I’ve been trying to get a handle on Google’s new Hummingbird algorithm update, but with so many self-appointed experts spewing out so much tosh on the web, it’s taken a while to gather my thoughts.
One of the most helpful pieces I have come across is by Jeremy Hull on Wired Insights, from which (my emphasis):
“Hummingbird”… represents the biggest change to Google search since 2001. It’s not just a tweak to the search functionality – Hummingbird is a completely new search algorithm that affects 90 percent of all searches. The most interesting part is that Hummingbird actually launched a month before the announcement… and no one noticed.
Another is from Malcom Slade, SEO Project Manager at Epiphany Search, one of many SEO experts giving their view on Econsultancy. He describes Hummingbird succinctly:
Hummingbird is basically a change in how Google interprets the intent of a user’s query to ensure the returned results are appropriate.
Assuming that pre Hummingbird (pre August 2013) Google was using pattern matching to understand intent, post Hummingbird it is using much higher level NLP (Natural Language Programming) concepts to ensure that the full query is answered by the returned sites.
Why is Goog doing this? Well, because these days, in particular because so many more people are using mobile to access the web, we are no longer typing two- or three-word keyword searches in the Google search box but rather literally asking Google questions.
Nathan Roberson on Business2Community attempts to make sense of this new landscape with some nice infographics. He clearly knows enough about this to feel he can confidently advise “content managers” about what to focus on henceforth.
But to be honest I don’t think the SEO industry really have an answer for this and are casting about to justify their existence.
Hummingbird is not about ranking websites; it’s about interpreting user intent. There’s little a site can do to rank better other than try better to answer the questions it is being asked, which is exactly what Goog has been saying all along. Yet I’ve seen so-called SEO experts advising that this means sites should provide more content in Q&A format. That’s just incredibly dumb.
Here’s what I think. If I ask the question “Is there a dark side of the moon?” I’m asking an astronomical question and I don’t want to be served up answers relating to the seminal Pink Floyd album. Pre-Hummingbird Google would probably have ranked some of the latter sites higher, so they will now lose out on some traffic, but since that traffic was the astronomically inclined, not looking for Pink Floyd, who has lost out?
And no, there is no dark side of the moon.
I’m conscious that I’ve not put a virtual pen to WordPress for more than a month now. Last Saturday a friend asked me where I found the inspiration for my daily blog! Clearly he does not take as close an interest in my virtual presence as I thought.
Walter White broke bad early on: series 1, episode 1 as I recall. Yet here we have Google, founded 15 years ago, still claiming not to be evil, but the truth is that Google is a near monopoly which is as near to evil as you can get in polite company in my neck of the woods. Certainly since it went public it has ceased to be the cuddly startup we all used to love. Don’t let the casual dress fool you; the suits are in charge.
Want to rank well in Google, well …
The key to getting links to your site is to create unique, compelling content that other people want to link to. [But] Google’s very good at detecting unnatural links that violate our Webmaster Guidelines (for example, those that come from link-exchange schemes, paid links schemes, or are auto-generated), so participating in such schemes could end up doing more harm than good.
But we all know that creating unique, compelling content is not enough. Except in small niches it only gets you so far and we have a huge SEO industry that recognises this and buys links for its clients in one way or another to vault them over the unique, compelling content.
So everyone gets involved in this game to game Google. Sites that want to be ranked well approach sites that do already have unique, compelling content, seeking to buy links which will enhance their ranking. What’s a site with good Google juice to do? Sell ads, that’s what.
Yet Google says “You can’t sell that sort of advertising; we don’t like it. You must use this HTML tag we invented (rel=nofollow) to say ‘this link is worthless’.” Seriously, can’t they figure out a way to value the link according to its context? I thought that was their raison d’etre!
And there’s this guy called Matt Cutts who heads the Webspam team at Google and pontificates on this stuff. He’s not anything like as handsome or charismatic as Jesus but his word is treated as Gospel. Seriously. Words fail me.
The Foundation is the charity established following the sale of the College of Law last year. It has some £200 million to invest, making it one of the largest foundations in the sector.
BAILII applied for funds to enable it to cover the initial training and year 1 salary costs for a Deputy Director (to assist Joe Ury) and a part-time fund raiser (which latter post should be self-financing after the first year).
