seem as much a burden as it would in the virtual world of the computer. You don't mind a two-minute walk to the back of the store to get the items there, though on the Internet, spending two minutes scrolling through a labyrinth of 3D virtual aisles would be intolerable.

And as a result, consumers have come to accept and appreciate the unique qualities of the Web - it's new and different, not at all like the real-worked experience of shopping a store or finding a book in a library - and we accept that as a Good Thing. I don't think that anyone would have appreciated a cell phone with a rotary dial, no matter how much it mimed the "real" telephones of the time. (My guess is that "there's an app for that" - though it's probably not very popular.)

But at the same time, there are vestigial tails in the most modern of devices. A good example is the "bookshelf" on the iPod - in which material is displayed in a rack, just like "real" books. There are even animation effects when you turn the pages. But why should an e-book have pages? It's as unnecessary, inefficient, preposterous, and stupid as wood paneling on a car ... and yet, there it is.

So in the end, we still have a way to go toward transcending mimesis and accepting that technology is a thing unto itself, that doesn't need to mimic obsolete technologies, but which can happily "just be itself" and exploit the capabilities of the medium, with no regret for the passing of the old.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Using Competitive Intelligence

I've added study notes about T.J. Waters's book on competitive intelligence to my site. It was a daily easy read, due to the author's narrative style - but for the same reason, I'm not entirely confident I was able to distill the meaning the author intended to convey. It's a drawback of the narrative style, not necessarily just this book or author, in that narratives tend to ramble and go off-course, as the information the author might have intended to convey was distorted or subsumed by the "story" used to communicate it ... but that's metadiscourse.

My general sense is that the author intended to convey information about competitive intelligence: gathering information about markets, organizations, and even individuals that can be used to uncover opportunities and reduce the uncertainty of the strategic planning process as well as tactical maneuvers: the more you know, the greater certainty with which you can act.

At the same time, I have some reservations. The book is highly superficial, and I've found that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. A person who acts boldly and confidently based on wrong information and specious assumptions tends to make bigger mistakes and do more damage than one who accepts the uncertainty of a situation and proceeds with greater caution, acknowledging that there are many things he doesn't know, and being well aware of the risk inherent in his own assumptions.

All the same, it's an interesting read, and a worthwhile practice, and while the author's survey is fairly superficial, it's a good enough introduction and food for thought.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


It seems that panic is back in fashion, drummed up over yet another social networking site that aggregates information that is already in full view of the public, and users are being coaxed (by the media, as well as the company itself) to sign up and "claim" the profiles so that they can see what is being published about them, and perhaps exercise some modicum of control.

Like all fashions, panic goes away and comes back again a few years later. It's been going on ever since telephone directories went online and people were horrified by the notion that their name, address, and phone number were "on the Internet" for anyone to see (never mind that the same information is already in the phone book, and hundreds of public records.)

In truth, assembling intelligence on individuals is a practice that began long before the Internet. The gathering of "files" on individuals goes back decades, or centuries, or even millennia. Roman emperors gathered intelligence on their enemies, political rivals, and even private citizens that might support or oppose their will. It probably goes back even further than that - so it's not a new threat at all.

What's different now is that some of the information is now more readily accessible to more people than it was before. Those whom you'd least like to have it - government agencies, marketing firms, employers, and others that might use it to exploit you or deny you access to opportunities - have had the same kind of information, and much more, at their fingertips for years.

The advent of social media - Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, LinkedIn, and more - gives people the opportunity to push out even more information about themselves and others whom they know, with the illusion of being able to control who gets to see it. But after so many incidents in which a computer glitch or a change in terms of service have exposed information that was submitted under the auspices of a privacy policy, who can trust in them anymore?

All in all, the sues and abuses of personal information leave me unable to come to a firm conclusion over whether it's a good thing or a bad thing - but whichever way I find myself leaning, I have to conceded that the availability of our personal details is a thing - a fact - that we'll all have to live with, for better or for worse.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Personality Characteristics Evident in Product Ratings

I've been curious for some time about the reliability of "ratings and reviews" posted to e-commerce Web sites, in which ordinary people rate and review products, sharing their experiences with others. There's not much secondary research on the topic, so I conducted an informal study of product ratings, subjecting a random sampling to text analysis to determine certain factors about those individuals who post ratings, with an eye toward their reliability and motivation for doing so.

What I found was a bit surprising, though not entirely counterintuitive: the personality types that are evident in the content of reviews would seem to suggest that people who post reviews to commercial sites don't fall into the categories of personality who seek to be helpful to others. Instead, they fall into the personality categories of individuals who are narcissistic and domineering, concerned with stoking their esteem rather than helping others.

As a buyer of goods on the Internet, what I found is definitely going to make me more reluctant to trust reviews, especially the good ones, in that they are not so much the product of a person who wants to help me, but a person who wants me to help him feel smarter about himself by following the same decision, regardless of the outcome.

On the other hand, sellers can still find a way to benefit from ratings and reviews: while customer ratings are clearly disingenuous and of little use to the prospective customer, those who post reviews (who have already purchased toe product) will be able to use ratings and reviews to feed their psychological desires, which is likely to be a positive brand association that will reinforce their decision and make them less likely to switch brands or retailers at the next opportunity to repurchase.

That's not to say that online ratings and reviews are altogether useless - a small proportion of them are posted by people whose genuine interest is in being helpful to others, and by analyzing the text content of their post, retailers who want to make product reviews more beneficial to buyers could use the same tools to "flag" posts that are disingenuous and remove, or at least downplay them.

But until such a solution is in place on the server side, buyers will need to be wary of ratings and reviews.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Building Customer-Brand Relationships

I've added reading notes to my site on a book entitled Building Customer-Brand Relationships, which is less about customer-brand relationships and more about the changing nature of consumer marketing in an increasingly competitive environment in which the seat of power has been ceded to the customer rather than the marketer.

To be frank, there's much I don't like about this book: it attempts to present ideas as "new" that are merely paraphrases of the old, it dismisses established theories on a whim without substituting a rational alternative, it is often based on thin evidence and specious reasoning, it has a pubescent fascination with fads that had already worn thin by the publication date, and it often expounds upon the obvious.

Even so, it's grist for the mill and, in spite of its flaws, addresses a notion that has been slowly regaining popularity: that by virtue of choice in a competitive marketplace, the customer is in full control - and companies that mistake them for gullible creatures that are easily herded will invariably find themselves without a customer base when a competitor offers them a better deal.

My sense is that this is not new or revolutionary: focusing on the specific needs and behaviors of the individual customer, as opposed to consolidating them into masses and presuming them to be uniform, should be familiar to the front-line staff who interact with the customer in a direct manner, especially in retail and businesses-to-business. There is much knowledge from those specialized disciplines that can and should be applied to marketing in general .... but this book doesn't do so.

Also, the individual needs of the customer have been forgotten, overlooked, or pointedly ignored by those who market to the masses - and perhaps justly so, as the channels through which "the masses" can be reached do not have an affordance for personalization. In the rare instances in which they might have, it was simply inefficient to attempt to gather intelligence and tailor tactics to the individual customer or prospect. It's primarily the emergence of new media and new tools of data collection and processing that make it possible to approach the masses .... but the authors give this notion a passing mention without detailed consideration.

So in the end, the book is a (just) repudiation of mass marketing techniques as an outdated practice, and a strategy that will fail when challenged by a competitor whose efforts are better tailored to the individual customer - but in a dismissive and superficial manner that doesn't provide much guidance or instill much confidence.