Category Archives: Search

Write, that I may find thee

A Google Dance – when Google changes its rankings of web sites – used to be something that happened infrequently enough that each “dance” had a name – Boston, Fritz and Brandy, for instance – but are now happening more than 500 times per year, with names like Panda #25 and Penguin 2.0, to name a few relatively recent ones. (There is even a Google algorithm change “weather report”, as many of the updates now are unnamed and very frequent.) As a consequence, search engine optimization seems to me to be changing – and funny enough, is less and less about optimization and more and more about origination and creation.

It turns out that Google is now more and more about original content – that means, for instance, that you can no longer boost your web site simply by using Google Translate to create a French or Korean version of your content. Nor can you create lots of stuff that nobody reads – and by nobody, I mean not just that nobody reads your article, but that the incoming links are from, well, nobodies. According to my sources, Google’s algorithms have now evolved to the point where there are just two main mechanisms for generating the good Google juice (and they are related):

  1. Write something original and good, not seen anywhere else on the web.
  2. Get some incoming links from web sites with good Google-juice, such as the New York Times, Boing Boing, a well-known university or, well, any of the “Big 10” domains (Wikipedia, Amazon, Youtube, Facebook, eBay (2 versions), Yelp, WebMD, Walmart, and Target.)

The importance of the top domains is increasing, as seen by this chart from mozcast.com:

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In other words, search engines are moving towards the same strategy for determining what is important as the rest of the world has – if it garners the attention of the movers and shakers (and, importantly, is not a copy of something else) it must be important and hence, worthy of your attention.

For the serious companies (and publishers) out there, this is good news: Write well and interesting, and you will be rewarded with more readers and more influence. This also means that companies seeking to boost their web presence may be well advised to hire good writers and create good content, rather than resort to all kinds of shady tricks – duplication of content, acquired traffic (including hiring people to search Google and click on your links and ads), and backlinks from serially created WordPress sites.

For writers, this may be good news – perhaps there is a future for good writing and serious journalism after all. The difference is that now you write to be found original by a search engine – and should a more august publication with a human behind it see what you write and publish it, that will just be a nice bonus.

Why is internal search so hard?

Have experience or an opinion? I would love to talk to you!

In collaboration with MIT CISR, I am currently researching enterprise search – i.e., the use of search engines inside corporations, whether it be for letting people outside the corporation search your website, or for letting employees search the internal collection of databases, documents, and audiovisual material. Consumer search – our everyday use of Google and other search engines – in general is very good and very fast, to the point where most people search for stuff rather than categorize it. Enterprise search, on the other hand, is often imprecise, confusing, incomplete and just not as good a source of information as searching the open Internet.

There are many reasons for this, both having to do with the content (most enterprise content lack hyperlinks, essential for prioritization, for instance), with the organization (lack of resources for and knowledge of search optimization, security policy issues, lack of an identified application owner), and with the users (who are to few to get meaningful statistics and do not, to the extent you do on the Internet, make their information findable).

Nevertheless, there are examples of companies – often consulting companies, research-oriented firms and others who deal in large amounts of information, such as pharmaceuticals and publishers, who do good work with internal, enterprise search. I have interviewed a few of those and a few search experts.

Now I would very much like to talk to anyone interesting in this topic – do you have experience, viewpoints, war stories, examples, ideas about what to do and especially what not to do? Then I am very interested in talking to you! Please leave a comment below or end me an email at self@espen.com.

Norwegian Data Inspectorate outlaws Google App use

In a letter (reported at digi.no) to the Narvik Municipality (which has started to use Google Mail and other cloud-based applications, effectively putting much of its infrastructure in the Cloud) the Norwegian Data Inspectorate (http://www.datatilsynet.no/English/), a government watchdog for privacy issues, effectively prohibits use of Google Apps, at least for communication of personal information. A key point in this decision seems to be that Google will not tell where in the world the data is stored, and, under the Patriot Act, the US government can access the data without a court order.

Companies and government organizations in Norway are required to follow the Norwegian privacy laws, which, amongst other things, requires that “personal information” (of which much can be communicated between a citizen and municipal tax, health and social service authorities) should be secured, and that personal information collected for one purpose may not be used for other purposes without the owner’s expressed permission.

This has interesting implications for cloud computing – many European countries have similar watchdogs as Norway, and many public and private organizations are interested in using Google’s services for their communication needs. My guess is that Google will need to offer some sort of reassurance that the data is outside of US jurisdiction, or effectively forgo this market to other competitors, such as Microsoft of some of the local consulting companies, which are busy building their own private clouds. Should be an interesting discussion at Google – the Data Inspectorate is a quite popular watchdog, Norway has some of the strongest privacy protection laws in the world (though, for some reason, it publishes people’s income and tax details), and Google’s motto of “Don’t be evil” might be put to the test here – national laws limiting global infrastructures.

What you can learn from your LinkedIn network

LinkedIn Maps is a fascinating service that lets you map out your contact network. Here is my first-level network, with 848 nodes (click for larger image):

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The colors are added automatically by LinkedIn, presumably by profile similarity and link to other networks. You have to add the labels yourself – they are reasonably precise, at least for the top five groups (listed according to size and, I presume, interconnectedness).

As can be seen, I am a gatekeeper between a network of consultants and researchers in the States (the orange group) and reasonably plugged into the IT industry, primarily Norwegian (the dark blue). The others are fairly obvious, with the exception of the last category, which happens to be an eclectic group that I interact with quite a lot, but which are hard to categorize, at least from their backgrounds.

