Humans are lazy, shortcut-seeking sloths. And our technological roadmap affirms this.
Such are the takeaways from Season 2, Episode 6 of Above the Fold, “Are we headed to a new internet in the future? (only if the one industry figures it out first)”, as explained by Jeff “Not a Fan of Florida” Baker and Francis “Journalist Guy” Ma.
Ahead of Jeff’s Fort Lauderdale speaking engagement at PubCon, curiously described as “Spring Break for Content Marketers,” our didactic duo embarks on an especially shade-tinged tirade about Google’s latest featured snippets experiments, sad social media engagement metrics and whether or not the porn industry is the bellwether for AI’s evolution. Clearly, they’re using the one-week lapse in recording sessions as justification for making audacious – even by their standards – claims about the future of the internet.
Flawed Floridian fodder
Though hardly integral to the episode’s content, it is worth noting how shamefully misguided Jeff’s impression of the Sunshine State is. After discussing how he’s going to “wake up in the streets confused” and take “shots of keywords” (what?), he flippantly admits he “doesn’t know where geographically Fort Lauderdale is.” He makes cringeworthy blanket statements about there being “so many different parts of Florida,” refers to the beach as “uppity, ritzy-style,” and then, in a truly stunning stream of diarrhea-mouth, reveals alarming ignorance about dinosaurs, fan boats and “mosquitos that are like the state bird.”
Look, no one’s here to stand up for Don Johnson, bath salts and rampant election fraud, but on behalf of Florida, please Jeff, do a little goddamn research before your trip.
Anyway, the meat of the discussion centers around recent rage aimed at Google for its rather cavalier – but seemingly intentional – use of featured snippets.
“What the hell is a featured snippet?” Francis asks, feigning that the query is for the benefit of the audience while obviously unsure of the answer.
It’s any time you see “position zero,” aka an immediate answer within search engine results pages, Jeff explains, all too happy to spew knowledge.
This is an incredible search result from Google:
• Answers a fairly complex question
• Takes the copy of many 3rd party publisher to create its own independent web page
• Zero visible on-page links to the publishers who provided the data
This is the future of Google Search pic.twitter.com/txNU2Z7HB5
— Cyrus (@CyrusShepard) February 23, 2019
The issue is that Google may be experimenting with pulling info from other sites without clearly linking to the original source. Jeff begins bloviating again, saying it’s borderline plagiarism because they’re “publishing on SERP” without showing the link that the information came from.
“If you have the question answered in the little box, why would you look for more?” Baker asks rhetorically, followed by an incensed claim that Google is “violating the ecosystem.”
To be fair, he’s not on some futile solo soapbox here. Roughly half of all web traffic comes from search. So Google is, at best, juking the status quo, and at worst threatening the entire symbiosis of the internet. And it’s not only our hot-under-the-collar, hyperbolic hosts calling this out. Other, more reputable content marketers like Moz’s Rand Fishkin are seemingly offended, too:
Oy vey. Featured snippets gone bad. https://t.co/5ZjNDGejMQ
— Rand Fishkin (@randfish) March 5, 2017
Sorry, sloths just can’t get fired up
Unfortunately for Jeff, Francis is half-hearted in his willingness to label this plagiarism – and he’s a lazy, robot-apologist shortcutter, to boot.
“You got a robot involved in this, man. And I mean, I want to exert the least amount of effort when I’m looking for stuff,” says Ma.
This is the man, just minutes before, referred to as “journalist guy.” You wonder in that moment not only what his newspaper sourcing chops were like but also what happens when the family dog, gerbel, anole, whatever, escapes. Is he encouraging the Ma girls to summon their ingenuity, post some flyers on street poles, or just telling them to give it up?
Sensing the collective listlessness even as more people took the rage bait, Google’s response amounted to a non-answer. And indeed, though the correlation between featured snippets and search-no-clicks – one of Jeff’s favorite scourges – is troubling, it’s still somewhat abstract.
