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Feb. 3, 2014, 9:30 a.m.
LINK: www.theatlantic.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   February 3, 2014

Robinson Meyer had a piece up before last night’s Super Bowl detailing the history of what started as an SEO coup and became a Media Twitter #injoke — “What time is the Super Bowl?”

On February 5, 2011—Super Bowl Saturday—Craig Kanalley noticed that a set of queries were peaking on Google Trends. They were all along the same lines: “what time is the super bowl 2011,” “superbowl time” and “superbowl kickoff time 2011”…

Kanalley worked at the Huffington Post. His title was Trends and Traffic Editor. In those proto-social days, one of Kanalley’s jobs was to watch Google Trends and identify what people were searching for. He then leveraged that information by writing stories about those topics—stories designed to appear near the top of Google’s search results for those popular queries.

He was one of many online writers that year furiously playing the search engine optimization (SEO) game, trying to answer the questions that people were googling about, and, in doing so, getting articles to the top of Google’s major result pages. Hit the Google Jackpot—land a top placement on a result page—and users flooded your page, so many users they sloshed into the rest of the site.

It’s a good story, but I was most intrigued by how Google eventually reacted to the annual spate of what-time-is-the-Super-Bowl queries: by answering the question itself, displaying the right answer above any news outlet’s writeup of it:

I thought of a post I’d written back in 2011 about some comments from Google boss Eric Schmidt about Google’s preference was to provide rather than link to answers.

Some [searcher questions] are complex enough that Google probably wouldn’t be able to give a single definitive answer, the way it can with a database of census data. But it’s not hard to imagine it could provide a Metacritic-like look at the summary critical opinion of the My Morning Jacket record, or an analysis of customer reviews of Malick’s DVDs at Amazon. It could dip into the growing sea of public data about government activity to tell you what happened at city council (and maybe figure out which parts of the agenda were important, based on news stories, community bloggers, and social media traffic). It could gather up articles from high-trust news and government sources on NASA and algorithmically combine them into just as much info as the searcher wants. It’s a shift in the focus of Google’s judgment; websites shift from competitors to be ranked against each other to data sources to be diced and analyzed to figure out an answer.

These things aren’t right around the corner — they quickly get to be really complicated AI problems. But they all point to the fact that Google is working hard to reduce the number of times searchers need to leave google.com to get answers to their questions. For all the times that Google has said it’s not in the content business, it’s not hard to imagine a future where its mission to “organize the world’s information” goes way beyond spidering and linking and into algorithmically processing for answers instead of PageRank.

It’s in this context that I think you can consider Ezra Klein’s new Vox startup a sort of next-level SEO play. (That’s far too limiting a frame to put on it — it’ll be much more than that — but work with me.) When its job listing says rather than letting its “reporting gather dust in an archive, we’ll use it to build and continuously update a comprehensive set of explainers of the topics we cover,” one way to think of that is: We’re going to build answers to questions more complex than what Google can answer.

Whether it’s Twitter (whose Twitter Cards aim to have you look at pictures or watch videos mid-stream) or Reddit (growing in size but sending less traffic) or Google, it seems that every platform that built an audience around the content of others now wants to command a larger share of your attention. For publishers, that may mean it’s time to think about a different kind of search engine optimization.

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