Ongoing changes with Google’s algorithm make it difficult for media to keep up

By Sergio Sicheri

El Comercio Group

Lima, Perú

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I could not sleep. I don’t know if it was because that week was totally different from the previous ones or because the visions of what could happen in the following days did not go away.

I was glued to Google. I was looking for everything about the new virus. Google knew it. It read all our data. It knew I had exhausted all the searches and keywords about this pandemic.

Google became the go-to source early in the global lockdown, but it did not prioritise media. Google image courtesy of Morning Brew on Unsplash.
Google became the go-to source early in the global lockdown, but it did not prioritise media. Google image courtesy of Morning Brew on Unsplash.

Around the fortnight of March, the quarantine began in Perú, and I borrowed my son’s room. At that time, he was still so young he was still co-sleeping with us, his parents. However, I converted what would be his space into my office. I didn’t have the Monterroso dinosaur, but from one day to the next, my workplace was full of animal stickers that made my day.

I learned to order myself, there, to get together with my work team very early. And I kept losing what little hair I have left trying to understand the different changes we’ve gone through, especially in technology, because it affects the traditional media too much. Yes, also the information.

The work never stopped. It continues to intensify, especially for those of us who work in the media. In my case, with a journalistic group of more than 181 years serving the country. And where, to date, paper remained the main ingredient in the recipe.

What could we do in the face of this COVID-19 situation? How should we abide by the rules? What were those new rules? How could we make the population understand we are going through an emergency situation — a health crisis. And, when it tells you, don’t go out. In truth, don’t even try to peek out the door that adjoins the street.

Too much information emerged. All digital searches on this news were very fought by the media on Google. What should we collect and massify? Everyone had been talking about the same thing, especially that Spanish doctor who went viral on social networks. He recorded his videos with tears in his eyes and raised his voice trying to explain to the whole world that “this is a disease that still does not have a vaccine and only solidarity can stop it.” He left us with a shocking message. Everything was different. Nothing would ever be the same again.

The same happened with the traffic on different digital platforms of the mainstream media. There was so much uncertainty and increased searches for the latest news, such as understanding where COVID-19 was born. What produced it? How many deaths does this new disease cause every day? Like you and me, everyone confined to their homes was looking for quick answers on Google. They didn’t know how to do tele-working in Latin America. This new reality forced them to learn about Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet, which are now used daily and no longer strange to the vast majority of people.

Well, this is how digital traffic grew in March from almost all the main sources of digital information. April surpassed it. In May, the majority of peaks and records of pageviews or unique users were generated on different sites.

The new situation was already difficult in itself. Many of us had to get a desk and an office chair. We had to do different jobs at home in addition to teleworking. In our case, the most important thing was learning to be parents.

And, at the same time, technology continued to challenge us as we continued getting traffic for our Web pages. I don’t know if the new changes in the algorithm benefited us as people. What is clear to me is that these new changes in SERP (search engine result pages) have clearly affected a lot of the mass media. Which highlights another questions: To what extent can new technologies benefit us as media?

We know that in June, people were fed up with the news related to COVID-19. The world was tired and sick of the same. So much so that in most digital platforms the bubble burst. Traffic began to drop. Platforms saw even lower rates than what they achieved during the same period or month in 2019. Yes, a year earlier!

The same thing happened in July. Digital traffic continued to plummet. And I have corroborated this by talking to different colleagues in the region who say the same thing with great concern on the subject.

What we have to do now is to understand, in detail, the new behaviour of our audiences. How has the rhythm of life changed for a father who now works from home and at the same time has to participate in his children’s Zoom classes and help with homework? How have the hours changed? The activities?

Understand what time parents leave and want to find information about the new series uploaded on Netflix or any other video-on-demand (VOD) platform they consume. When do they look for applications for karaoke on the weekend at home and online? Or what platforms can help them organise events or parties online with their friends or family? We’ve gone from clinking glasses and hearing that sound of glass to saying cheers and showing freshly poured cold beer through a camera.

But Google knew all this already. And that is why the company had been preparing and, now, even more so. It’s given more weight to searches for intentions, site speed, schemas, or the creation of structured data and more.

For example, the revolutionary product and service of Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page previously prioritised all news content about sports that was born in the media. When they understood and reviewed the constant numbers of visits that were generated form a soccer football match like the last one played between Barcelona and Bayern Munich for the Champion League, they knew instantly that Google and its technology had to occupy that space before any information from the media. That is why when we now do a simple search on it we find the tables worked by Google itself that condense all the information of an event.

The same happens with different topics such as gastronomy or live events, where Google alters what should be a daily fight of immediacy and information from the mass media. This is how it has managed to make journalists live under stress, finding out the day-to-day of what happens on Google. The changes in the algorithm have altered the delivery of journalism information.

I always said and have even written that new technologies like Google and Facebook should be seen as our allies. That we should have collaborators on our teams who are hunting about the latest changes to adapt and reinvent ourselves.

But what has been happening lately, specifically with Google, are constant rearrangements that, from the world of mass communication, forces us to sit down and evaluate every day. We have to rethink what I used to say about new technologies. They have made our work more complicated and less fun. They give us less scope to analyse the contents.

I think this is critical. We must separate the issues, and that should never happen. Only good journalism will save journalism.

They ask all of us from quarantine to try to get out of the box. Yes, let us not get caught up and continue living our lives as if nothing had happened. It is impossible. But, yes you can. We can even take advantage of free time to discover new content such as the mini-concert channel on YouTube of the famous American radio station NPR. There, in that little desk, where during this quarantine I have heard Macklemore and Ryan Lewis perform Thrift Shop, and I have seen them hammer the beat, jump, and play the trumpet. They transmitted all that to me through the network.

As I return from that trance, I realise it is possible to teleport, reinvent ourselves, and produce new content for our audiences. I understand we can get out of the box or our houses. But it would be nice if Google understood the importance of this from the standpoint of those of us who work in mass media with our main goal in mind.

Technology has made it possible to use different avenues to contact people. We can consume movies or an extensive number of hours of a series, documentaries, and more. Getting bored at home is difficult.

Technology has become a vital part of everyone’s everyday lives.
Technology has become a vital part of everyone’s everyday lives.

Technology helps us during each of our days. Google should think more about the work of mass media and not just run contests to deliver money to run projects because it knows the newspaper industry is being hit very hard at this time. Sometimes sponsorship does not solve the problem.

We need an ally who understands the importance of communicators, who uses its technology to allow us to help millions of people who are now at home and looking for real, trustworthy content. We try to make life easier for people … or at least a little happier amid so much tragedy that this pandemic has brought upon us.

There are situations where, when you can’t sleep, you go down to the kitchen and, with a good scoop of chocolate ice cream, everything passes. That is the beauty of this new situation. It has taught us to enjoy the simplest things … or at least to detect them. Turn the difficult into simple.

This is the same we expect from Google. Mass media needs its technology to continue making the press work more efficiently and simply. This has always consisted of reaching the largest possible audience and making a big impact with our content. That technology should not steal the space that mass media deserve.

Banner image courtesy Igor Miske on Unsplash.

About Sergio Sicheri

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