Who Needs People? We’ve Got Robots!


RobotWho here feels useful and necessary? Ah ah – not so fast there, humans! While cruising the blogosphere this week I ran across two stories that suggest we’re falling behind a bit in our ongoing race for supremacy with the machines. (I probably would have found more if my reading speed and comprehension weren’t limited by inherent human weakness.)

You’ve all heard it from copywriters and SEOs alike: Don’t write for search engines, write for people! It’s become an SEO cliché, up there with “Don’t link for the sake of linking” and “No keyword stuffing.” But A.J. Kohn of Blind Five Year Old has turned the cliché on its head. Screw that, he says: “Stop writing for people. Start writing for search engines.”

Kohn reasons that search engines are built to emulate people (“They’re trying to be human”). Nonetheless, they’re stupid. But when people read on the web, they’re basically stupid too. (Hey, this is his theory, not mine.) They’re “stupid” in the following ways:

  • They make knee-jerk decisions. People decide quickly whether a given page is relevant to them or not. You’ve only got a few seconds to convince people your page is what they’re looking for. So don’t waste time on the art of suspense.
  • They don’t really read. Much as search engines don’t really “read,” people rarely read word by word on the web. Rather, they skim and scan, probably looking for repeated words, headings, words in bold, hyperlinks, lists and other anchors (or “sign posts” as he puts it) that serve as a visual cue to say “Hey, this is important.” Kohn says we shouldn’t even use pronouns because they make people have to think harder.
  • Subtlety is lost on them. Search engines don’t understand irony, Kohn says, and you shouldn’t assume that humans do either. (So much for my writing style.)

So, in the end, Kohn isn’t exactly saying that you shouldn’t write for people, just that you shouldn’t write for people as suave, sophisticated and sharp-witted as yourself. Instead, you should write for a guy who acts like Johnny 5.

Poetry Is What’s Lost in Google Translate

So far we’ve learned that robots don’t understand irony. But the guys at Google say they can understand poetry! According to NPR, researchers at Google are working to build software that can translate not only the meaning of a poem but the meter and rhyme:

"It's what we call AI complete," says Dmitriy Genzel, a research scientist at Google. "Which means it's as difficult as anything we can attempt in artificial intelligence."

This is funny for two reasons:

  • Google’s current translation product can’t even handle a regular text all that well, much less the complexities of a poem. I wonder why they’re working on this problem that’s as “difficult as anything” before solving the easier part first.
  • As the article points out, even human translation of poetry is incredibly difficult. Even when working with poetry that doesn’t have a consistent meter or rhyme scheme, it’s hard to translate idioms, subtle shades of meaning, and what poets call the “music” – cadence, assonance and so forth.

As a poet (who has dabbled in translation), I think Google comes off a little arrogant here. Of course, the software may do just as well as bad translators. And I’m sure it will get better over time, as all our AI improves.

What do you think? Are people on the way out? How long – ten years? twenty? – before the web is mostly bots writing for other bots?

Web Marketing Highlights This Week

Wow, what? Eric "I Always Say the Wrong Thing" Schmidt is apparently stepping down as Google's CEO

In the link building corner, Nichola Scott explains how to get links from journalists, and Wil Reynolds talks to Vertical Measures about the evolution of link building, the importance of anchor text and more.

Geordie at PPC Blog has ten tips for startups using AdWords, pre-, during, and post-launch.

How to optimize your site for search when there’s no search demand for your product or business yet? Rand at SEOmoz has some tips for “attracting the audience, not the query.”

Rebecca Kelley reminds us not to obsess about design if it comes at the expense of functionality.

Tom at BoostCTR has some ideas on what to test in your display URL.

Have a good weekend, earthlings!

Photo credit: Shuichi Aizawa

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Jan 21, 2011

I love your weekly highlights, always something of use to pick up on.
We humans are pretty resilient, I think we'll be around for a while yet ???

Jan 21, 2011

I think people will always be necessary in marketing, especially in the social media world.

Feb 22, 2011

I completely agree Stephanie. As far as what I can tell, no matter how advanced technology is getting, a human brain will still be required to guide marketing efforts. Technology only does what its told and need's a human brain's creative talent to become effective. Sure, technology will replace basic cookie cutter marketing that we still do today, however, the more complex the marketing campaign, the more humans will be needed.

Tom Demers
Jan 21, 2011

"researchers at Google are working to build software that can translate not only the meaning of a poem but the meter and rhyme" So basically they're trying to productize Bob Stanley's Brain...  

Elisa Gabbert
Jan 24, 2011

I figured Bob must be working at Google now...

AJ Kohn
Jan 23, 2011

Thanks for the coverage and link Elisha. The post certainly seems to have struck a chord with folks. One thing I do want to clarify. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say people are 'stupid'. They're time-compressed and may not have the same background or context that you the writer might have. For instance, I get your Johnny 5 reference but an 18 year old might actually have to follow the link to understand. (Translation: I'm getting old.) Overall, I simply think web writing is different from other forms of writing, just as haiku is different from grant writing. Strangely, I think people write better web content (for humans) when they approach it from a search engine perspective. As for poetry translation. Didn't Cummings say something akin to the fact that he wrote the poetry but left it up to others to determine what it meant? And there is often more published about the interpretation of something than the actual work. Poetry seems subjective in nature and I'm not sure robots can be subjective. Thanks again.

Elisa Gabbert
Jan 24, 2011

Thanks for your comment, AJ! Point taken and I may have exaggerated your point of view a bit for humor value. (But as you said, search engines don't understand irony!) :) I absolutely agree that web writing is different ... and since we do so much reading on the web, even writing that appears in print can probably learn some lessons in readability from it.

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