“More people should probably be mad about it,” Francis says, still exhibiting the fire of a little league outfielder who dons a turquoise hoodie under his jersey and watches fly balls drop at his feet while he sucks on Swedish Fish.
“But it’s tough to even explain this without a visual, let alone articulate the consequences.”
Maybe the answer is DuckDuckGo, he adds, mentioning he’s been using it for a week and doesn’t like the lack of customization. He’s not getting hits for things he should, like “bars near me.” Again, it sounds like he’s just a really lazy searcher.
Similar to the falling pop flies, Jeff likens the cumulative effect to a “pile of pebbles” Google is hoping we won’t notice – at least not until the entire mountain has been moved. Google is not a publisher and they’re forgetting that they need publishers. If everyone tomorrow said “no crawl on my site,” they would have nothing, Jeff insists. Francis advocates for revolt in the form of regression – posting URLs on buses, writing down brand names on napkins and handing them to random people. Sound plan, for sure.
Should we truly be worried? Maybe not yet, but they agree to keep an eye on this Machiavellian snippet trend. Could be an early indicator of Google’s master plan.
“We gotta get woke to this,” says Ma. “I’ve been woke.” Trying even harder to sound cool, he makes a flawed Black Mirror analogy. You half expect him to start rapping about pancakes and Paw Patrol, but we move on.
Not even position zero? Whoa.
Touching on two favored ATF tropes, the remainder of the discussion is about the sustainability of some presumed constants: first in the form of a comprehensive social media engagement report from Rival IQ, then in (again) covering AI’s takeover.
The Rival IQ report looked at myriad factors spanning every imaginable platform and industry, ultimately illuminating an undeniable yet still startling fact: Engagement rates for all business content on social are down, with Facebook bottoming out around 0.09 percent per post. Instagram’s is a comparatively whopping 1.9 percent, but clearly not many users are engaging with these platforms in a manner that meets B2B needs or goals.
Are we using Facebook wrong? No, says, Jeff. But it’s fair to say at this point it’s essentially just glorified re-targeting. And the overexposure is resulting in desensitizing effect, or “ad blindness,” among its remaining users. We’re automatically blocking it out – and Instagram, et al, may be next. The other platforms just haven’t been around quite as long.
Jeff insists this doesn’t amount to a net negative – rather, it’s just opening the door to a new type of marketing entity that we aren’t yet familiar with. We probably need to adjust our expectations in terms of what we’re going to get out of these platforms now. And as businesses, the approach needs to better match the intent of the user.
Similarly, when WIlliam Tunstall-Pedoe developed what would become the core operating system for Alexa – the “AI” of one true answer – he too was angling for position zero. Except it’s not even position zero, Jeff notes. In a world where chatty AI replaces the current wealth of results we see in SERP, we have to just put our trust into accepting that whatever technology provided that answer was correct.
If you chew on that for a second, it’s a hard-to-digest nugget – like a really grainy lima bean.
The question is: Has the move toward one-shot answers been just subtle enough, slow and sneaky enough, to allow a full-on transition to the “conversational web” without everyone realizing the internet as we know it has been blown to smithereens?
“If no publisher needs to publish anything to be seen, why would they bother?” Jeff whines, undoubtedly shaking Francis’ creative core. For all intents and purposes, he explains, the internet for human beings would not exist anymore – there would be no infrastructure and no more illusion of choice.
Unshaken, Francis openly wonders how the porn industry will take advantage of conversational bots. Jeff placates him, lending credence to his theory while referencing VHS tapes, streaming services and “a lot of currency” going toward that industry. Neither one of them can stop giggling as they ponder the way porn might leverage the newest AI technology.
Nothing is resolved, though one absolute certainty is agreed upon: We’re gonna always need visuals. Ain’t nobody tryin’ to have a glass of wine and listen to some Oracle tell a sensual story, sorry.
And with that, here’s your context-free quote of the week:
“9 out of 10 books in there had to do with cowboys – and their belt buckles.”