Search engine bias in The House of Cards

Search engine bias is a hobby horse of mine so I was interested when House of Cards introduced a fictional search engine in the fourth series.

If you’re a House of Cards fan, you’ll know that republican presidential candidate Will Conway uses the fictional search engine Pollyhop to gain intelligence on voters’ preferences so that he can get the upper hand over  Frank Underwood.

Conway is digital media savvy. He’s smart. A fast thinker. He’s not afraid of celebrity and he knows how to make himself and his family the centre of attention. He records family moments on his cell phone and shares them publicly on social media. He’s open. He’s transparent. But it’s his use of the Pollyhop search engine that caught my eye because it touches on the interesting question of search engine bias in our digital age.

What influences search engine bias?

The Internet has become our first port of call for information, entertainment and news. We search. We retrieve results We rarely need to look beyond the first page of those results to find an answer to our question. We rely on search engines to prioritise relevant, trustworthy information and we seldom cast a thought to what’s filtered out.

Yet, we know that every time we type a query into a search engine, the results presented are influenced by our previous Internet behaviour — the sites we visited, links we clicked, items we purchased online, our location and a host of other factors — many of which draw on personal data that we willingly shared.

Sometimes this personalisation is beneficial when we’re offered a deal for access to the VIP lounge before we fly. Sometimes it’s annoying when we’re emailed about products or services we’ve purchased before or have no intention of ever purchasing. And, sometimes,  our search results are influenced by external factors. Swedish author and journalist Andreas Ekström brilliantly explained this using examples of how photo results have been manipulated and the steps taken to address the problem. Check out Ekström’s  TED talk and if you’re interested in learning more about how search works, have a look at Eli Pariser’s book, The Filter Bubble.

In House of Cards, Pollyhop may be fictional but there are many real life examples of search engine bias. The question is not so much whether search results should be objective but rather whether they ever can be. And, if results are inherently biased, how can we filter and/or augment the knowledge we discover online — effectively optimising results for ourselves to counterbalance the biases of others? I don’t know the answer but the question continues to fascinate me.

How search, content, social media help client relationships

Client relationships and contentMore and more professional services firms recognise the importance of having good content on their online platforms.

Relevant, reliable content builds trust and trust is important when developing client relationships.

Understand clients’ search patterns

When people need help to solve a problem, usually the first place they look is online. Search brings potential clients to your website. It is how they discover you and evaluate your potential solution against that of your competitors.

These searches take place well before the client ever contacts you. This is why it is important to understand the words people use when searching and the questions they ask. And, of course, it is also important to make sure that potential clients can find your firm online. If you don’t turn up in search results, they may never find you.

Assuming your firm specialises in providing particular services — tax, wealth management, family business advice, accounting or audit — then you’ll already have a good understanding of the most common problems your clients face.

You can use draw on this knowledge to brainstorm the search terms your clients are likely to use when they are looking for solutions to their problems online. How do they phrase their questions? Pay attention to their language when you are planning your content. This helps ensure that you focus your efforts in the most productive areas.

Focus on content that helps your client

Sharing quality content helps build your firm’s professional reputation and demonstrates your expertise.

Content that is useful to potential clients may take many forms: articles, blog posts, videos, reports, powerpoint presentations and slideshares are just some of the content types typically created and shared by professional services firms.

Remember, when creating content to focus on what is helpful to your client or potential client. Case studies are particularly useful but even a biographical note about an employee can reassure potential clients that he/she has the skill and experience to deal with their particular problems.

It is worth thinking through what you say in your ‘About us’ section of your website. For example, a bio might explain that an employee holds a qualification in mediation and is experienced in resolving family business disputes. This information is helpful to potential clients involved in similar disputes.

Make sure that all your content includes contact information — whether that’s a contact form, an invitation to join your firm’s mailing list or button to request a relevant download. You get the best return on your content when your website visitor become a client.

Share your content with your community

Sharing your content via social media encourages clients to engage with your firm and makes it easy for them to contact you. Decide which social platforms work best for you. LinkedIn is good when you want to attract the attention or your peers. Twitter is home to many journalists and can be useful if you are seeking media attention.  Facebook and Snapchat and YouTube may be better when you are trying to recruit trainees. Few firms have the resources to be active across multiple platforms so it’s a good idea to be strategic — to know where you want to be active, and why.

Finally, remember to check and update your existing content from time to time and make sure that all links and contact points are correct and working. That way, you’ll get a better long term return on the content your firm creates.

If you need help creating or updating content for your website, I would be pleased to provide a quote. You can contact me here.

 

 

 

When’s the last time you checked your accounting firm’s online presence?

Accounting firms that are not visible online can miss out on attracting potential new clients. This came home to me recently when I set about engaging an accounting firm and found it surprisingly difficult to identify suitable firms in my local area. It’s not that the firms don’t exist. There were actually quite a few listed in various directories but these listings provide little information and, like most people these days, I do my homework online before making that initial phone call.

Accountants are trusted advisors and it is important to find someone you can get along with.  Being in the content business, I wanted someone who understood digital media and marketing and I also wanted someone younger than me because I hope that the firm I choose will continue to look after my needs until I retire.

Whatever the combination of factors likely to influence a potential client’s choice, the chances are the first place they’ll look for a service provider is online.

