Technology — 17 September 2014

Scholarship used to mean going to the library, searching through the card catalog, going to the stacks, and then pulling down and actually reading a book.  Now anyone can be an expert on any topic because of Google and WikiPedia.  But Google and WikiPedia have also made it easy for anyone to commit fraud, because it is easy to find and then copy and paste and then rewrite what someone else has written.

I once read in a news story about some war correspondents who had gone into the battle zone to write war news.  But there was no action on the ground.  So instead they interviewed each other and wrote what each other said.

This is basically what much of the writing on the internet is today: simply rewording what someone else has written without doing any original research, reporting, or even original thinking.

Some people do not even bother to feign an attempt at originality.  This is called SEO writing.

Try for example to look for shoes on the internet.  Go to Google and type “best shoes.”

The resulting list of articles will not give you any useful information on how to buy the best shoes.  Instead, you will find keyword-loaded articles written to exploit what is called SEO, Search Engine Optimization, to push a particular product.

So instead of seeing something like:

Hodson’s has been manufacturing the best leather shoes sold in London for 175 years.

Which is probably true, you might see more spurious and awkward like:

At Johnson’s we make the best shoes leather possible in our manufacturing plant and then display the best shoes leather possible in the our showroom in New York where the best shoes leather are sold.

The whole concept of proper noun and adjective placement gets tossed out in order to meet the search-engine-optimization target of repeating the phrase “best shoes” as many times as possible with the two words adjacent to one another.

Clarity and facts have given way to gaming the system.

Much of this writing is done by people who have an understanding of English, but do not write it fluently and work for low wages, i.e., India.

You can see ads for this kind of thing all over the world’s number one freelance market for writers, eLance.

…needs to be original, unique, high quality content. No copying & pasting allowed from the web. MUST pass CopyScape test.

This is one fraudster communicating to another fraudster how to not get caught at, well, committing fraud.

The tool CopyScape referenced in the job posting above refers to CopyScape software, which is widely used by these text mills to check how much of a blog post or article one has lifted word-for-word from another post on the internet.  It uses the same technology as everyone else, Google search, to scour the planet to see what paragraphs and sentences appear in this text as another.

Because of SEO, much of what you read on the internet is simply what something else has written, albeit reworded by someone who has no command of the subject matter.

So if researcher A wrote:

The Blue Whale feeds its calf at night and then both go to sleep floating head down vertically in the water like some kind of up-and-down submarine shut down to rest.

Then the SEO text mill in India, churning out copy at $1 per 400 words, copies that in its entirety and rewrites it to say:

Blue Whales feed their offspring at night.  The mother and calf sleep in a vertical position looking like a diving submarine.

This passes CopyScape, but has the writer said anything original here?

An entire industry has sprung up to feed the Google search engine monster, churning out copy but not what a journalist or even a reader would call writing.  The word copy used here is not the term journalists use when they say newspaper copy but something more like the verb copy as in to copy and paste.

There is nothing wrong with looking to have your material show up first in Google when someone is searching for shoes on the internet, so that you can sell more shoes.  But well-thought, informative information is pushed from the list as Google cannot tell the difference between what is well-written and thorough and something that is simply filled with keywords.

Google is supposed to weed out this kind of clutter by using an algorithm that Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin developed when they were students at Stanford.  That is called the Page Rank Index.  This means that searching for the words “best shoes” is not enough.  The Google search engine sorts pages where that word or phrase is found based upon how many other web pages have linked to that.  So an article on the Blue Whale in Nature should conceivably appear ahead of the list of SEO articles, including the thoughtful essay written by a 5th grader as homework, as more people would have referenced Nature in their own work.

But this logical approach to separating the wheat from the chaff can be gamed too as SEO marketing companies and their writers link to each other’s web sites thus driving up their page rank index.  This is how a few years ago some clever gamesters were able to cause the name “George Bush” to appear at the top of the list when one searched for “miserable failure.”

Look at what one company says about its offering:

SubmitEdgeSEO is a leading SEO Company and link building service provider that specializes in increasing its customers website’s online visibility on Google and the other leading search engines using 100% ethical strategies.

A noted scholar at Cambridge wrote that today all scholarship starts with Google.  That is probably true.  There is nothing wrong with looking in Google to find where you might look next to write your own original material.  But the constant gaming of the technology has caused information to appear that is not at all informative nor original.

In Europe, regulators are going after the Google monopoly for listing their own products—YouTube, Google Maps, Google Docs—at the top of the list when someone does a search.  With 90% of the market for search and 80% of the market for cell phones, because of the Android operating system, it is perhaps time that the European regulators do more than just fine tune the Google search algorithm. The European regulators should discuss forcing Google to separate its search, advertising, and Android businesses into three different companies.  Then we can purge the internet all of that clutter and actually find something useful and informative to read as other search engines can enter the business, thus making it more difficult to game the system, by building more than one system.









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(1) Reader Comment

  1. “The whole concept of proper noun and adjective placement gets tossed out in order to meet the search-engine-optimization target of repeating the phrase “best shoes” as many times as possible with the two words adjacent to one another.”

    You have clearly done little to no research on this subject which is surprising because “…anyone can be an expert on any topic because of Google and WikiPedia”.

    Keyword spamming; the act of cramming in as many of your chosen keywords as possible has not worked for well over a year. It make sentences sound unnatural.

    I did type in “best shoes” and the first result was an article from Guess what? The opening paragraph doesn’t contain the words “best shoes” at all.

    Please stop spreading misinformation.

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