Engineering Search: The story of the algorithm that changed the world

Ira Basen, producer and presenter of Engineering Search: The story of the algorithm that changed the world

New radio documentary from Ira Basen airs on December 5th

This coming Sunday (December 5th), a new, one-hour documentary is set to air on CBC Radio One’s The Sunday Edition. Engineering Search: The story of the algorithm that changed the world, tracks the evolution of search engine optimization, particularly in regards to Google. More details are found below.

Update: The online version of Engineering Search now available from a dedicated CBC website page.

The producer and presenter of Engineering Search, Ira Basen (of Spin Cycles and News 2.0 docs fame), agreed to answer some questions exclusively for the PR Conversations blog.

What is the genesis for your new radio documentary?

There is no straight line running from where this documentary started and where it ended.

It began with my ongoing interest in the future of media. Last spring (2010), I became aware of the controversy over “content farms” such as Demand Media. These are sites that use data culled from search queries to flood the web with lots of long-tail content. I began to get interested in the role that search engines play in determining what stories might get told and which won’t.

I attended the Search Engine Strategies (SES) conference in Toronto last June, to investigate that idea, but while there, I started to think about how search plays such a central role in so many aspects of our lives today, plus how the development of the Google algorithm about 12 years ago solved many of the problems that existing search engines were unable to solve. It literally opened up a whole new world.

So I decided that I would divert my attention away from the media aspect and do this radio documentary on the past, present and future of search. I call it the story of the algorithm that changed the world, which is obviously hyperbole on one level, but on another level, it is hard to imagine our lives today without the web. It is hard to imagine the web without search, or search without Google.

Given that the focus of this blog is on PR, why and how might public relations practitioners find this documentary interesting and/or relevant?

When I was at the SES Conference it occurred to me how much search engine optimization is similar to earned media. Indeed, many of the search engine optimization (SEO) consultants I met were either former or current PR practitioners.

The similarities are interesting. For example, a good PR person knows how to draft a news release that will attract the attention of his or her targeted media. These PR practitioners know what journalists are looking for and how to deliver that information. But there’s no guarantee there will be any pick-up, because there are lots of variables that will determine whether the story will get selected or not.

SEO is much the same thing, except you replace the journalist with the search algorithm. An SEO expert knows how to create a website or blog that will attract the attention of a search engine, because they presumably have a deeper understanding of what the algorithm is looking for than the ordinary person (I’m talking about organic links here, not paid links).

But because the algorithm is secret and changes an average of once a day, there is no guarantee that the Google gods will be pleased by your site and reward you with a high ranking on the result page. So in both cases, you can only go so far, but your fate ultimately rests in forces beyond your control.

Update: Some dedicated Engineering Search web pages are being built on the CBC website. This item (by Ira Basen) is already online, A Short History of Search Engines from Archie to Google.

“Engineering Search” Lineup

Engineering Search features commentary and analysis from several authorities in the field, including (in alphabetical order):

Engineering Search: The Story of the Algorithm that Changed the World, will be broadcast on CBC Radio Ones The Sunday Edition on Sunday, December 5, 2010, beginning at 10:05 a.m. (in the various North American time zones). It can also be streamed live from the CBC Radio web page.

There are plans to archive the show as a podcast for future playback (similar to Spin Cycles and News 2.0).

Related posts

Radio show tracks evolution of SEO, Public Relations Tactics, Public Relations Society of America
The Week’s Best, 6 December 2010, Karen Russell, Teaching PR
Six Links Worthy of Your Attention #24, Mitch Joel, Six Pixels of Separation
– In SEO writing, algorithms replace journalists, Dana Lacey, J-News, The Canadian Journalism Project
Engineering Search Documentary, Frank Pasquale, blog


On Saturday, November 27, 2010, the following feature article by Ira Basen appeared in the Focus section of the Globe and Mail, The algorithm method: Programming our lives away. It covers some aspects of search not covered in the one-hour CBC Radio documentary.

Earlier award-winning radio documentaries from Ira Basen (available online):

Ira Basens photo taken by Andrew Hind for the Canadian Journalism Foundation (CJF), at its October event, Newspapers – The Strategic Generation: Ira Basen interviews John Stackhouse. Thanks are extended to the CJF for graciously supplying the photo and granting permission for its use here.

Please follow our blog:

13 Replies to “Engineering Search: The story of the algorithm that changed the world

  1. Early in this interview Ira Basen indicates, “Last spring (2010), I became aware of the controversy over “content farms” such as Demand Media. These are sites that use data culled from search queries to flood the web with lots of long-tail content. I began to get interested in the role that search engines play in determining what stories might get told and which won’t.”

    Today (Friday, February 25) I learned from Ira Basen that his 24-minute “Content on Demand” segment should be on @cbcradio‘s Sunday Edition this weekend (fingers crossed).

    I asked him to describe this new radio doc. Ira tells me,

    “The doc really just uses my experience as a Demand Media freelancer to look at the world of content farms. My main point is that they deserve credit for finding a way to make money providing content for the web, because not many people have been able to do that. And they have done a good job of figuring out how to respond to the demands of readers.