Incidentally, the “shared” map, which takes away names, provides more information for analysis. Note the yellow nodes in my green network on the right: These are the people hired by BI to manage or teach in China. They are, not in nationality but in orientation, foreigners in their own organization.

My LinkedIn policy is to accept anyone I know (i.e. have had dealings with and would like in my network), which, naturally, includes a number of students (I will friend any student of my courses as long as I can remember them, though I must admit I am a bit sloppy there.)

What is missing? Two things stand out: I have many contacts in Norwegian media and in the international blogosphere, which isn’t here because, well, Norwegian media use Twitter or their own outlets, and bloggers use, well, their blogs. Hence, the commentariat is largely invisible in the LinkedIn world (except for Jill Walker Rettberg, who sicced me onto LinkedIn Maps). Also, a number of personal friends are not here, simply because LinkedIn is a professional network – and as such captures formal relationships, not your daily communications.

Now, what really would make me curious is what this map would look like for my Facebook, Twitter and Gmail accounts – and how they overlap. But the network in itself is interesting – and tells me that increasing the interaction between my USA network and the Norwegian IT industry wouldn’t hurt.

How students search

David Weinberger has posted his notes from a very interesting session at Berkman that I for some reason missed – Alison Head’s presentation of studies of students’ information search behavior from the Project Information Literacy project. The findings confirm a lot of what I would have thought just by observing my own (young adult) children’s search behavior, or, for that matter, my own. Wikipedia is used a lot, and quite intelligently, in the beginning of a search. You talk to librarians and other people to get the vocabulary necessary for a search. And students (and everyone else) wants one database, not many.

Two books on search and social network analysis

Social Network Analysis for Startups: Finding connections on the social webSocial Network Analysis for Startups: Finding connections on the social web by Maksim Tsvetovat
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Concise and well-written (like most O’Reilly stuff) book on basic social network analysis, complete with (Python, Unix-based) code and examples. You can ignore the code samples if you want to just read the book (I was able to replicate some of them using UCINet, a network analysis tool).

Liked it. Recommended.

Search Analytics for Your Site: Conversations with Your CustomersSearch Analytics for Your Site: Conversations with Your Customers by Louis Rosenfeld
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very straightforward and practically oriented – with lots of good examples. Search log analysis – seeing what customers are looking for and whether or not they find it – is as close to having a real, recorded and analyzable conversation with your customers as you can come, yet very few companies do it. Rosenfeld shows how to do it, and also how to find the low-hanging fruit and how to justify spending resources on it.

This is not rocket science – I was, quite frankly, astonished at how few companies do this. With more and more traffic coming from search engines, more and more users using search rather than hierarchical navigation, and the invisibility of dissatisfied customers (and the lost opportunities they represent) this should be high on any CIOs agenda.

Highly recommended.

View all my reviews

Does LinkedIn help or disrupt headhunters?

(I am looking for a M.Sc. student(s) to research this question for his/her/their thesis.)

The first users of LinkedIn were, as far as I can tell, headhunters (at least the first users with 500+ contacts and premium subscriptions.) It makes sense – after all, having a large network of professionals in many companies is a requirement for a headhunter, and LinkedIn certainly makes it easy not only to manage the contacts and keep in touch with them, but also allows access to each individual contact’s network. However, LinkedIn (and, of course, other services such as Facebook, Plaxo, etc.) offers its services to all, making connections visible and to a certain extent enabling anyone with a contact network and some patience to find people that might be candidates for a position.

I suspect that the evolution of the relationship between headhunters and LinkedIn is a bit like that of fixed-line telephone companies to cell phones: In the early days, they were welcomed because they extended the network and was an important source of additional traffic. Eventually, like a cuckoo’s egg, the new technology replaced the old one. Cell phones have now begun to replace fixed lines. Will LinkedIn and similar professional networks replace headhunters?

If you ask the headhunters, you will hear that finding contacts is only a small part of their value proposition – what you really pay for is the ability to find the right candidate, of making sure that this person is both competent, motivated and available, and that this kind of activity cannot be outsourced or automated via some computer network. They will grudgingly acknowledge that LinkedIn can help find candidates for lower-level and middle-management, but that for the really important positions, you will need the network, judgment and evaluative processes of a headhunting company.

On the other hand, if you has HR departments charged with finding people, they will tell you that LinkedIn and to a certain extent Facebook is the greatest thing since sliced bread when it comes to finding people quickly, to vet candidates (sometimes discovering youthful indiscretions) and to establish relationships. I have heard people enthuse over not having to use headhunters anymore.

So, the incumbents see it as a low-quality irrelevance, the users see it as a useful and cheap replacement. To me, this sounds suspiciously like a disruption in the making, especially since, in the wake of the financial crisis, companies are looking to save money and the HR departments dearly would like to provide more value for less money, since they are often marginalized in the corporation.

I would like to find out if this is the case – and am therefore looking for a student or two who would like to do their Master’s thesis on this topic, under my supervision. The research will be funded through the iAD Center for Research-based innovation. Ideally, I would want students who want to research this with a high degree of rigor (perhaps getting into network analysis tools) but I am also willing to talk to people who want to do it with more traditional research approaches – say, a combination of a questionnaire and interviews/case descriptions of how LinkedIn is used by headhunters, HR departments and candidates looking for new challenges.

So – if you are interested – please contact me via email at self@espen.com. Hope to hear from you!