Algorithmic Authority and Why it Can’t be Trusted

by | Nov 21, 2009

Can algorithmic tools, like Google’s PageRank, really determine or predict the authority of a blog? Find out why these tools aren’t necessarily better than human rankings, and why they might even be worse.

This post is in response to Frank Pasquale’s “Assessing Algorithmic Authority” which was in turn in response to Clay Shirky’s “A Speculative Post on the Idea of Algorithmic Authority.” I attempted to leave this in comment form on Frank’s post, but kept getting errors (I hate when that happens), so lucky you — you get to hear my ranting.

What I specifically want to address is:

“Now the question becomes: are these algorithmic authorities any worse than the corporate goliaths they are displacing?”

I would argue that they are for a few reasons:

  1. “Authority” status with them can change as often as daily.
  2. Most “algorithmic authorities” can still be easily and heavily manipulated, meaning those who focus on working the tools can appear to have more authority than someone with true influence who takes a more natural path.
  3. These “algorithmic authorities” (namely Google, since their PageRank algorithm was used as an example) have been known to override these algorithms at will if you don’t act in accordance with the rules of the pseudo Internet police.For example, it’s well-known that they’ll eliminate or decrease your PageRank if you use an advertising model they don’t approve of (specifically because their own algorithm is faulty and couldn’t account for the natural move into paid link advertising). If you use the model without following their own rules, they treat you like a spammer no matter how relevant or transparent the ads on your site might be — they make no differentiation between legitimate and relevant ads that offer value and true spam.I personally saw one of my sites go from from a PR 6 to 0 quite a while back when I refused to bend to Google’s whims (and still won’t). Did the actual “authority” of the site decrease from a reader perspective? Did the content suddenly have less value than others in the niche? Absolutely not.Google’s also been known to penalize sites in search engine rankings manually. So in fact there CAN be human interference with algorithmic outputs. It’s simply hidden from the average viewer.

I’d be incredibly disappointed to see this tool (PageRank) factored into anything authority-related not only because of Google’s well-documented behavior and biases but because they themselves removed it recently from their webmaster tools because they said they didn’t want site owners obsessing about it so much anymore. They’re not even attempting to “convince us of the importance” anymore.

(Update: As of 2016, Google no longer updates Toolbar Pagerank at all — meaning, while they still can rank sites behind the scenes, you cannot see the actual PageRank of any site publicly. And before this, updates were incredibly infrequent — as in once per year before the end — so they were still highly inaccurate on the public side. If you come across a tool or rankings list promising to show PageRanks for sites, they are woefully outdated.)

The extreme inaccuracies of just about every online authority / influence ranking tool or algorithm aren’t new. They’ve been discussed in depth for quite some time following the “best” list craze that relied on them to paint a false picture of influence in the blogosphere.

The fact that people are naive enough to believe something that’s inaccurate just because so-and-so (or some site / tool) said so doesn’t mean the source has true “authority.” It just means society’s been dumb-downed.

3 Comments

  1. Well put response.

  2. Jennifer:

    Are you going to keep posting? Good stuff in here…

    Cheers,

    Robert

    • I don’t expect to post to NakedPR again unless something in the PR / SM area seriously pushes me to (meaning it really, really pisses me off). But even then, I’d probably cover it on my main blog for freelance writers (http://AllFreelanceWriting.com) or on my business writing blog if applicable (http://ProBusinessWriter.com/blog) or on a client’s new social media blog that I’ll be writing for at http://SocialImplications.com. I can’t imagine that would leave very much that has to be covered over here. NakedPR is officially retired.

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