Books written by Ray Sullivan

Saturday, 13 April 2013

The Search is On

Our relationship with search engines is a bit of a symbiotic one.  We have a need to find something - a product, a service, some bawdy gossip about a celebrity - and an enormous internet to look for it.  Search engines have ways and means of looking for stuff; smart, clever ways that root out lots of links to a myriad of  websites relating to the information we are looking for.  And of course, although the search engines never ask us for any money, we pay handsomely for their services.

The main way we pay is a bit around the houses.  If I run a company that wants to be the first name you see when you run a search for a product like mine, then I can pay to ensure that my company is at the top of the list on page one.  To be honest, just ensuring I'm on page one is a good starting point.  Most good search engines will report dozens of pages of results, possibly hundreds for a popular search item or a vaguely specified one - we all know that less is more in search terms these days.  Most of us won't venture beyond page two, and that's only if the results at the end of page one are starting to look promising.  If we aren't close by the end of page one, we try another search.  If we do hit gold on page one, why would we go any further?

So I'm running a company that wants you to find me on the internet.  Money helps at this stage as I can pay to have my website pop up at the top of the page when a suitable search is made.  That's a sponsored ad and it's fairly clear to all searchers. It's great if they are looking for a company like mine, an irritation to those who aren't and have to wade down the list of sponsored links to get to the real results they are looking for. Nevertheless, I pass the costs of sponsorship on to my customers, who may include you at some point.

There are other ways of getting your website higher up the listings.  The ethical way is to have a website that people genuinely want to look at so much they spend a lot of time finding it and opening it - the smart search engines reward popular websites by nudging them to the top - and by that I mean just below the sponsored ads - of the first page.  The other way is to pay someone to help you get up there; phantom clicks seem to work, as do fancy words.  In fact a whole new industry has arisen in recent years, one that wouldn't have made any sense ten years ago if listed on a job-centre website - the SEO; Search Engine Optimiser.  Big companies employ their own, smaller ones rent time from newly established professionals.  Costs are accrued and we all pay for them somewhere.

So, at the top of your search page are the sponsored ads followed by the SEO-skewed results.  Below them should be the results that in a fair and just world you would have had at the top.  Of course, in that fictitious fair and just world you may have had the very same results that the sponsored ads and SEO inspired entries suggest, but often, they don't.

But the alternative, I guess, is that we wouldn't have search engines at all.  Why would anyone crawl the internet constantly, indexing websites, analysing links and putting faster and better routines in place to make all this happen if they didn't get paid for doing it?  Put it another way, if you were stopped on the street and asked for directions to the library, you'd probably point in the general direction and provide some instructions.  If you were then stopped and asked for directions to the railway station, you'd sigh, look at your watch, and give the information.  Then, just as you're about to continue your journey to work you are stopped and asked for information about the town's founding fathers.  Yes, you'd want paying, wouldn't you?

So, paying indirectly for search engines is probably a good thing.  Unless you're a civil libertarian, because increasingly search engines are collating information about you as you search so that they can provide their advertisers with data.  Suddenly, you are equity, your data has value and you are being traded.  OK, so they take a little bit of you every time you try to find out something, that's not so bad is it?  Probably not, although some organisations such as the European Union seem to dislike the actions of some search engines.  Specifically Google.

Google come in for a fair bit of flak over privacy these days, and I think it's for two good reasons.  The first is that they really don't seem to care about our privacy that much, after all, that data is how they make a lot of their income. The second reason is that they've become very big, the biggest search engine in the world.

The second biggest, in the UK at least, is Bing, Microsoft's own search engine.  I understand they have about 14% of the search engine business over here.  To be fair, Bing promote sponsored ads and are susceptible to SEO skewing.  As I said, they all want paying for the effort they put into finding you a restaurant.  Microsoft are pushing Bing as taking more care of our data and I suspect that they do.  For one, they have less of us to support their business, so they have to differentiate to make themselves more attractive.  Abusing our privacy less than Google is one way of achieving that without impinging on the sponsored ads and SEO skewing.  Also, Bing is a sideline to Microsoft, whereas Google search is core to Google.

