Mark Higginson

How people's attention flows on the web

The web is a social artifact.
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30 November 2012

How, if at all, has the rise of social media changed what you’re doing?

The Yes Men kickstart a revolt

“Not that much, really. It’s changed a few of details, but I really don’t think that it’s all that revolutionary. It’s another tool, but people have done really cool, fun projects in all kinds of ways. Before social media, there were pamphlets. In between pamphlets and social media, there were emails. (Twitter) is just short emails that reach a lot of people, instead of only the people they are addressed to. We’ve used it.”

Quoted from an interview with The Yes Men who are notably free of any hyperbole about ‘social media’.

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25 October 2012

Facebook is pretty uniquely positioned to answer the questions people have. At some point we’ll do it. We have a team working on it.

Facebook’s search functionality is awful and unlikely to improve. What matters from a revenue point-of-view is which search terms are profitable and the volume at which you can generate clicks on those terms. Every other result just ensures that when people think ‘search’ and want to make one of those profitable queries they come to you.

The angle a lot of pundits are taking is that Facebook has all this ‘social data’ that will allow them to deliver relevant results based on people’s preferences. My educated guess is that the kind of stuff people share on Facebook is not going to build you a terribly great index. Also, Facebook reflects people I know socially and not what I’m interested in; that can be derived from my search history, which Google owns.

On top of that much of Facebook’s behaviour has indicated it wants to create a ‘walled garden’ within which it can keep its users clicking. What they can do differently that is suitably compelling to cause people to switch from the incumbent is hard to see. Do you ‘Bing’? I thought not.

Zuckerburg is going to need more than ‘a team’ working on search. Google are reputed to employ 7,100 people on the Google Maps project alone. Why? Because finding things in the real world is just as important as being able to find things on the web. Facebook has just over 3,000 employees in total.

Thing is, these stories are great for Google, anything to distract from the truth that it has a stranglehold on search and can therefore behave in an egregiously monopolistic way whenever it so chooses.

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28 September 2012

The decline and fall of social networks.

Interesting observation that Social networks implode quickly.

Using search volumes as a proxy for ‘level of interest’ is inaccurate, especially with the advent of app-based access to social platforms, but these kind of charts are fascinating.

Is collapse an inevitable part of how these networks function?

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16 September 2012

Everyone in search is by now aware that certain social signals are well-correlated with rankings. I wanted to see if it was actually plausible for these correlations to arise without social signals being a direct ranking factor.

Do Improved Social Signals Cause Improved Rankings?

A lot of SEO practitioners are touting the notion that social signifiers, i.e. ‘likes’, ‘shares’, etc. are also signals that are picked-up by search engine ranking algorithms. The argument is that these are more reliable indicators of popularity than links as it is likely that a real person is behind each signal. However, actual evidence that these ‘social signals’ cause fluctuations in rankings is non-existent.

I meant to highlight this post this last month as it is excellent - have a read to review the difference between causation and correlation as well as to assess the alternative explanations of what may be going on.

The way I look at this is that I understand the search engine algorithm to be a black box. I can see certain inputs I believe to affect the output but I have a hard time confirming the relative importance of these inputs. Over time, I believe that these signals have become more complicated, that the black box itself includes historical data that it has collected that it uses in its evaluation. I also believe that it is likely that the application of the algorithm is non-uniform - that is to say that certain factors are likely to affect the relative importance of other factors in the results on a case-by-case basis.

‘Social signals’ are by their nature ephemeral. If I was trying to return relevant results then of course I would consider these signals as potentially useful, say in combination with number-of-searches and other factors. However, the effect of these signals would be time-limited as the momentum behind them would be an indicator of whether people’s attention is staying with the topic or moving on to something new. For example, an affect of a decaying signal might be to ‘turn-down’ the similar results displayed as interest wanes. What concerns me is the implication that these signals replace links as a permanent signifier of relevance.

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02 August 2012

Platforms are judged by the value generated by their ecosystem, not by the value the platforms directly capture.

Dear Mark Zuckerberg

“I believe that future social platforms will behave more like infrastructure, and less like media companies. I believe that a number of smaller, interoperable social platforms with a clear, sustainable business models will usurp you. These future companies will be valued at a small fraction of what Facebook and Twitter currently are.”

Great observation. I can’t tell what Facebook is spending money on from the perspective of innovating on behalf of its users. It all depends on whether you defne a ‘user’ as someone who inputs their personal data into the platform or whether the real ‘users’ are the advertisers.

Same goes for Twitter. Seeking profit for shareholders appears to degrade the user experience as platforms implement the same advertising models.

Calling this an ‘ecosystem’ is appropriate in unintended ways: something is preyed upon in order to benefit something higher up the online food chain.

The ‘value’ of these platforms is entirely notional. Annoy enough people who have somewhere else to go and this value is completely destroyed.

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