The other five grantees are Advocacy Training Council (how to deal with vulnerable witnesses), Galleries of Justice (using courtrooms to teach children about law), Law Centre Network (legal advice for those who are unable to pay for it), LawWorks (to support, promote and encourage a commitment to pro bono work), Pro Bono Community (two trainees are establishing courses to pre-train law students to give advice in clinics about welfare) and Pathways Phase 3 (encouraging young people from less socially advantaged backgrounds to enter the law).
More details in this Lawyer article.
You can view the progress of development of GOV.UK’s 25 digital exemplar services, of which 4 are the MoJ projects shown above, from the Digital Transformation dashboard.
The Government Digital Strategy and Departmental Digital Strategies commit us to the redesigning and rebuilding of 25 significant ‘exemplar’ services. We’re going to make them simpler, clearer and faster to use. All these are to meet the Digital By Default Service Standard by April 2014 and be completed by March 2015.
This dashboard shows you which transactions are in the programme, what progress is being made, the estimated scale of the digital service.
Whatever you may feel about some of the cost-saving justice changes afoot, there’s no doubt that the government’s “digital by default” strategy will both help achieve some of the savings they crave and deliver better services.
The Justice Secretary in the foreword to the MoJ Digital Strategy believes:
It will transform the services we provide, the way we work and the systems and processes that underpin these priorities.
It enables us to design services around the needs of users to support better outcomes, whether that means tools to help rehabilitate offenders, providing victims with more information about their case, or allowing individuals to file claims more easily.
It allows us to deliver solutions at pace that are simpler, easier to use and better value for users and the government. Delivering digital services that people prefer to use allows us to dedicate alternatives like phone helplines to those who really need them, while reducing demand on these higher-cost channels.
Apart from the change in tense, I would largely go along with that.
Have a look at the following Justice Transactions Visualisation, showing how many transactions with Justice are undertaken each year (click the image to enlarge). Simply put, the bigger the blob, the bigger the imperative to digitise the process:
and the MoJ Digital Roadmap shows how these are scheduled in for development:
Already there are a number of guides on GOV.UK to legal processes like divorce (and related), probate and employment issues, eg employment contracts. These are not earth-shattering developments, but they do already deliver “simpler, clearer, faster” information than what was on HMCTS/Justice before which was a bunch of PDF leaflets.
There are some transactional services that were already fully digitised but will now be redeveloped according to the new GOV.UK “agile” standards. These include Money Claim Online and Possession Claim Online. A good idea of the direction of development is given by the Lasting Power of Attorney service which is one of the first of the Governement Digital Service’s “digital exemplar” services to reach beta stage.
Not only will digitisation of these services reduce government expenditure, but it will also reduce the need for users to rely on lawyers (or other chancers) for many of the straightforward processes which we have tended to regard as legal, but which are in fact just intelligent, assisted form-filling. That’s not to say I predict the end of lawyers or even the end of private online services in these areas; it’s just to point out that if GOV.UK can deliver a “simpler, clearer, faster” service that meets at least basic “legal” needs for common transactions with government, then we can all move on to improve on the bits of justice that are in more need of private and third sector attention.
What I’m referring to is the migration of content from the Justice website to GOV.UK. We’d just got used to the new Justice portal when GOV.UK came along and said “We’re it, the new single domain for government information.”
According to the Justice home page “The Ministry of Justice has now moved its content to GOV.UK.” But what does this mean? I recently had a meet with the good folks at the Government Digital Service who explained the general plan. MoJ corporate information has already migrated to the Inside Government section of GOV.UK; the corporate information for the dozens of its agencies will be migrated to GOV.UK over the next year (target completion April 2014); and the specialist information and tools will migrate over time in a manner yet to be determined (ie specialist consideration required for each).
There is an awful lot of the latter on Justice – rules, forms, courtfinder etc, so I asked the people that should know at MoJ Digital Services to explain how and when the corporate information, specialist information and tools currently on Justice will migrate to GOV.UK. Thanks to Graham Lee for the response:
The Justice website contains a whole host of information and tools for those who work in and around the justice system.
News and policy information from the site was moved over to GOV.UK in April.
The next step will be to move over the ‘specialist’ tools and information for professionals and practitioners, such as lawyers.
The aim is to get this on the new site by early 2014.
As we said in our digital strategy, we’ll be using this as an opportunity to rework, rewrite and improve the content wherever possible:
“As with the mainstream content, we will not automatically move all specialist content on the justice.gov.uk website to GOV.UK. We will ensure that it is rewritten and repurposed to meet clearly identified user needs and presented in user-friendly formats.”
