In The Big Shift from Search to Social, Anne Gentle notes the growing problem with Google's search and trends towards alternative search sources, such as social networks like Facebook. She links to an stirring NY Times article called The Dirty Little Secrets of Search, which I recommend reading.
The NYTimes article exposes how search engines are gamed, and how search engines can also game consumers.
As the NYTimes article points out, the strategies for gaming search engines often involve buying links pointing to your site. I've encountered a bit of this myself. Last week a "reader" offered to write a "guest post" for me on Wikipedia's credibility issue, and how Wikipedia manages this risk. The guest poster only requested that in exchange for the completely unique post, he be allowed to include a "personal link." When I received the post, it turned out to contain a link to an online university site. I turned the article down, not only because it wasn't relevant to my blog, but because I get at least one person a month pitching a guest post with a link to an online university.
I've had offers from other companies to run text ads in my blog. Several years ago I made about $1300 just adding text links to website companies on about 20 old posts. Recently the same person returned to pitch more text ads to an exam-answers site, which I turned down for obvious ethical reasons. But regardless of the site, running text ads isn't a good practice -- if Google finds out, they could penalize your Pagerank.
Pagerank is always a bit of a mystery, but ever since MindTouch came out with their 20 most influential bloggers, and showed Scott Abel's The Content Wrangler with a Pagerank of 7, and my site with a Pagerank of 5, I started to worry about the effect of those text ads. I removed them (I think they expired anyway), and after several months my site's Pagerank is now a 6. Part of Scott's Pagerank is due to the longevity of his site, I believe. He's been online probably longer than most any other technical communicator. Also, he does post excellent, in-depth content -- rich with search engine keywords.
Although Anne notes that Facebook visits surpassed Google visits, I'm not sure if this is an apples versus oranges argument. Are people turning to Facebook and other social networks primarily to find information, or for social engagement? I occasionally search for keywords on search.twitter.com, especially if I'm looking for something occurring now. But as a general means of finding information, I almost never search social networks.
However, when I can't find information, perhaps because the search engines are gamed with all kinds of J.C. Penney type schemes, then yes, turning to social networks is a good idea. For example, last Friday I googled how to create a screencast of an iPhone app, and not finding anything on Google, I turned to Twitter. But other than turning to social networks as a last resort, for me social networks primarily serve social purposes, and search engines primarily serve search purposes.
What does this all mean for technical writers? We keep hearing that technical writers have a goldmine of SEO-rich content, and that companies need to leverage the search engine results and financial benefits that will come from putting this content online in the realm of user search. SEO and web platforms should play a larger consideration in how we author help material -- particularly if our audience is external. It's usually more than enough, though, just worrying about accuracy, concision, and content approval. Now if you add good SEO practices to the mix, you have a lot going on in each topic.
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I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.