Search News: United Airlines Story Shows That the Internet Wild West is Now Settled Territory

For a good chunk of the 90s and even the 00s people have referred to the wide-open constantly evolving online world as akin to the “Wild West” – lawless and wild with plenty of things happening away from the prying eyes of strangers. Well that’s been dead for quite some time now and yet companies and individuals persist in acting as if it’s still true.

The recent unpleasantness caused by an archived article on the Florida Sun Sentinel’s website is a good example. It seems that over the weekend a story from 2002 about United Airlines entering bankruptcy appeared on the Most Popular page of the Florida Sun Sentinel’s website. Along came the Googlebot which could only find the date that the story went hot, thus making it look like news rather than archival. The erroneous story then traveled a path that led it to Bloomberg  News where investor’s saw it, panicked, and began dumping United stock. This was magnified by electronic trading which kicked in to dump even more shares once the selloff began.

To belabor the Wild West metaphor – the arrival of Google at your website is like the railroad coming to your town. Once those robots scrape your site and it gets indexed you are open for traffic both in and out of town. If you are a publisher like the Florida Sun-Sentinel, inclusion in the Google News algorithm is like having a station built where your residents – or content – can hop on to destinations unknown freely. Unfortunately in the case of the United story, the equivalent of Jesse James hopped on and robbed a few investors of their savings before he was caught.

The Sun-Sentinel’s response was that anyone reading the story would have known that it was old, especially if they skipped down to the comments which were mostly from 2002. This is like saying “What? The railroad’s here?” just as a 12-car train pulls through Main Street.  As Reprise Media Managing Partner Peter Hershberg points out in today’s Wall Street Journal some basic SEO would have prevented this from happening and made for a clearer reading experience.

In looking at this story more in depth with Pete he was able to unpack several important points here that in their totality show why the mark of a settled frontier are professionals  – SEO’s, Search Marketers, Online Editors – who ensure that best practices are adhered to. Think of them as the Sheriffs.

Robots Can’t Think

Googlebots can scrape and index based on very sophisticated human generated algorithms but that’s about it. Similarly whatever lousy programming was used to churn an irrelevant article from 2002 up to the Sun-Sentinel’s Most Popular News page where the bots found it is clearly limited. From there we enter a cascade of automated goofs from the story getting onto the Google News page and e-mail alerts as a single-sourced item to the pickup on Bloomberg’s website of the same story from a clueless investor newsletter to the automated trading systems that started the steep sell-off of United’s shares.

In each case the lack of professional human interaction allowed the Google train to take its dangerous passenger along from stop to stop unhindered.  This kind of benign neglect is still far too common on the web and throughout the world of Search Marketing.

Automated bid management programs are a good example of how benign neglect can go awry. Some advertisers take a “set it and forget it” approach to bid management for that totally negates the ability to respond flexibly to new data and situations.  You may stay within your budget but you actually lower your ROI.   Let’s say you are a retailer and you are running a campaign to sell air conditioners.  A heat wave is announced and suddenly a dramatically larger number of folks start to click your ads. Too bad you’ve limited your daily spend – no more ad and no more customers.  Performing some basic human oversight over this automated process would allow you to reallocate resources to take advantage of the unexpected surge in daily clicks.

Allowing automated systems to run without supervision risks a result that looks Westworld’s homicidal robot gunfighters run amok. Look it up on Wikipedia kids, but don’t assume it’s going to give you the most accurate information – that would be robot thinking.

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