Published On: Sat, Apr 23rd, 2011

Social Search is Already Being Gamed

I was inspired to jot down my thoughts after reading Matt Churchill’s recent post ‘ Hiding Content Behind A Like’. As usual, it was a thought provoking post from my Edelman Digital colleague and he discussed how the New Yorker is forcing people to Like its Facebook page in order to gain full access to an article by Jonathan Franzen. Matt went on to argue this is not a ‘deeper level’ of engagement as claimed by the magazine, rather it is an endorsement.

I’ve thought about this and would say that it’s neither; how can you endorse or Like something before you have read it fully? Just because you read an article does it mean you like the publication? Instead it’s an attempt to game Facebook’s search algorithm; something I expect we’ll see increasingly as search engines begin to rank more highly content and pages that are shared and recommended through social networks.

Forcing people to Like a page in exchange for content is not quite the link farms, keyword stuffing or other black hat techniques we saw in the nineties and noughties, but it does raise some interesting ethical questions for the SEO and social media communities. I recognise that gaming search is as old as search itself, but for me this does not sit comfortably.

People may argue that hiding content behind a Like is the trade-off consumers make in order to consume content. For instance, email capture has long been exchanged for useful content, such as research reports and whitepapers, whilst ‘pay with a Tweet’ services’ have grown rapidly – so paying with a Like could appear as the natural extension of this.

The issue I have is that the New Yorker is clearly trying to generate an artificially high number of recommendations to improve visibility on Facebook and subsequently, Google et al. With search engines ranked as the first place people look for information, this is a dubious practice at best and bears more than a passing resemblance to astroturfing.

I fully appreciate magazines and newspapers are looking for ways to increase advertising revenues via web traffic from search, but this seems a short-sighted tactic. To increase web traffic, news sites should be creating content that people want to Like, not have to Like. It can be done. The Huffington Post for example, excels at producing excellent news coverage and content people are searching for. It’s a great stratgey that has increased both readership and revenues.

We’ve also seen the Daily Mail masterfully strike the balance between news, trending content and celebrity gossip to create a one of the worlds most popular news sites with over 3 million unique visitors per day.

Whilst I see hiding content behind a Like as a slightly unethical attempt to game Social Search before it’s properly begun, more generally I’m excited to see how recommendations from my social networks impacts upon my search results.

For those who want to find out more about search and how social is going to play a bigger role on results, check out this deck entitled ‘SEO is broken – giving way to social search’ and post by Speed Communication’s Stephen Waddington. Similarly, Steve Rubel and David Armano have written great posts on related topics.

About the Author

- Marketing Manager with a passion for inbound at HubSpot, Founder of Growth Hack Talks, Blogger at and Chief Quaffer at .

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  1. […] Social Search is Already Being Gamed | Social Web Thing – yes The New Yorker is evil, but it also says something powerful about their brand that people were prepared to like their content first and read it afterwards […]

  2. […] Social Search is Already Being Gamed | Social Web Thing Ben Cotton looks at how Social Search is already being gamed. Source: […]

  3. […] someone who is curious about alternative systems of payment and has explored using search to pay for content, I’ll be fascinated to find out the value of this SEO campaign versus the potential revenue lost […]

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