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Interview With Ira Basen

Interview With Ira Basen

The journalist and broadcaster on Google algorithms, content farms and the future of media.

They say knowledge is power, but how can anyone acquire it without a search? Positioned between people and the knowledge they need, Google's search algorithms mediate that relationship, and as a result, the company takes a healthy cut of the power. In his new Maisonneuve article "Age of the Algorithm," which appears in Issue 39 (Spring 2011), Ira Basen explores the fascinating and sometimes scary world of the major players vying for your clicks.

For "Age of the Algorithm," Basen actually went to work for a company called Demand Media, which runs so-called "content farm" sites like Content farms have their own algorithms constantly evaluating what you search for, creating headlines that fit those criteria, and paying writers a pittance to churn out short articles on the subject. Algorithms are assuming more and more control over what gets written—and what we read.

As a writer, a professor of journalism and a CBC radio producer, Basen has a vested, multifaceted interest in the future of online media. To read "Age of the Algorithm," pick up a copy of our Spring 2011 issue or contact us to order it.

Peter Braul: Let's talk about the internet. Can you describe your relationship with it?

Ira Basen: It's a love-hate relationship. I've been interested for a long time in the future of media, and I come at it from my professional work. The big question is: "Is there a business model that would allow people to make money providing content to the web?"

PB: It still seems like the answer is "maybe."

IB: If Demand Media is successful, then they will have found a model that works for them, but it doesn't necessarily work for the people who are providing that content. What they've done is to put a value on what content is worth on the web, and it turns out it's not worth a hell of a lot.

PB: So, about that love-hate thing, where's the love?

IB: Anyone who's been around for as long as I have, and started their career before the web, knows it's spectacular. It's revolutionized journalism in a way that's almost all positive, if you're still fortunate enough to still be making decent money.

There still is, and will always be, a value put on quality. The CEO of Demand Media thinks quality is simply related to relevance; I think there are other definitions.

PB: Your article made me realize how scary Google is, because of its size. Yet it is undeniably useful. Is Google some sort of benevolent dictator?

IB: It's a company that everybody loves to love. It basically saved the web, back in the beginning of 2000.

The web was in danger of sinking under its own weight, because there were hundreds of millions of web pages, but no effective way of searching; it would have been like going to a library without any kind of classification system. Google provided that service, for free.

On the other hand, there are privacy issues as it continues to move forward and colonize the world. And there are growing issues over quality and its core products, which have always been high quality, relevant search results.

Google has more power, probably, than a company should, and there's no other multi-billion dollar corporation that has a near-monopoly on a critical industry like they do. But people still want to feel the love about Google.

PB: Doesn't Google's popularity depend on credibility, in much the same way that newspapers depend on people believing the stuff inside is true? When people search for something in Google, the result has to actually correspond to what they typed in, right?

IB: Exactly, except Google's value doesn't depend on credibility—it depends on relevance. If you're searching for something and the first dozen entries are just crap, you're going to get really frustrated.

There is a new search engine that just came along, called Blekko, that promises to be much better than Google at providing relevant results. They use algorithms the way that Google does, but they also have some sort of human intervention.

PB: How soon before Google buys Blekko?

IB: That could happen, but if what Blekko is doing leads to better results, then Google will just sort of copy it.

PB: I wanted this to be an opportunity for you to spill the beans about something that didn't fit into the article. Do you have such a tidbit?

IB: [Laughs] Well, I wound up being disturbingly good at writing articles for Demand Media, and I did about six of them. In the beginning, I was sort of impressed by how much feedback I was getting from the editors. But after you go past the probationary period, that gets to be less.

One of the stories I did was "How to apply to be a bail bond recovery agent." And a bail bond recovery agent turns out to be a bounty hunter.

I didn't know anything about that, but when I typed it into Google, there were a whole bunch of other sites written by people, like me, who don't really know what they are talking about. I took that information and reworked it into an article, and I have no idea whether it's correct or not. The worry is that all you're doing is recycling other people's crap.

For some of the articles I did, there were already longer articles written for Demand Media on the same stuff. I did a two-hundred-word article on how to choose a barcode scanner, and I found a five-hundred-word article on the same thing. If you were going to buy a barcode scanner, which can cost about a thousand dollars, why would you not want to read the extra three hundred words?

I was creating a piece of content that had no real purpose—clogging up the internet.

PB: You can't actually clog up the internet, can you?

IB: Yes, you can! If your stuff is better search engine optimized than my stuff, and my stuff is better than yours in terms of being useful to readers, my stuff might never get looked at. If you look at the statistics about how lazy web searchers are, between 70 and 75 percent of all searchers hit the first four titles on the results page. By the time you get to the second page, maybe one percent of searchers go there.

PB: I find that one of the most disturbing things. We're so lazy, we can't go to page two. It's horrifying!

IB: Yeah, it is. And more and more people are searching the web on mobile devices, and have to do a lot of scrolling to even get to the second or third result. So it becomes even more important to be up there at the top of the list.

PB: Were you making money writing for Demand Media?

IB: No. One of my problems is that I have no expertise in anything. If I knew something about home renovations or computers, maybe I could write three in an hour or something, and make $15. But then I'd have to do the same thing the next hour, and the next hour, and I just don't think you can do that. But you especially can't do it if you don't know anything about anything, like me.

PB: That's such a typical journalist's perspective. That's why we interview people who do things: because we don't.

IB: Exactly! But I'm not going to do that for five dollars. There's no incentive to do that in Demand Media—in fact, there's a disincentive. If you only get one article done in an hour, you're only making five dollars an hour.

PB: It's become apparent that Google is doing the reading for us in a lot of cases, and choosing what information we pick up. Is this wrong?

IB: I was a graduate student for a long time. I spent a lot of time at libraries, and I found some of my most important of discoveries by picking up books I wasn't looking for.

I read students' essays at Ryerson, where I teach, and it's not like there's anything wrong with the sources that they are giving me—they're perfectly legitimate sources. It's the process by which they get them that I think is limiting and also sort of unfortunate.

PB: Most students probably don't grasp how they get to the sources they use. When you pick up the wrong book in the library, it's tactile—you're aware of the spontaneity of your own decision-making process. But in Google, you're not aware of the processes you use.

IB: Yeah, I think that's absolutely true. I'm sure that if you went around and asked people, "Why do you think that site is at the top of the search results?" they'd say something like, "Because it's the best," right?

But it's not the best, it's the best optimized. Search engine optimization is really kind of the ghost in the machine, because most people don't even know it exists, and don't really think about why sites get ranked the way they do. But they put an enormous amount of faith in Google's ability to get them the best stuff.

PB: What's your next project?

IB: I haven't really thought about it. I started to get interested in algorithms about a year ago. I've done two radio and two print pieces, and I still think there's a lot to do. When you look at the worlds of finance, journalism, medicine and education, even dating services—algorithms are increasingly powerful and dominant. I'm interested in that, but to go farther would require something the length of a book.

PB: The piece you wrote is the kind of thing an algorithm would never pay for.

IB: I'm sure an algorithm could write the kinds of pieces that Demand Media is looking for. Could they write a piece like I did? No. But not very many people are buying pieces like that, and certainly not for much money. How do you establish a value for a five-thousand-word piece on algorithms? It's really hard.

To read "Age of the Algorithm," pick up a copy of our Spring 2011 issue or contact us to order it.

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