Search Data Voids and Evil Unicorns

Not all search queries are alike — there are “search data voids.” That is, there are many search terms where there is little quality or relevant content in the search engine’s database. Some of the available information may be inaccurate or present a deeply troubling fringe view.

Search Data Voids and Evil Unicorns
Credit: Pixabay by Colin Behrens

Not all search queries are alike — there are “search data voids.” That is, there are many search terms where there is little quality or relevant content in the search engine’s database. Some of the available information may be inaccurate or present a deeply troubling fringe view.

In a recent article, Michael Golebiewski labeled these as “data voids,” drawing attention to situations where searching for answers about a keyword returns content produced by a niche group with a particular agenda.

Wired picked up on this phenomenon in an article on the complexity of searching for medical information. Commenting on the article on Twitter, Matt Cutts noted that when he was at Google, he called the phenomenon of data voids “the evil unicorn problem.”

He called them this because you can still search on the topic, but you will find little content on it. These “data voids” represent both a threat and an opportunity for those who rely on search for business and information in their daily lives.

Opportunities for Exploitation of Search Data Voids

By focusing attention on developing machine learning algorithms that can interpret the user’s intent, search engines have conditioned the searcher to expect to find the answer to their query on the first page of the search results.

There is a problem with this for queries that are “data voids.” Where there is no quality information for the search engine to return in response to the query, those promoting fringe ideas or with malicious intent can flood the results with seemingly authentic or authoritative information and virtually own the first page of results.

Golebiewski provides a somewhat chilling discussion of how these “data voids” can be weaponized by adversarial actors. The search engine companies are actively searching for ways to continue to provide access to content while minimizing the potential that the searcher will fall upon potentially harmful content.

As responsible members of the search ecosystem, it is incumbent on all search marketers to do what we can to promote a healthy ecosystem.

All Things Unicorn

A “data void” presents a zone of opportunity for both evil actors and for those with a profit motive. Prompted by the label “evil unicorns,” I personally started looking for unicorns. No! I know they are mythical and unreal, but just try telling that to a child.

With access to a voice-activated digital assistant, a child could easily query: “Where do unicorns sleep?” or “What color is a unicorn’s hair?”

The first query offers ample child-friendly content. The second on hair color provides information on how to dye one’s hair into a unicorn hairstyle. This would not serve as an answer for a child looking for what color to select to use on the unicorn in their coloring book.

Using the same powerful tools used by bad actors to weaponize fringe political ideas, a clever entrepreneur could rapidly create brand (such as The Unicornacopia), build an online retail presence, or even a store around the data void. By creating a meme in social media and a pool of quality relevant content, the same entrepreneur could capture top search results and any business attendant with it.

Not sure how to find a “data void?” You need to watch what auto-suggest returns and you’ll find these unicorns.

Building Trust – An Overlooked SEO Task

Politicians ask voters to trust them without a whit of evidence supporting their imprecations. They say just “trust me.” Today, news is constantly being declared as “fake” even when there is substantial factual basis. In our current environment where trust in media is under attack, SEOs must look for ways to instill trust in their content even before the first click.

building trustPoliticians ask voters to trust them without a whit of evidence supporting their imprecations. They say just “trust me.” Today, news is constantly being declared as “fake” even when there is substantial factual basis. In our current environment where trust in media is under attack, SEOs must look for ways to instill trust in their content even before the first click.

How can SEOs add to the credibility of the sites they work on? Here are two ways:

  • Reduce content-to-query mismatches by carefully optimizing pages for what users want.
  • For commerce sites, exploit customer ratings and reviews for validation.

Avoid Content Query Mismatches

It has always been my contention that the SEO’s job does not end at the search result. It extends beyond simply positioning the page to perform well on the search engine and only ends when the underlying business performs well.

When a searcher clicks on a search result and arrives at the page and leaves immediately because it does not answer the query, the SEO has done a poor job. The bounce is a signal that there is a mismatch between content and query. By frequently optimizing pages that do not provide an adequate answer for a searcher’s query, the SEO conditions the user to look past the site on the search result, because it won’t answer the query on the spot.

Very large sites that offer access to databases of aggregated information are my favorite example of this. They lure the user to the site through search and then require a subscription or charge a fee to obtain the information. Once the user knows that there will be a paywall or other barrier to the information, it does not matter where the site appears in the search results, the previous experience will prompt the user to simply overlook the site.

Google’s algorithm includes bounce rate as one of its vast number of ranking factors. Reducing the mismatches is in Google’s best interest, because a search engine’s very lifeblood is user confidence. The more confident the user is that the desired information will be delivered for the query, the more likely it is that the user will continue to use the search engine. It behooves the SEO to more tightly optimize pages to ensure content/query concurrence. As we move to a mobile environment, speed of access to information will become increasingly valuable.

Customer Ratings and Reviews – Your New Best Friend

A number of studies have shown that users rely heavily on ratings and reviews. When individuals do not trust the usual “trustworthy” sources, they rely more heavily on their peers for information. Neighbor-to-neighbor private social networking sites like nextdoor.com are witnesses to this phenomenon. In my area, this site is heavily used by neighbors looking for trustworthy local repair companies — plumbers, electricians, roofing, etc. The value is in the hyperlocal, validated experience information.

If you have a commerce site and have not yet implemented a system for ratings and reviews, now is the time to do it. Google has recently announced that it is closing the Google Trusted Stores program and transitioning it to Google Customer Reviews. The details are still forthcoming. By using structured data, you can already include your customers’ assessments of your merchandise in the search results. Your product pages will show up in the search result with stars that clearly indicate the number of ratings and the aggregate results. By monitoring the pages on the site that obtain the most reviews and ratings, the SEO can make sure that products top-rated by users are optimized most carefully. This improves how the content relates to the query, boosts trust even before the first click by clearly demonstrating that the product is of value, and increases the likelihood of customer purchase.