Confessions of a Data Junkie

Bob Dumouchel

I am a Web Traffic Data junkie. The seminal event of my addiction was in October 1994 when I first gazed in wonderment upon a web log and so began my quest to connect traffic to sales. The trip has had several side trips with work in SEO, text to data mapping research, web design, programming, and direct sales. During this time I never lost sight of my objective of transforming the mountains of data into actionable business information. So is the life of a Data Junkie!

For years the web log was the standard for understanding web traffic and it was one of those situations where you were buried in data and starving for information. The next generation was a layer of software that summarized the log data to create meaningful information. The next major event was the creation of tag based analytics and in this class the largest installed base is by far Google Analytics. This differs from log based systems in that it only tracks what you code with the Google Analytics Tracking Code. The fact that it tracks only what you code is both an advantage and disadvantage. In log based systems you get everything at a painfully detailed level, but in a tagged system you only get activity that runs the JavaScript on the page. Tagged systems, like Google Analytics, brought the data up to a page level making it easier to understand for most people. In a log system there could be 50 entries just to indicate that one person loaded one page. Tagged systems have their own problems including a higher likelihood of errors of omission.

All of this brings me to June 2009 almost 15 years since the start of my data addiction. This experience gives me a perspective on this field of study and every month I work with data from over 50 clients to help them understand what their data are trying to tell them. Our job is understand the data and help our clients use that knowledge to guide their business. This month was one of those months where there was a disturbance in the data. When you work with marketing data you have to realize several things like; there are no facts only clues, marketing data is an estimate, and factual data is not causation.

As we started our monthly account review we started to notice that there was an unmistakable shift in the data. This conclusion did not come from one event or even one client but by clue after clue as we progressed through over 55 sets of data the change became clear. There was a major move in quality scores and organic position patterns. Google had reshuffled the deck; Clients with historically strong keywords were suddenly in different positions. Quality score went through data shift. Some moved up and some moved down but the reshuffling was clear and to be fair from an overall perspective it appears that the calculations got more accurate. The people that moved down will not like the results but the reality is that most of the moves we saw were fair. What we think is happening is that Google is pushing the formula of relevancy forward and we think it is evolving into a calculation of themes, trust, and authority. If we are right about this it will require rethinking web design, advertizing, and search engine optimization.

The fact that Google is headed in the direction of themes, trust, and authority is hardly a revelation. Google has been working on this for years and in their own development style they are rolling this out, receiving feedback, and then continuing the adjustments to the calculation. Google is in a continual improvement develop loop and this month was just one more installment. We have seen this before and we will see it again. This month I had the privilege to meet some of the developers at the Googleplex in Mountain View so I can tell you they have some very smart people working on their systems. If any company can improve the search quality it is Google.
If you believe like I do that Google is headed in the Themes, Trust, and Authority direction then we need to start thinking like that in our design, advertising, and optimization. Let’s start with a discussion of what these words mean in the context of web traffic.

Themes are the natural evolution of keyword relevancy. Instead of a simple keyword match on a page a theme is looking for a group of words across a collection of pages. A collection of pages could be a section of a web site, the full web site, or even multiple web sites. Defining the collection includes an analysis of what pages point to other pages and where they fit in the hierarchy of the site. In the past optimizing meant selecting your keywords and making sure they are reasonably represented in the content. Themes are looking for the root keyword plus support from other associated words including things like inferred references in the text. Google has known for a long time that simple keyword relevancy was too simple to solve the search challenge and that it was way too easy to game the system. Themes makes it tougher and at some point it will force people to give up on gaming the system because creating great content will be easier than trying to beat the system.
Trust is exactly what it sounds like; how much does the system trust the content source. Themes told us what the content is about but how much do we trust the source? This is a critical question in search and it is also a complex question in our society in general. Why do you trust your friends? How did you get to a trusting relationship with them? Just like in personal relationships trust is built over time and it is built on your actions. Google is working on trying to figure out who they should trust. Certainly things like how long the site has been around and who refers to that site are critical but that is far from the only thing they can consider. I believe they are asking questions like: Has the site, or their inbound links, been caught gaming the system? Has the site been blacklisted for spam? Have the inbound links grown over time?

Authority addresses the question of the authority of this source relative to the theme? Authority is theme specific because a site might be trusted but not an authority on a specific theme. Just because Google is a trusted authority on search does not make them an authority on Microbiology. Authority is associated with trust but it is not exactly the same. Building authority takes time and it is just like building authority in the real world. You have to publish and let people comment on your work just like a peer review in the academic world.

So after this entire esoteric dialog what does this mean to your business? Great question. What it means is that we all have to start rethinking our web strategies to develop a plan on how to be the trusted authority on the themes that are important to our businesses. This is easy to say, but tough to do. However when you get down to it, this is exactly what businesses have been doing for all of history. They develop their messaging (theme) then work to become the trusted authority on that theme. Businesses do this because people do business with those they trust; and they trust those that help them understand. Your web site is a tool that can help you educate your suspects, prospects, customers, and clients on your value to them. Build solid themes and become the trusted authority on those themes and you will discover that Google is really your best friend and they are looking for you.

Till next month…