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.

Arianna Huffington. Click image to expand.
Arianna Huffington

Are you wondering, "will AOL's acquisition of the Huffington Post be successful?" I bet you are, as that's been a common search engine query since the announcement earlier this week that AOL will buy the Huffington Post. Other ways you might phrase the question include, "AOL Huffington Post will work?" or "AOL and Arianna good idea?" But some people can't spell, so it's likely that a few are searching for things like, "AOL do I need dial-up to read HyffPo now?" or "Ariana Hiffington evil genius or just evil?" Well, any way you search for it, you're in luck, because you've arrived at the best page on the Web to tell you all you need to know about AOL acquiring the Huffington Post—or should I say, AOL acquiring HuffPo. Or, that is to say, AOL buying HuffPo. (HuffPo being the short name for Arianna Huffington's site, the Huffington Post, which has just been bought by AOL.)

Before I go on, let me stop and say a couple of more important things: Aol, Aol Acquires Huffington Post, Aol Buys Huffington Post, Aol Buys Huffpo, Aol Huffington Post, Huffington Post, Huffington Post Aol, Huffington Post Aol Merger, Huffington Post Media Group, Huffington Post Sold, Huffpo Aol, Huffpost Aol, Media News.

See what I did there? That's what you call search-engine optimization, or SEO. If I worked at the Huffington Post, I'd likely be commended for the subtle way in which I inserted all those search keywords into the lede of my article. In fact, the keywords above are taken directly from HuffPo's page announcing its acquisition, and my first paragraph is a rip-off of a search-engine baiting article the site posted on Sunday, " What time does the Superbowl start?" HuffPo's facility with keywords seems to be one of the main things that Tim Armstrong, AOL's CEO, loves about the site. Armstrong, a former Google exec, can't get enough SEO—according to an internal memo that Business Insider posted last week, he's pushing for the company to use an "SEO checker" to look over 95 percent of AOL's stories by the end of March. He believes this will yield a big payoff for AOL; 40 percent of its traffic, the memo says, will come from search engines.

I don't blame Armstrong or Huffington for pursuing this strategy. Making a living off the news is hard, and if they've figured out a way to fool search engines into pushing visitors their way, I salute them. But there's a long-term problem with their strategy: They won't be able to fool the computers forever.

Not all SEO is bad, and not all HuffPo articles employ shady SEO, but some of the tricks that HuffPo uses to gin up search traffic are pretty sketchy. These tricks include: stuffing articles with strings of meaningless keywords (HuffPo does this on every piece), repeating potential search queries at the top of a story, and carefully engineering articles in response to rising search terms. These tactics exploit obvious weaknesses in Google and other search engines. If Google's mission is to provide search results that you—a human being—find useful, then HuffPo's keyword-glutted pieces don't belong, because no human being considers a list of synonyms an interesting way to start an article.

But Google's weaknesses aren't permanent. Search engines' algorithms are getting better at detecting keyword gaming, they're beginning to learn searchers' preferences, and they're using social-networking signals to figure out what you, personally, might consider a good or bad article. The other problem for the new AOL-HuffPo is the rise of social networks as a replacement for search engines. Did you go to Google to search for a story about the Huffington Post's purchase, or did you see the news on Facebook or Twitter? Those social networking links are becoming a bigger share of every news site's traffic; as one of my Slate colleagues pointed out, in the Twitter age, "optimizing for Google results is a little like going out and buying the best VCR on the market."

Over the last few months, the search engine industry has become obsessed with the rise of content farms—sites like Associated Content and Demand Media (which just earned $1.5 billion in a public stock offering), which analyze search trends and flood the Web with low-quality content (e.g., " How To Get a Big Mac for $1 at McDonald's." Step 1: "Go to your local McDonald's"). Last month, in response to a wave of tech-blog posts charging that Google's results have been overrun by content farms, Google said that it would be working to take "stronger action on content farms and sites that consist primarily of spammy or low-quality content."

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.

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.