Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Search Engines, eHow, and Fiction Writing

A month or so ago Demand Media -- a publisher of internet articles -- decided to close down one of their major libraries, eHow, for good.

I used to write for eHow, and it has been a nice, steady source of income for me. I am very sorry to see that income go. They have offered me slightly more than a half-year's take to buy my articles outright. I accepted. Unlike so many others, I never used these articles any place else, and I don't really see reusing them myself for that kind of income.

The interesting thing, for me, was that over the past few months I have been making a LOT more money. In the meantime, Demand Media just announced that they had a big drop in traffic/income over that same period, because of Google's new search algorithm which punishes poor content and rewards quality content. Hmmm. eHow was losing money for poor content on most of their articles, but I was making more....I guess I had quality content.

This is important and relevant to fiction, folks. Writers, readers, indie, traditional. It's more important to ebooks than to physical books, but even physical books are affected.

So listen up:

Google's goal has always been to reward quality content, and they were constantly improving their algorithms long before the upgrade which killed eHow.

When I was writing for eHow, I met many writers who worked hard to game the system. They tended to make more money at first, and then the Google would upgrade and the money would stop. And those writers would get really mad and they'd blame everyone in the universe. And they'd get especially mad at those who had been telling them all along to stop playing games and just write good articles.

Meanwhile, those who stuck with writing quality material, didn't market, and didn't play games, continued with their slow growth whenever Google upgraded the system.

Here's the thing: it's extremely important to Google to serve the user, they do everything in their power to cut the influence of any marketing efforts or attempts to game the system. The algorithm is designed to filter out hype, and give the user exactly the genuine results he or she is looking for.

This is sometimes called a "pull" system, where the system isn't trying to 'sell' anything, but rather just help the user pull what he or she needs from the system. It's designed for situations like the web, where there is an almost infinite amount of content.

Just a few years ago, this had little relevance to fiction publishing. A novel found its way into a reader's hands by a whole different paradigm -- "push" marketing.

With push marketing, the system decides what it wants to sell. For instance, because publishing paper books is so complicated and expensive, publishers and booksellers made an effort to decide which titles to invest in. They had to take a gamble on this well ahead of demand. Then they would push those titles out to the shelves where the readers would find them.

Brick and mortar bookstores have to work this way, because leaving things to chance is just too expensive. They choose, and the readers pick among the bookseller's choices. The user finds books by going to a certain place and accepting or rejecting what is there.

You didn't have to worry about quality in this old system. There are lots of people making judgment calls along along the way. Some crap might get through, but only if there was some other reason the customer might want the product. (Like being on a controversial topic, or it was written by a celebrity.) But for the most part, sheer garbage did not make it through the first step.

This is not true of SEO articles, or websites or blogs. Out on the internet there are companies with servers programmed to produce nonsense pages by the thousands. So when I say there is sheer garbage, I don't just mean stupid or ignorant -- I mean very literally the equivalent of a million monkeys with typewriters, and none of them are typing up Hamlet. Pure random, computer-generated junk.

On top of that there's spam, and there are idiots and nutcases, and there are slanderous sites, and criminal sites.

And most of the internet -- that is most of the websites out there -- is made up of this crap. I mean, you may think you've come across too many of them, but trust me, Google has kept all but a tiny trickle of them away from most users. They're out there, but nobody can find them.

So you could say Google and its algorithms work as a gatekeeper just like the old publishing system did... except that it does it in a completely different way. The difference is: Google does not reject sites. (Except for the criminal and pure spam ones, which they blacklist.) Google makes everything available -- everything -- and lets the user "pull" what he or she wants out of the collection.

It's hard for old-school people to get their heads around this. Both Google and Amazon are focused on helping the user find what they want. I'll repeat that: They are not focused on giving the reader the best, they're focused on giving the reader what they want. That means they even want that low-ranked one-in-a-bazillion book, website or article to be found. No one is lost in the storm, even though it's a really big storm.

However, even though everything is available, not everything is going to be "pulled" out of the crowd.

