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Steve Loynes

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Google's Dull Lacquer Is Creating a Ronseal World

Posted: 30/09/2012 01:00

I love Googling, even more than metonyms. Partly because it lets me look up words I can't quite remember (like the word for when brand names become so synonymous with something that they become the word people use for describing verb), and partly because it's a better spell checker than Microsoft Word.

However, I also don't like Google. It's a search engine that's supposed to guide you across the entire world wide web. Yet it invariably sends you to the same few sites over and over again because the algorithm (the calculation that Google uses to 'search the web') is unstintingly binary. It has no life experience, no genuine intelligence, and is maligning the English language.

In trying to "inform, educate and entertain" the media (and therefore PR people) uses analogies, colour and maybe a loosely related anecdote or two. Storytelling is the key to most people's memories - it's the way the human mind works.

Back in the day, a story appeared in a newspaper and by the end of the day was safely forgotten about - screwed up in a bin cradling the remnants of a deep-fried fish supper. Nowadays, it's all about immediate discovery and what that story does in its online after-life - the 'long tail' it has as people stumble across the story in months to come.

Just about every PR campaign is now developed to appeal to search engines (in the UK that equates to Google as it has over 90% of the search market) through a process known as search engine optimisation (SEO). As a result, the blindingly literal Google algorithm is sapping the creativity out of any text that is likely to end up on the web as copy is written to appeal to machines first and human being second.

So that Google 'got' Chameleon, when we developed the latest Chameleon website we ripped away every bit of colour. We couldn't take a bird's eye view, ruffle feathers or help incubators fly the nest lest Google think the website was about falconry. We couldn't be a 'communications consultancy' because 'PR agency' is by far the more popular search term. So despite despising the devaluing phrase 'PR agency,' unless disparagingly referring to another PR firm, our website screams 'PR agency' and it brings us lots of leads.

Our website works from a Google perspective - it ranks in the top three for just about every phrase we targeted - but I can't say that it's an enjoyable read. I can admire its ruthlessly efficient functionality, but I don't like it. A bit like a Hollywood sequel. Or porridge.

There's an old (in internet years) joke that runs: "An SEO copywriter walks into a bar, grill, pub, public house, Irish, bartender, drinks, beer, wine, liquor..."

It's a great joke, not just for the obvious gag, but that the keywords simply wonder off into the general taxonomy, rendering it meaningless to anything other than the algorithm. "An SEO copywriter walks into an Irish" wouldn't work for humans, but Google gets it.

News organisations have to take a stance on Google. Think of everything The Daily Mail stands for, then look at the online version. Clearly the SEO strategy has found that gypsies, Diana and cancer are less searched terms than B-list celeb breakups, long-lens pictures and exclamation marks. It's been a remarkably successful strategy, with the Daily Mail recently topping comScore's ranking of the world's biggest newspaper websites.

The Register, a technology news website, ironically, is in the opposite corner. It takes the view that it has over six million loyal readers to lose by chasing SEO results, so kept its Google-perplexing irreverent style and cultural references. Google creeps around it in the way a spoddy kid in the playground daren't try to make friends with the cool kids. It knows The Reg is popular, but cannot compute why. To be fair Google is trying to understand sites like The Reg through its news_keywords metatag initiative, but it's one hell of a super-tanker to turnaround.

Google's straight-jacketing algorithm, though, goes further than its curmudgeonly treatment of puns. It customises search returns based on a user's iGoogle account, previous search activity or location. Handy if you're trying to find the nearest cinema, but in constantly trying to 'help', Google does more than hinder, it actually imprisons.

Google picks up snippets of information about you and, in lieu of a true understanding, treats them with far more value than they merit. Like an over-enthusiastic mother-in-law who, misremembering a flippant remark about taking up golf one day, has purchased you nothing but golfing paraphernalia for the last six Christmases and birthdays. "But you said you liked it," Google will one day sniff to itself when you finally walk away. In its desperation to be helpful by second guessing, Google only succeeds in opening up a much smaller world.

All of which brings us back to Ronseal. The wood varnish market is pretty much a commodity market. With no distinctions to be made about the product itself, just about the most interesting thing the marketing guys could come up with was that it is a wood varnish that would last as long as it promised. The outside of the tin says wood varnish, and inside it's wood varnish. That's the perfect scenario for the monochrome world that the Google algorithm frequents, but it's bloody boring reading the outside of tins.

 

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