That’s the only reason I can think for the pro-Mahalo and anti-Google videos Robert Scoble released this weekend. Because quite honestly most of the information inside the video makes little sense.
If you want to watch here are the videos
The first two parts are about 15 minutes each and the last is 6 minutes so be prepared to invest a little time watching. The only thing I learned from them is that Robert Scoble has little to no understanding of search engines, search users, and search marketers. That and he’s heavily biased against anyone who claims to be an SEO.
Rand’s written up a great counter post dissecting the videos point for point and where Scoble goes astray.
The main premise I get from Robert is that human powered search is less spammable than algorithmic search and thus provides more relevant results. This has to be one of the most naive points of view I’ve ever heard. Any hacker or security expert will tell you that the weak link in the chain is always human beings. Real people are much easier to manipulate than machines.
Mahalo is using 100 editors to build pages on the most searched queries. I don’t know what those 100 people are getting paid, but I doubt it’s very much. Is it really that unimaginable to think you couldn’t pay them more to skew pages in your favor?
From Mahalo’s blog here’s how they identified one site that was trying to spam them.
First, and most simply, it felt spammy. After a little research, we discovered it had a very low Alexa ranking.
Hmm? So a handful of people felt the site was spammy. Not enough Alexa? I guess low tech sites are out and we’ve finally discovered a use for Alexa data. Oh, and they linked to the site in the blog post. Their response to the manipulation attempt was to link to the site trying to manipulate them.
Human beings can be manipulated. Why do you think you get all those spam emails every day. You get them because human beings are falling for them.
Human beings also carry bias in what they think is relevant. What’s relevant to me isn’t necessarily relevant to you. We can both type the same words into a search engine and be looking for completely different things. 100 people at Mahalo can only present results they think are relevant to the majority. An algorithmic search engine makes guesses too, but at least there we can refine our queries. A site like Mahalo doesn’t provide that option. Your search will always be limited to what a small group of people think you should see.
Human Powered Search Does Not Scale
Robert seems to think that you can build a scalable trusted algorithm based on human interaction (This is all in part III). His idea is that if you have 100 friends you trust through a site like Facebook they can provide good sources of information for you. They can tell you what pages are the best ones for your query. Sounds ok in theory except that friends you connect with on a social networking site aren’t granted the same level of trust as friends in the real world. We make much looser connections online than offline. Trust is more than accepting an invite on a social networking site.
Scoble mentions his 5,000 Facebook friends. Do you know 5,000 people who you trust? I don’t either. There’s no way Robert actually knows all 5,000 of those people well enough to know if their judgment can be trusted to send him the best search results.
Robert continues by assuming that if you have 100 friends who can recommend you pages and they each have 100 friends who can further recommend pages and so on you can quickly be connected with experts on any subject who can recommend the most relevant pages for you. Again ok in theory, but not in the real world.
First chances are your 100 friends and you share a lot of friends in common so it doesn’t scale quite as fast as Robert thinks. Second and more importantly is the trust evaporates a lot with each level of separation. Just because I trust a friend’s recommendation doesn’t mean I trust the recommendation of a friend of a friend. Go one more friend out and I would view that person as a stranger. We’re connected through mutual friends, but we would know nothing about each other. That’s not a trusted source of information. That’s a stranger.
Algorithms aren’t perfect by any means. I think Google has quite a few problems at the moment such as returning Wikipedia for nearly every query and going overboard in fighting paid links. And let’s not pretend algorithms don’t have bias either. Algorithms carry the bias of the people who create them. Still an algorithm is less likely to carry as much direct bias as a single human being and they are more difficult to manipulate.
There is definitely room for social powered search. You can find great sources of information through real people. Many of the new web pages I encounter daily were recommendations in the form of a link. I read content on a trusted source and followed a link on the page. But I didn’t find those pages on command. I didn’t ask a question and get those pages returned. Social search can work well, especially in verticals where it can remain more focused. But it will always work best as an addition to algorithmic search, not as a replacement.
I have to ask again if Robert Scoble is now on the Mahalo payroll. The arguments in his video are nonsensical and highly biased and show a complete lack of understanding about search. I thought Scoble was smarter than this which is the reason for the question. He can’t be this clueless can he?
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