And this is where fiction writers should take a lesson from those eHow writers. See, right now, indie writers in particular (though I also see traditional writers jumping on the bandwagon) are all hyped up about gaming the system. You hear them talking about raising their rank. You see them talk about clicking on each other's "like" buttons and tags and how to get more reviews.

And you even hear the respected and successful gurus talking about it and encouraging some of it. This is EXACTLY like what happens in SEO writing circles. "You can game the system by playing this numbers game," says the guru. "That's how it is supposed to work so don't worry, it's not unethical." And, they're right that it's not necessarily unethical. It does work for a while...until too many people are doing it, and then Google (or Amazon) changes the algorithm. Or changes the rules.

And then people yell and cry and wonder what is wrong because their sales aren't doing what they used to.

It's not evil to use the system to your advantage. If that's how the system is set up, it's only fair. But you have to recognize that by doing it, you create a situation where they have to change the system. I guarantee it, in this new paradigm, if you find something to promote your book which has nothing to do with how good the book itself is, that method will stop working after a while.

And sometimes the change will hurt more than people deserve. Google changed its algorithm because of all the manipulations, and that didn't just hurt those who had bad articles. It also hurt those with good articles, who used manipulative techniques to promote them. And that brought down eHow for everyone, including those who didn't game the system at all. I'm really sorry to see that monthly income go.

Now, let's be clear: Amazon is not eHow. The world's largest bookseller doesn't just benefit from an algorithm; Amazon IS the algorithm. Amazon's in control, so when people game the system, they can just change the system. Which will hurt those play games, but not those who don't. At least not so much.

Amazon's system -- the system that allows users to find exactly what they want, including your book among the millions -- is dependent on GOOD GENUINE USER DATA. Any time you game the system -- via tagging or "liking" books you haven't even read -- you weaken that data, and make the algorithm less effective.

Remember, this isn't a push system, it's a pull system.

A pull system gives an advantage to the smaller and midlist book by matching them with the niche groups that love them. It can't make that match if the data is cloudy.

All of publishing is now moving into a search engine world -- the pull world. The way to survive in that world is to stop playing games and serve the reader. That's what those algorithms are looking for. That's what every single tweak is designed to do better. The reader finds you, not the other way around.

Next week I'll try to give you the big picture on how these algorithms work, how they actually do help the reader find you, and do the heavy lifting for both reader and writer... and how they define "quality."


R. Doug Wicker said...

Amazon and Google . . . I use both practically daily. Google is incredible for doing research, and it's hard to beat Amazon when it comes time to decide on a purchase. Just gotta love those reviews from real-life customers with real-life experiences during real-world application. And if you're having a problem with a recent purchase? Just check out the comments section to see if someone has come up with a solution.

Thanks for the article, DaringNovelist

The Daring Novelist said...

And there's a whole lot of stuff going on in the background that you never see a sign of, but it is what makes it possible for that unusual reader to find that unusual book.

Lee McAulay said...

Well, Camille, I for one am glad to see the back of eHow after one of my blog posts was turned into an eHow article by another writer.
This was a technical post about a practical non-writing subject and, to make matters worse, the eHow article was wrong. Anyone who followed the procedure in the article risked serious physical harm. My procedure came with step-by-step instructions, photographs and safety warnings.
The only upshot was that there was a link to my blog on the page.
Looking forward to the algorithm picture (no, really! :D )

The Daring Novelist said...


Yeah, aside from the people who were gaming the system with ratings, etc, there were a lot of outright crooks who were spamming and plagiarizing, and all sorts of things. eHow spent a year or so cleaning up that act, before they gave up and forced the writers to go into a vetting system. I'm not sure how well that worked, though (I stopped writing for them before then) because basically when they went to a more flat fee, nobody had any incentive to produce quality.

Plus they kept buying "libraries" from hack sites where the staff writers wrote pure and unadulterated junk, or plagiarized all over the place, because they were writing for $5-10 an article, or even less. Of course they didn't take any care.

Heck there were junk writers who "sold" articles like that to others for a flat fee -- but with non-exclusive rights. And there were people on eHow who would buy these junk articles in bulk, and slap their names on them, and it took forever for eHow to see what was happening and that it was a problem -- and then find these people. Some of them were posting under multiple accounts.