    The two big negatives against them are quality and the fee schedule for contributors. I think the quality issue is overblown a bit, and the fee schedule is very unfortunate but three cents a word may be what content is worth on the web. The two issues are linked, however. How much work will you put into a piece for $5.

    Demand’s IPO last month was hugely successful. They are now very rich, as is Arianna. In the end, I conclude that it would be nice if one day someone came up with a business model that rewarded content creators, and not just publishers.”

    At present the segment is slated to air at 10 a.m. (across the time zones) on CBC Radio One:

    It can also be live-streamed off of the website:

    (Note that a longer piece on “content farms” by Ira Basen will be featured in @maisonneuvemag, coming out on March 18th.)

    I hope you can check one or both out!

  2. Hello,
    I’ve just listened to portions of the CBC broadcast dealing with Google and algorithms. I teach high school and know that the students would be fascinated.

    Is there any way to get an audio copy of the broadcast that could be used in schools?

    Anything would be most appreciated.


    1. I’m delighted you enjoyed Ira Basen’s documentary, Jim (as did I). | also love the fact that you must have “searched” for information on it (on Google?!) and landed on the PR Conversations blog! (Ira pretty much gave me an exclusive on pertinent information!)

      I understand that the online version of Engineering Search should be up on the CBC website by Tuesday or Wednesday. I’ll be posting a link (at the top of the page) when I get the word. At this stage you should be able to play the show on a computer to your class(es); or else assign them to listen to it, personally.

  3. Interesting question Toni. I would say that dealing with an algorithm is probably more predictable than dealing with a reporter because it never has a bad day at the office, and these days, the algorithm has more job security.

  4. May I express my compliments to Judy for keeping Ira under constant observation?

    As for the past, Ira’s ideas are higly stimulating, in that they lead one to other correlations about our profession.

    I had class yesterday and this morning with my underagraduate students here in Rome (where I am now) and we dissected Judy’s interview phrase by phrase.
    We also related it to the EU’s very recent opening of an antitrust investigation versus Google as well as the latter’s announcement yesterday that it modified its algorithm under fire in the blogsphere for allowing merchants to reach top positions because of a savy use of SEO and thus mistreating unwary consumers….

    Towards the end of class this morning (how could we not correlate this issue with the wikileaks one…?) one student came out with the idea that rather than a publisher (as Google would like to be seen, while of course publishers hate Google and do not accept this parallel) operates in fact as sovereign government in the sense that it has the power to define the rules…. and relating this to wikileaks, the subsequente issue was: on what side are we on? And who is on the construens side and on the destruens one? Where is Hillary Clinton, and Putin and where is Julian Assange?

    All very very interesting and helps me keep students attention.

    From a more pr practice perspective, I recall that when some yeasr ago I wrote somewhere (can’t remember if here or elsewhere) that SEO was only one contemporary diversification of pr, I really got hell from many senior professionals and educators.

    Now it seems as this idea has received legitimacy.

    And so, let me ask one question to which I have not been able to find any rational reply:

    if you are dealing with a journalist you have a relationship to develop….but how can you develop a relationship with an algorithm?

    I am confident that at least David Phillips or Bruno Amaral would have some sort of answer…..

  5. First of all, many thanks to Judy and everyone at PR Conversations for the support you have given me in my work. I hope you will indulge me by allowing me to tell you a litle bit more about my current project.

    Over the past few years, my primary interests have been in tracking the changes that PR and journalism have been undergoing, both collectively (“Spin Cycles”) and separately (“News 2.0”). “Engineering Search” is a bit of a departure in that it doesn’t deal directly with either PR or journalism.

    Search and SEO have had, and continue to have, a profound influence on journalism in terms of what stories get told and how they get told. I was originally planning to deal with that in this documentary, but there was no way to fit it in elegantly, so it will be the subject of another project down the road.

    There is a great deal about search marketing in this documentary. I don’t want to wade in on the thorny issue of the relationship between PR and marketing. I know that has been smartly discussed in this blog and elsewhere. But to the extent that SEO is a form of earned media (see above), and that many SEO people are current or former PR people, you could say that the doc deals tangentially with PR.

    The reality is that no one who is acquainted with the world of search marketing will find much they didn’t already know in this documentary. The audience for the doc is the CBC Radio Sunday Edition audience, which tends not to be on the cutting edge of technology.

    Everybody uses search engines, but my observation has been that most users never really think about what is happening when they search – how sites get to the top of the result page, how companies like Google have amassed their enormous wealth etc..

    This documentary is primarily for those people. It is the past, present and future of search. It is the kind of documentary that hopefully will have our audience saying “wow, I didn’t know that.” Hope you have an opportunity to listen.

  6. There is a delicious irony in the fact that the only interview subject that has promoted this post and documentary so far is the individual who did NOT have a Twitter account that I could find. (All other interview subject should have been alerted via my tweet yesterday, which indicated their Twitter handles.)

    So congratulations to Frank Pasquale, who obviously has his own methods for “searching” references to his name. Here’s a link to his own post on the Engineering Search Documentary.

Comments are closed.