But Google's better, right?  After all, Google has become a verb, to search.  As I pointed out a little while ago, Google are becoming a little sensitive about the way their name is becoming synonymous with using any search engine (see Unbelievagoogleable for more details).   Certainly, in the early days, Google were a breath of fresh air.  The search results were uncanningly useful and unerringly accurate.  In recent years, after wading through sponsored ads and SEO skewed results I've often lost the will to continue with my search.  I decided to see if I could work out which was better - Google or Bing?  On any other matter I would just Google - or Bing - for the answer.

I did consider conducting a structured comparative test to help me decide, but where to start?  I suspect a race using a stopwatch is a futile effort - they both seem pretty quick to my eyes.  I've already said that the hundreds of pages of results, the 1,304,269 results in 0.0009 milliseconds, is meaningless if we're going to reframe our search anyway after one page.  And deciding on how good the search is will always be subjective, as will be the choice of search terms anyway.

So I've thrown science to one side and used a search term that's closer to my heart than most of you readers!  Like most people who put information out there on the internet, be it a blog or books I am hawking, I check to see if I'm making any impact on the search engines.  Remember, first page is good, page two is acceptable, forget it if you need to go to page three.  Until I started this blog/author life I thought my name was reasonably unique - apart from my uncle I am the only Ray Sullivan I've ever met.  But I now know I share my name with a lot of people, most of who are not pitching for the first page of a search engine.  However, some are and they're not all me.

For example, I share the name with a Rhode Island supporter of Gay marriages - or does he oppose them, I haven't followed the stories too closely.  Whatever.  Then there's the fictional Republican politician in the West Wing who I share a name with.  I seem to recall that there was also a real politician - a Democrat as I recall - that was in office when the West Wing was on the air.  How unusual?  Then there's a dancer, who looks like he knows his way around a pirouette, named Ray Sullivan, an actor listed on minor parts on Hollywood films, an Irish director of digital films, a political spokesperson and campaign manager for aspiring Republican candidates and a Quality Manager in the UK who writes very occasionally, and with the zing associated with his calling, about Quality issues.  There are more, but these few have cropped up consistently in recent years.

So, a lot of competition then.  Loading up Google and cracking my knuckles before pushing search (eschewing 'I feel lucky'- that would be pushing it too far).  The fictional character in the West Wing comes out on top - come on, it's been off air for years - followed by the actor (who was, I now learn,  in 'In Her Shoes' - never seen it but my wife loved the book). Hot on the heels of the actor comes the political campaign manager, then the director from Dublin, then some random guy from Austin, Texas who died last year and finally, at the bottom of page one, an ad sponsored by Amazon promoting my books.  OK, it took a sponsored ad, but it was page one.  And condolences to the family of the guy from Austin - I guess he wasn't random to them.

However the same search on Bing has Amazon ads for my books at the top and the bottom of page one, so instantly getting my vote.  Then the West Wing character (oh, come on), followed swiftly by the Dublin digital director.  God, he sounds good, perhaps he's looking for a SciFi story to film?  Then some random images of guys sharing my name, including the aforementioned dancer plus some other guys, none of which are me (thankfully), a link to the homepage of someone sharing my name that didn't seem to work, a LinkedIn link to the campaign manager, a Wikipedia entry for the Rhode Island Gay marriage politico who, it seems, is also the Democrat anti-West Wing guy referred to above, a Smashwords link to my books and finally, just above the Amazon sponsored link, a non-sponsored, SEO free link to my homepage.  Which did work. Hurrah.

So at least Bing follows me, if only out of curiosity.

My view is that we need competition in all endeavours.  There is a business book that makes the claim that for every Coca Cola we need at least one Pepsi.  Otherwise the market doesn't work.  Google's big, too big by some accounts, and Bing is probably the only potential challenger to them.  So the free market supporter that I am, while also being the champion of the underdog (who would think that Microsoft, one of the biggest corporations on the planet, could be considered an underdog?) thinks we need to lend Bing some of our search votes.  They'll take sponsored ads and skewed SEO results will reign supreme, but they will act as a counterbalance to Google, keep them grounded.

Plus, they list my books more than Google does, so I might have an element of bias.  I've made Bing my go-to search engine on my laptop, but just to keep Microsoft guessing, I run it on Chrome.

Go on, don't Google it, Bing it.


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