Things like back links and other measures of a site's authority have long been cues for search engine ranking, but that may be about to change. Recent headlines in Google's algorithms speak of a radically new approach to ranking websites, often being referred to as a "truth" algorithm.
The core idea behind this proposed change is to use a measure of trustworthiness to rank sites, based on the accuracy and truthfulness of the site's information. Sites with exaggerated claims or that use questionable information will fare worse, in theory, but how will Google determine the validity of website information?
This is discussed with insightful detail in Seeking Alpha's article entitled Why A Proposed Algorithm Change Could Bring Down Google.
Google already has a vast database of information, including millions of commonly accepted facts on all sorts of topics. By comparing content on websites against the general consensus it has, Google will determine the rank of that site. Some folks are excited about this change, hoping it will spur a greater attention to detail in presentation and will reduce the number of junk sites that somehow continue to rank well and receive arguably undeserved attention.
How will this algorithm handle context?
As we all know, context is everything in communication. This is why when statements are taken out of context they can be heavily misconstrued, interpreted entirely differently than the writer's intent. A big question we have to ask in the face of such a proposed change in the way site authority is decided is this: how smart will the crawlers be in understanding context?
Sarcasm, snark, and parody are major areas where a human could appreciate the undertone of the language, but a machine may read it literally and fail to see it for what it is.
In argumentative articles, writers commonly illustrate the view point they are arguing against for the sake of understanding. Would crawlers understand that the writer is not actually supporting these statements, or would they erroneously assume that's part of the article's assertion and penalize the whole piece?
Lastly, if this change favors validity of statements over engagement, otherwise poorly written (or uninteresting) content may outrank more eloquent content simply because on some point tally the weaker piece scored higher. Think of reading an interesting article versus a dry textbook about the same topic. The textbook might be more factual in that it has fewer opinions, but on the web is unlikely to be something people want to read.
As it stands now, ranking factors like backlinks and social sharing help reward interesting, useful material. Dry or poorly written material is less likely to be shared, which tends to naturally weed out bad content.
Stifling innovation in favor of group-think
The thing about innovation is that it may only be based upon commonly held ideas. An innovative concept may, however, challenge or come into direct conflict with the general consensus.
Industry leaders are heavily followed for this very reason, and readers within that industry can stay ahead of the curve by being aware of new ideas. Aside the entertainment aspect of social media, sharing information is at the heart of social discourse. The potential for intellectual pieces that go against the grain to be buried by "safer" and more "accurate" information is disconcerting.
Google claims that the boon of this change is that large sites may no longer rank simply because of their reputation and budget if they have bad information. Taken in that limited scope it sounds like a great idea, but in many cases a site is a leader for a reason. That reason may be precisely that the site does not conform to consensus.
Those at Google discussing this potential change indicate that it might be a ways off yet, that at this point it's just a proposal. However, proponents of the plan at Google have gone to some lengths to defend it, implying it's being heavily considered.
What exactly this will mean for the web and a reader's access to information remains to be seen. We'll continue to follow it as it gets closer to a potential launch date where more detailed information will likely be published by Google.
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