Searchers Aren’t Stupid

So another little Google-gaming scandal has made the news, this time committed by US department store chain JC Penney. Apparently they, or someone operating in their name, paid for links to the JC Penney website to be seeded on shell (the business term, not the tech term) webpages all over the Internet so as to drive JC Penney up to number one on search ranking for a huge variety of products. Now a small uproar has resulted, with JC Penney denying responsibility, Google acting punitively anyway, observers accusing Google of letting the scam run because JC Penney is one of its biggest advertisers, and almost everyone in the advertising business saying that, well, this is nothing new. Everyone tries to scam the search engines the same way. Hazard of the Internet.

I found this all very amusing in light of a comment made by a lady I interviewed earlier this week. Digital strategist Pat Law, the founder of social influence marketing studio Goodstuph (hey look, here’s a link – another drop in the traffic bucket?), says that it’s very common for people to assume that consumers are  stupid and will believe the first thing they read. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. You and I are consumers too, and do we believe the first thing we read?

If you’re using the Internet to find information – and everybody is these days – you certainly won’t rely on search engine rankings to prioritise your information sources. The website that turns up number one on a search isn’t necessarily the definitive authority on the topic at hand, especially when browsing for products that fall in a very wide range. In fact, if you want to find comprehensive information, you can’t just rely on one website. You have to go digging through every page of results the search generates – all right, not every page but certainly the first ten, or until you get to the spamsites and the results start to degenerate. It’s a bit like going to the library to do pen-and-paper research – you don’t cite just one book in the sources of your essay, do you? (And you don’t go citing Wikipedia either.)

For a more immediate illustration of how this works, when you do a Google search a box with a few sponsored links always appears right on top of the genuine search results. Do you go to those sponsored links? Or have you, like me, developed a selective blind spot for advertising? Technically speaking, the sponsored links are number one on the search results because, well, they’re higher up on the screen. But how likely are people to actually click on them, unless they happen to be deliberately looking for the product behind those links?  And even if you do click on them, what are the chances that you’ll actually buy the items being advertised on those websites, or that you’ll take the information there for granted?

Not that high.  The Internet has made browsing through information very easy. And precisely because of that, people can now cross-reference and compare to a very high degree. All it costs is a bit of extra CPU power to open up some new tabs in your browser, and to find out that the “number one site” is actually inferior in its product and information offerings to something that was buried three pages down.

What does this mean for spamvertisers like the people behind the JC Penney gimmick? Simply that it doesn’t work half as well as they think. Sure, it drives up traffic, but traffic on the Internet does not mean sales in the same way that it does in a brick-and-mortar retail store. Admittedly, spam emails work by sheer volume, but the side effect is that spam is, well, spam. Not just homonymous but synonymous with scam, and associated with health risks, sleaze, phishing, identity theft and so on. Artificially driving up traffic by seeding links might generate that same volume, but it’s also as transparent as spam and it’s going to generate an equal volume of bad image and, when the media catches on, bad press. Not a good idea for an established company.

Back to the point, though. Search engines can be gamed, quite easily from the sound of the report. But can consumer judgement be gamed? Well, yes. No algorithm, hardware or wetware, is infallible (and neither is this statement, which creates that joyful thing known as an innate logical paradox). However, consumer opinion, which follows hard on consumer judgement, is likely to turn the game back on the gamer.

Essentially, running an Internet search is a matter of common sense, persistence and light evaluation – for users. Most of that doesn’t even happen consciously. It’s just that advertisers, not being doctors, psychologists or excessively rational on occasion, prefer to assume that “unconscious” equals “mindless”.

(All right, so it does. For some people.)

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