This will be a big challenge given that the content is generally more complex than information for the general public.
However, we know that professional users are often busy and have to find what they need quickly.
Some of the information will also have to be made more accessible for non-professionals, like those who represent themselves in court hearings or at a tribunal.
With things that can’t be rewritten – as with court procedure rules and instructions for prison officers – we may be able to make it easier for users to search and navigate their way through the content.
Developers are starting to redevelop some of the tools on the site, such as the court finder, but there’s still a lot to do.
We’ve met with most of our agencies and arm’s-length bodies to outline our approach, and had some useful initial feedback from outside organisations (eg at an Administrative Justice Advisory Group meeting).
However, we’d love to know what you think. What guidance or tools do you use on the Justice site? What do you find most useful, and most frustrating? Where can we make improvements?
I’m a big fan of RSS and wish it was better understood, after all it’s really simple. But it’s an open standard (like HTML and other geeky stuff), not a sexy platform (like Twitter et al).
Like me Dieter Bohn loves RSS. His piece in The Verge on Why RSS still matters is well worth reading in full, but from it first read this:
I’m fully aware that writing that I love a web standard and that it has enriched my life makes me sound awfully nerdy. Whatever: open web standards have enriched your life too, and in fact that’s the first of several reasons why I deeply disagree with the argument that Twitter can replace RSS.
First and foremost, Twitter is not an open web standard, it’s a service from a private company that once offered a relatively open API but now does not. Depending on a single company’s largess when it comes to creating an open and viable third-party app ecosystem is a fool’s game. We’ve seen Twitter locked down, Netflix dry up, and even Google itself has threatened a class of apps with the closure of Google Reader. I don’t trust Twitter to replace RSS because Twitter isn’t a standard. As a way to disseminate news, it serves at the pleasure of Dick Costolo. RSS, by comparison, is like a web page: anybody can create a feed, anybody can host it, anybody can make an app for it, anybody can read it.
RSS is built so deeply into the bones of so many websites and web services that we take it for granted. Your Tumblrs and your YouTube users and your Flickr friends and your favorite websites and blogs all usually offer RSS, automatically, with very little effort from their developers. It matters for the web that websites have a structured way to send their data out to apps and to other websites. Many of the apps that are suggested as a viable replacement for Google Reader — Flipboard comes to mind — pull just as much from RSS as they do from social feeds. More importantly, they pull from RSS freely, but they pull from Facebook and Twitter only because those companies let them.
If you don’t know how to read/subscribe to/consume RSS, there are plenty of articles out there. But bear in mind that Google is pulling Google Reader in July.
Here are a few tips for the initiated:
Can’t find a link to a site feed? Chances are you can guess it. To the [blog] home page URL append one of the following to create the default posts feed URL for the most popular blog/website platforms:
/feed (WordPress sites – the majority); or
/feeds/posts/default (Blogger sites).
Using infolaw Lawfinder you can browse by subject and search for most law blogs and legal update sites and their associated feeds.
As well as subscribing to site feeds, you can also usually easily subscribe to feeds for particular categories or tags and to search results. Here are a couple of examples from this site reflecting standard WordPress syntax for category and search results:
WordPress makes it look so simple, doesn’t it. And it is! In principle it’s as easy for a site to provide an RSS feed of dynamic results as it is to produce the equivalent web page listing. Such feeds are a very effective way to generate custom alerts on very specific topics.
So it’s good to report that BAILII has now implemented just that … for experimental purposes at this point. (Joe Ury at BAILII stresses that “This is not formally supported, in that we’ll have to shut it down if we get too much server load from it, but as long as that doesn’t happen I don’t foresee problems.”)
To grab your feed, take a BAILII search results URL – which will include /cgi-bin/sino_search_1.cgi followed by your search parameters – and replace the 1 with rss, for example: http://www.bailii.org/cgi-bin/sino_search_rss.cgi?method=all&query=aircraft+noise
Now hop on over to legislation.gov.uk and you can do the same thing for legislation there. In that case take an advanced search URL and in front of the ? insert /data.feed and at the end append &sort=published, for example: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/all/data.feed?text=”Civil Aviation Act 2012″&sort=published
Neat huh? Who said RSS wasn’t sexy?