Accounting firm's onlineSo, how easy is it to find your firm?

One way to check your accounting firm’s online presence is to ask a friend or neighbour to run a Google search and see where your firm’s website shows up. If you made it on to the first page of the search results, congratulations! If you didn’t, you may need to look at your website design and content. (Those are topics I will discuss in future blog posts).

For now, let’s assume that the potential client found your firm, clicked the link and they’re now on your website. What they see may depend on whether they are using a mobile phone or tablet,  a laptop or desktop computer.  Unless your site is easily readable on each of these devices, you risk losing your potential new client. Responsive sites display correctly on all devices and with more web searches now done from mobile devices, it’s really important that your site is mobile friendly. You may have heard of Mobilegeddon earlier this year when Google introduced a change in favour of websites that are mobile friendly. So, if  your firm’s website is not responsive, you again have work to do.

Assuming that your site is responsive, your potential client is now browsing your firm’s content and is likely to be interested in a range of details such as location, services, recommendations, personnel, qualifications and regulation. It is worth checking that you have covered the following:

  • Does your site provide your address, telephone number, email and social media links?
  • Does your site list – and describe – the services that your firm provides?
  • Does your site provide testimonials from satisfied clients?
  • Does your site provide an ‘About us’ page with photos and biographical information about your firm’s partners and key staff focusing in particular on their qualifications and individual areas of expertise?
  • Who regulates your firm and have you included the relevant details on your homepage?
  • Does your website provide an easy means for clients to contact you? If your website provides a contact form, is the inbox for messages from that form monitored and responded to on a timely basis?
  • Are your social media links easy to find and have you included links to the LinkedIn profiles of your key personnel and your business’s LinkedIn page? Potential clients may be more likely to contact you if they find that you have contacts in common.

It is useful to provide some additional options since not every potential client will be ready to call you following their first visit to your website.  You can improve the chances that they’ll come back when they’re ready to talk if you provide an option for them to subscribe to your firm’s newsletter, request a free report or ask to join the mailing list for your next client briefing.

Finally, while this article has focused on websites, remember that potential clients are also likely to search for you and/or your firm on social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. So, if you have a presence on those platforms, it’s worth considering whether the information you provide is sufficient to meet your potential clients’ requirements.

Thanks for reading and if you found this article useful, please consider sharing it and/or subscribing to my newsletter for future updates.

Search Engines and Serendipity

Search Engines
Image by Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Search engines are having a significant impact on the information that we consume. Indeed even articles like this one are influenced to some extent by how they may be retrieved by search engines — perhaps by using the ‘Search Engine’ term instead of simply ‘Search’ in the title. But let’s forget about the theory for a moment and concentrate instead on the practical effects and what they may mean for our ability to learn in the longer term.

Positive Benefits of Search Engines

Two elderly gentleman were browsing on iPads over their breakfast comparing  ailments and medications and browsing for information on related topics. There was nothing remarkable about their conversation but their use of the iPads highlights  how much the ways we obtain and share information has changed in recent times. The iPad in particular has delivered a user experience so intuitive that the hardware is no longer a barrier between user and content: it has taken away the fear.

Downside of Search Engines : How algorithms limit the information we retrieve

Without question, developments in technology have empowered end users but it is important to remember that behind the scenes algorithms — sometimes assisted by humans — are making decisions about the information that we see in our search results based on what they have learned about us from our previous Internet behaviour. This matters a lot when you consider that the gentlemen browsing in my local coffee shop are probably seeing search results biased by commercial interests and that they may be making decisions based on that information, perhaps even going so far as to self-prescribe and purchase medications online.

Personalisation

More worrying still is that every search and every click potentially feeds into a personalisation process that means the results presented come from an increasingly narrower set of potential results (which is one of the reasons why the EU Cookie law is important). Some months ago, I clicked on an ad for a dress. Since then, the ads I see most often as I browse the web are for dresses from the same supplier. You might think that doesn’t matter but what if I had clicked on  a political link? Would I  increasingly see results that reflect the particular bias of the original clicked link? Would I only see results from points of view that are similar to my own and what would that mean for my worldview? And what about those two gentlemen in the coffee shop? I suspect they may be seeing a lot of online ads for medications.

Loss of serendipity?

Attempts to deliver ‘quality’ and ‘relevant’ results  in response to often poorly defined search queries take into account factors such as the searcher’s location, previous search history and many more individual user behaviours so that the highest ranking results come from a much narrower base than most searchers realise. And, while some algorithms try to build in an element of serendipity or ‘chance discovery’, I can’t help worrying that the delivery of  ’personalised’ search results — which include content that has been manipulated to achieve a high search engine ranking —  ultimately diminishes those results and limits the potential for the searcher to learn.

Paid Content

Amazon, Netflix and iTunes have demonstrated that users will pay for access to content that meets their needs. Perhaps the time is coming when users will also contemplate paying for search — if only in those areas where quality and trustworthy results are most important.

For now, perhaps the best advice is to keep in mind that the top results returned on your search may well have been manipulated into that top position for commercial or other reasons. Try to remain curious when searching by clicking not just on the stories you agree with but also — at least now and then — on those that challenge your point of view thereby creating your own serendipity and maximising your potential to learn.