At lunch recently, a colleague excitedly told those seated around the table about a talk she was attending that evening. Internet and political activist Eli Pariser was participating in a debate, defending ideas from his book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You. Curious about her excitement, I watched his TED talk and came away with a lot to think about.
Pariser makes a broad argument about how the internet and technology in general is evolving to keep us in a self-perpetuating personal bubble of influence. He cites Amazon’s and Netflix’s recommendation engines as two of several examples of systems that create a continuous feedback loop and perpetuate our selection biases. Facebook’s news feed is another example cited of an algorithm that progressively reinforces our input biases by surfacing content from feeds of those in our network we frequently click on, and suppressing those whose content we do not.
Pariser’s argument about the online filter bubble phenomenon has broad implications for the world of search. Longtime search marketers are well aware that as far back as 2005, searchers began to see different search results for identical searches based on personalization factors such as geography, searcher history and many others. By 2009, search personalization further expanded to become ubiquitous for all Google searches. But the recent and most drastic introduction of social results in the SERPs (and the prominence they are given on the search page) means searchers may be moving deeper into a self-contained search filter bubble. As social results begin to proliferate in the SERPs, we continue to see more and more results based on our previous predilections (click history etc) and from our own ‘social bubbles’ while moving away from the broad web-centric results of internet search origins.
A search for [iphone]:
Accounting for Searcher Filter Bubbles
As an industry, we are still working through the implications of recent changes in search. The jury is still out on whether the addition of social results in the manner in which they are implemented today in fact add something positive to the user’s quest for information (all the more so given Bing’s recent announcement that they intend to roll social results deeper into search results). Some might argue the changes have, in part, given rise to search upstarts that are devoid of this ‘filter bubbling’ such as DuckDuckGo and Blekko.
Search Marketing Fundamentals Remain Constant
Even with all the changes, there’s no doubt that the fundamentals of search marketing remain. As we’ve previously discussed, SEO professionals rate anchor text as the most important ranking factor and a healthy backlink profile remains a core fundamental to search engine visibility. And, SEO technology continues to enable marketers to make data-informed decisions (disclaimer: I work for Conductor). At the same time, when viewed through the lens of the filter bubble, there are potential implications for how SEOs might want to evaluate that they are not being filtered out and prone to unintentional information isolation:
- Make Sure You are Found In People’s Bubbles: This might seem obvious, but as a first step make sure you have a regular presence sharing content in the social networks so that you give yourself the best chance of being found wherever people’s filter bubbles manifest themselves. Depending on your vertical, you may also find synergy between social and SEO presence to be important.
- Analytics Visitor Segmentation: Learn how to utilize web analytics to customize your reports. Through these custom reports, learn about your visitors – who are they, and more importantly, who are they not? This will help you determine if your content is not reaching certain bubbles. This post by Avinash Kaushik is a good primer on delving into the detail of segmenting your analytics data.
- Make sure your technology is up to snuff: The SERPs are now more than a collection of links -research shows 8 out of 10 high volume keywords include digital and social assets. Mature technology can fill the gap and give you insight into your holistic SEO presence—both search and social on a page by page basis–helping you to understand where you might be a part of users’ filter bubbles.
The SEO Takeaway: You Can Never Know Too Much About Your Online Audience
Looking at online search through Pariser’s filter bubble lens, it is clearly a real phenomenon that is impacting search marketing today. The starting point for search marketers adapting to the phenomenon—while seemingly obvious, is often skipped, particularly doing so in a thorough manner. The first step is similar to what we discussed around earlier tectonic shifts in the SERPs: start by gaining insight into how the shift is impacting you. For the top of the funnel, this means leveraging mature technology to understand how the SERPs have changed for the keywords you care about. For deeper down the funnel, it means learning how to slice and dice visitor segments to learn where you visitors are (and are not) coming from. A well-informed search marketer will always be the starting point for search industry changes.
Let us know in the comments if you see the search filter bubble phenomenon in a different light.
A version of this article first appeared in Search Engine Watch on May 23, 2012.