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):
- Mike Grehan, publisher of SearchEngineWatch.com. (@mikegrehan)
- Jeff Jarvis, author of the book, What Would Google Do? and associate professor/director of the interactive journalism program and the new business models for news project at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. (@jeffjarvis)
- Andrew Keen entrepreneur and Internet critic, and author of the book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture. (@ajkeen)
- Judith Lewis, head of search at Beyond, blogger at SEO Chicks and journalist at Technology Weekly. (@judithlewis)
- Rebecca Lieb, vice president at Econsultancy and author of the book, The Truth about Search Engine Optimization. (@lieblink)
- Maile Ohye, developer programs and tech lead at Google. (@maileohye)
- Frank Pasquale, law professor from Seaton Hall University (New York City) and a leading critic of Google.
- Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University. He writes and speaks frequently about new media and the predicament of the press in a time of rapid transformation. (@jayrosen_nyu)
- Clay Shirky, adjunct professor in New York University’s graduate interactive telecommunications program (ITP) and a frequent writer on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. (@cshirky)
Engineering Search: The Story of the Algorithm that Changed the World, will be broadcast on CBC Radio One’s 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).
- 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, Madisonian.net 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):
- Spin Cycles: spin, the spinners and the spun (July 2007)
- News 2.0: The Future of News in an Age of Social Media (October 2009)
Ira Basen’s 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.