In reading and watching recent videos of Google executives talking about the latest updates to their search engine’s algorithms, I was intrigued by their frequent use of the term “quality” when talking about the kind of content that they say will benefit your website’s rank. On the surface, this is kind of a silly piece of advice. Essentially, the engineers at Google are telling you, as a marketer, to do a better job, or warning you, if you are not doing a very good job, that you will be appropriately punished.
Of course, there are points of specific guidance as well. Google engineers and executives, for example, encourage content creators to move away from a reliance on keywords, to update content regularly and to integrate content across social channels.
But they keep repeating that the content has to be “high quality.” What does that mean?
Essentially, the engineers at Google are telling you, as a marketer, to do a better job, or warning you, if you are not doing a very good job, that you will be appropriately punished.
Quality and where we started
The term “quality” has been a philosophical can of worms for centuries. From Aristotle to John Locke to George Berkeley, the general understanding of the term saw an increasing reliance on subjectivity. Aristotle identified two types of quality, one “real,” intrinsic set of physical properties of an object and one set of subjective attributes. Locke expanded on the subjective qualities of an object, further defining qualities that are dependent and independent of an individual perspective. Berkeley, for his part, pointed out that there really was no such thing as a primary, objective, intrinsic quality, and that everything was subjective. The theory of relativity, which suggested the potential subjectivity of even properties like mass and volume played a big part in this observation.
Granted, this is a pretty limited understanding of what has been a really complex, serious debate about what we talk about when we talk about quality. When Google talks about quality, it seems as though there are subtextual echoes of Robert Pirsig’s metaphysics of quality, introduced in his novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and the artistic movement popularly known as “New Sincerity,” which popped up in the 1980s as a response to the hip irony and cynicism in vogue.
Zen and the art of internet content marketing strategies
“Man is not the source of all things, as the subjective idealists would say. Nor is he the passive observer of all things, as the objective idealists and materialists would say. The Quality which creates the world emerges as a relationship between man and his experience. He is a participant in the creation of all things. The measure of all things…”
-Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Disclaimer: I haven’t read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I have read reviews, analysis, commentary and the novel’s Wikipedia page. Much like those Google posts, interviews and videos, most of the content online that mentions the novel tries to navigate its complex assessment of and relationship to a dualistic understanding of quality.
Google wants to get away from its extremely subjective, and in some ways arbitrary, prescriptive criteria, and the company’s algorithms are sophisticated enough that this is, for the first time, a possibility. This presents an enormous opportunity for marketers and content creators: you get to write the new rules and set the new standards.
This is where things get hairy, and for the purposes of Google’s relationship to quality, I think it’s necessary to over-simplify Pirsig’s analysis. Google wants the new marketer to create the criteria by which the standards of internet quality will be determined. The new internet marketer is Pirsig’s participant in the creation and measurement of all things. Google wants to get away from its extremely subjective, and in some ways arbitrary, prescriptive criteria, and the company’s algorithms are sophisticated enough that this is, for the first time, a possibility. This presents an enormous opportunity for marketers and content creators: you get to write the new rules and set the new standards. The subtext of Google’s frequent and ambiguous use of the word “quality” is simply a plea from the company to please, take the reins responsibly, and with pride.
Social media and new sincerity
The old mode of search tracked marketers into something of a limited mode of thinking. If you could understand and navigate Google’s algorithms – integrate keywords effectively, create an organized internal structure, update content on an effective schedule, etc. – you could “trick” Google into liking you. This worked, in a lot of ways, because Google was pretty good at recognizing a decent website, but as a high-level cultural standard, it was problematic.
The rise of social media required successful online content marketing to be, in a word, sincere. Websites no longer needed to fit a search algorithm’s preferred module to become popular online. Popularity suddenly had meaning – things that were popular online really were popular.
The rise of social media required successful online content marketing to be, in a word, sincere. Websites no longer needed to fit a search algorithm’s preferred module to become popular online. Popularity suddenly had meaning – things that were popular online really were popular. Cynics pointed (and continue to point) at the irony of this new dawn of social connectivity taking place in relative physical isolation, but many marketers took a different perspective, one that coincided neatly with an artistic movement that prided itself on a return to at least the Aristotelian possibility of primary qualities – real emotions, real expression and real value:
“The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue…”
-David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”
Where once, marketers may have had to understand the consumer, the reader, the viewer as a fickle being, a blip waiting to be over-satiated somewhere on the existentially-terrifying Kano Model, a sincere, positive and opportunistic approach to social media now presents marketers with a more fulfilling task.
Most recently, artists and writers have explored confessional modes on social and new media (in Google Docs projects, experimental Tweets, etc., presenting consumer-level professionals with a unique challenge. Can we take advantage of this seemingly limitless connectivity responsibly? What can we do to make the internet experience more valuable, more beneficial, more enjoyable for everyone? What’s a quality website look like?
Google isn’t so much redefining quality as it is asking questions we’ve always been asking. Pirsig wrote, “It is a puzzling thing. The truth knocks on the door and you say, ‘Go away, I’m looking for the truth,’ and so it goes away. Puzzling.”