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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Whuffie-Shoehorning (Part I)

The "have's" and the "have nots". My friend Mike Grehan has always talked about that divide in terms of link love. People with websites have (at least the chance) of voting for someone else's page or site with a link. People who don't, don't.

Yet search engines have focused a lot on linking behavior as a measure of quality and reputation. They've done so ever since Google bust on the scene with PageRank, in 1998.

But now that terrain has exploded. Signaling approval comes through reviews, mentions, and social media sharing, especially tweeting.

But the websites at the receiving end of all this have always had, and still do have, their own have-vs.-have-nots divide.

Great, content-building SEO's have always needed to come up with ways of taking a commercial website -- let's say one that sells "industrial varnish" -- and encouraging the owners to create some pages of useful content, so "the search engine spider" would have something to eat.

That's now an expanded mandate. As traditional social linking (come on, can we stop parroting the non-scientific Google sloganeering from 10 years ago that assumed that a "link is a vote for a page"?) has faded, all sorts of inbound link loving, mostly in different forms of social media and peer sharing, has exploded.

To supplement the "build content" piece, the content-SEO-experts' off-page SEO counterparts, the link-building coaches, might then give a traditional vendor website some tips on how to get more of the inbound link love that PageRank so loves.

But that's very tough if you sell "industrial varnish" (example picked at random). You will not have thousands of customers rallying around you cooing about your product: "Oh Dolores, did you see the fabulous new NG733002 over at www.varnishicco.com? I got the heads-up from Daily Candy. It's fabulous!"

So, a leading retailer in the industrial paints and varnishes space goes the sensible route. Submits to B2B directories. Has a few respected employees with LinkedIn profiles. The founders raise their profile and begin speaking at industrial safety conferences (what? is it the SEO's job to explain to companies the benefits of being a good citizen? sigh... we're underpaid). And unfortunately, a few other inbound links may or may not help with link juice: the ones that show the company as legal precedent in the footnotes of a legal proceeding in an employee lawsuit having to do with pension funds in a different company entirely.

And if everyone's really on the ball, they can create a whole educational section with "how-to's," etc., on the website. That is actually stuff that someone might link to or mention.

That's all pretty hard work! And it does to show that many vendor websites don't naturally lend themselves to "whuffie" (the giving or receiving of social reputation). It's a struggle for many to reach the same whuffie power as mere, chatty individuals (esp. those with a lot of time on their hands, making up for their friendless-in-high-school status with a ton of similarly-afflicted virtual chums), or "content websites" that may bring to the table thousands of useful articles and daily posts and conversations.

Frankly, this is not an indictment of the vendor sites, or any proof that they don't "get it". There is a Whuffie Power Law: chatty individuals and "content sites" naturally attract 100X or 1,000X the reputation elements of many "vendor sites". They live and breathe in a World of Whuffie.

And frankly, it points to a flaw in the mechanisms search engines use to measure reputation and the value of a page or website. (But don't think they're not aware of that flaw. It's more the hectoring, condescending SEM and social media consultants that will try to make their clients feel bad, when it is in fact an inherent flaw of last-generation search algorithms.)

Much of it (the whuffie-measurement thing as applied to search algorithms, that is) is about pure math, and about "how much". But if your "how much" realm has a max of (arbitrary number) 100, and the chatty individuals and content sites (like what you're enjoying right now) have a max of (arbitrary guess) of 10,000, the math is skewed. The bar is set too high for the "vendors." And they tie themselves in knots trying to figure out how to make themselves into something they're not. We're comparing apples and oranges. And unfortunately, in B2B especially, but in all commercial endeavors, the searcher isn't always looking for a video, a map, a clever article, a friend, or a tweet. They're looking for the best industrial varnish. And no one is tweeting about the awesome varnish their company bought in bulk, unless they're some kind of weird social media whore. And it might be smart for them to do it, given that they now make their favorite varnish maker into a "have," rescuing them from their "have-not" status... but the question is, just because someone tweeted it doesn't make it true. And search engines are supposed to have an interest in accuracy, and filtering out noise, spam, and untrue statements. They're bad at it, but they should have an interest in it long term.

I sympathize with the vendors who want to gain reputation, because they're playing on a non-level playing field. They're forced to shoehorn whuffie into the normal course of their operations, to make it look like they're on a par with Robert Scoble, Gawker, or Kate Kardashian. It's not because they're not reputable. It's because they're not celebrities, or social media showboats.

But shoehorn many of them must. We live in a whuffie world, and since Herbert Simon wrote about it in 1971 (as told by Chris Anderson), a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. Thus, in the attention economy, quiet and obscure is bad for nearly all vendors and nearly all brands, even the ones that aren't selling their own celebrity.

So they have a few options, not all of them perfect, like the content-creation and limited link solicitation mentioned above. I'll run through some more of them in the next part.

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