AOL and Huffington Post merger: Search engine optimization won't work forever.

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Feb. 8 2011 6:20 PM

HuffPo's Achilles' Heel

Search engine optimization won't work forever.

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I don't consider HuffPo a content farm or a search-engine spammer. Google indexes HuffPo in Google News, which is a sign that the search engine doesn't think it's doing anything untoward. And even though some of its traffic-baiting practices irk journalists, they might actually be useful to readers. Last week, I wrote a column about MetroPCS and its terrible 4G phone, the Samsung Craft. My article was about 1,000 words long, and it carried the headline, " The Worst Cell Phone on Earth." HuffPo summarized my piece in about 160 words, added a slide show of other terrible phones it found online, and used the headline, " What's the worst cell phone on earth?" Today if you search Google for " worst cell phone on earth," you'll find HuffPo's piece in the Google News widget at the top of the page. Naturally, I think my piece should rank higher than HuffPo's summary, but that's just my bias. Some people might appreciate brevity and pictures, after all. HuffPo's piece would be a better result for them. So which link should go on top?

The answer is … it depends. All Google results are personalized—that is, links you see in response to a specific query may be different from the ones I see for the same query. They differ according to a number of variables—what sites I favor, where I'm located, what device I'm using, and other secret factors. At the moment, search engines' personalization algorithms aren't fine-grained enough to give everyone their ideal article in response to a query like "worst cell phone on earth," but there's no reason to believe they won't get there: In the future, Google will know whether you favor Slate over HuffPo, or whether you like original articles versus summaries, or whether you're a fan of slide shows more than text, and it will serve you the article that's most appropriate for you. And as this happens, Google will surely diminish the weight it now gives to the keywords HuffPo jams in its articles.

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HuffPo's trick of creating articles to answer very specific, trending questions also has a dubious future. Over the last few years Google has been surfacing more and more "facts" to the top of search results. Type in " movie times" and you'll likely see a list of nearby theaters and their show times without having to click anything. Type in " super bowl score" and the results are right there at the top. I'm not sure how many clicks HuffPo got on its post about the Super Bowl, but I'll promise you this: It will get fewer clicks next year, and fewer still the year after.

I'm not predicting the death of AOL-HuffPo. SEO elves and search engines have been fighting a cat-and-mouse game since the dawn of the Web, so surely the site will find ways to respond to any changes Google makes. Still, I hope Tim Armstrong knows that some of the traffic HuffPo gets from Google won't be there forever.

Oh, and one more thing: AOL HuffPO, HuffPost, AOL, Media News.

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Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.