The Crazy World of Our Media Obsessions

Are you watching the news less? Me too. Now that the grownups are back in charge, I’m spending much less time checking my news feed.

Whatever you might say about the last four years, it certainly was good for the news business. It was one long endless loop of driving past a horrific traffic accident. Try as we might, we just couldn’t avoid looking.

But according to Internet analysis tool Alexa.com, that may be over. I ran some traffic rank reports for major news portals and they all look the same: a ramp-up over the past 90 days to the beginning of February, and then a precipitous drop off a cliff.

While all the top portals have a similar pattern, it’s most obvious on Foxnews.com.

It was as if someone said, “Show’s over folks. There’s nothing to see here. Move along.” And after we all exhaled, we did!

Not surprisingly, we watch the news more when something terrible is happening. It’s an evolved hardwired response called negativity bias.

Good news is nice. But bad news can kill you. So it’s not surprising that bad news tends to catch our attention.

But this was more than that. We were fixated by Trump. If it were just our bias toward bad news, we would still eventually get tired of it.

That’s exactly what happened with the news on COVID-19. We worked through the initial uncertainty and fear, where we were looking for more information, and at some point moved on to the subsequent psychological stages of boredom and anger. As we did that, we threw up our hands and said, “Enough already!”

But when it comes to Donald Trump, there was something else happening.

It’s been said that Trump might have been the best instinctive communicator to ever take up residence in the White House. We might not agree with what he said, but we certainly were listening.

And while we — and by we, I mean me — think we would love to put him behind us, I believe it behooves us to take a peek under the hood of this particular obsession. Because if we fell for it once, we could do it again.

How the F*$k did this guy dominate our every waking, news-consuming moment for the past four years?

We may find a clue in Bob Woodward’s book on Trump, Rage. He explains that he was looking for a “reflector” — a person who knew Trump intimately and could provide some relatively objective insight into his character.

Woodward found a rather unlikely candidate for his reflector: Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

I know, I know — “Kushner?” Just bear with me.

In Woodward’s book, Kushner says there were four things you needed to read and “absorb” to understand how Trump’s mind works.

The first was an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal by Peggy Noonan called “Over Trump, We’re as Divided as Ever.” It is not complimentary to Trump. But it does begin to provide a possible answer to our ongoing fixation. Noonan explains: “He’s crazy…and it’s kind of working.”

The second was the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. Kushner paraphrased: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.” In other words, in Trump’s world, it’s not direction that matters, it’s velocity.

The third was Chris Whipple’s book, The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency. The insight here is that no matter how clueless Trump was about how to do his job, he still felt he knew more than his chiefs of staff.

Finally, the fourth was Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter, by Scott Adams. That’s right — Scott Adams, the same guy who created the “Dilbert” comic strip. Adams calls Trump’s approach “Intentional Wrongness Persuasion.”

Remember, this is coming from Kushner, a guy who says he worships Trump. This is not apologetic. It’s explanatory — a manual on how to communicate in today’s world. Kushner is embracing Trump’s instinctive, scorched-earth approach to keeping our attention focused on him.

It’s — as Peggy Noonan realized — leaning into the “crazy.”  

Trump represented the ultimate political tribal badge. All you needed to do was read one story on Trump, and you knew exactly where you belonged. You knew it in your core, in your bones, without any shred of ambiguity or doubt. There were few things I was as sure of in this world as where I stood on Donald J. Trump.

And maybe that was somehow satisfying to me.

There was something about standing one side or the other of the divide created by Trump that was tribal in nature.

It was probably the clearest ideological signal about what was good and what was bad that we’ve seen for some time, perhaps since World War II or the ’60s — two events that happened before most of our lifetimes.

Trump’s genius was that he somehow made both halves of the world believe they were the good guys.

In 2018, Peggy Noonan said that “Crazy won’t go the distance.” I’d like to believe that’s so, but I’m not so sure. There are certainly others that are borrowing a page from Trump’s playbook.  Right-wing Republicans Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert are both doing “crazy” extraordinarily well. The fact that almost none of you had to Google them to know who they are proves this.

Whether we’re loving to love, or loving to hate, we are all fixated by crazy.

The problem here is that our media ecosystem has changed. “Crazy” used to be filtered out. But somewhere along the line, news outlets discovered that “crazy” is great for their bottom lines.

As former CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves said when Trump became the Republican Presidential forerunner back in 2016, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damned good for CBS.”

Crazy draws eyeballs like, well, like crazy. It certainly generates more user views then “normal” or “competent.”

In our current media environment  — densely intertwined with the wild world of social media — we have no crazy filters. All we have now are crazy amplifiers.

And the platforms that allow this all try to crowd on the same shaky piece of moral high ground.

According to them, it’s not their job to filter out crazy. It’s anti-free speech. It’s un-American. We should be smart enough to recognize crazy when we see it.

Hmmm. Well, we know that’s not working.

The Ebbs and Flows of Consumerism in a Post-Pandemic World

As MediaPost’s Joe Mandese reported last Friday, advertising was, quite literally, almost decimated worldwide in 2020. If you look at the forecasts of the top agency holding companies, ad spends were trimmed by an average of 6.1%. It’s not quite one dollar in 10, but it’s close.

These same companies are forecasting a relative bounceback in 2021, starting slow and accelerating quarter by quarter through the year — but that still leaves the 2021 spend forecast back at 2018 levels.

And as we know, everything about 2021 is still very much in flux. If the year 2021 was a pack of cards, almost every one of them would be wild.

This — according to physician, epidemiologist and sociologist Nicholas Christakis — is not surprising.

Christakis is one of my favorite observers of network effects in society. His background in epidemiological science gives him a unique lens to look at how things spread through the networks of our world, real and virtual. It also makes him the perfect person to comment on what we might expect as we stagger out of our current crisis.

In his latest book, “Apollo’s Arrow,” he looks back to look forward to what we might expect — because, as he points out, we’ve been here before.

While the scope and impact of this one is unusual, such health crises are nothing new. Dozens of epidemics and a few pandemics have happened in my lifetime alone, according to this Wikipedia chart.

This post goes live on Groundhog Day, perhaps the most appropriate of all days for it to run. Today, however, we already know what the outcome will be. The groundhog will see its shadow and there will be six more months (at least) of pandemic to deal with. And we will spend that time living and reliving the same day in the same way with the same routine.

Christakis expects this phase to last through the rest of this year, until the vaccines are widely distributed, and we start to reach herd immunity.

During this time, we will still have to psychologically “hunker down” like the aforementioned groundhog, something we have been struggling with. “As a society we have been very immature,” said Christakis. “Immature, and typical as well, we could have done better.”

This phase will be marked by a general conservatism that will go in lockstep with fear and anxiety, a reluctance to spend and a trend toward risk aversion and religion.

Add to this the fact that we will still be dealing with widespread denialism and anger, which will lead to a worsening vicious circle of loss and crisis. The ideological cracks in our society have gone from annoying to deadly.

Advertising will have to somehow negotiate these choppy waters of increased rage and reduced consumerism.

Then, predicts Christakis, starting some time in 2022, we will enter an adjustment period where we will test and rethink the fundamental aspects of our lives. We will be learning to live with COVID-19, which will be less lethal but still very much present.

We will likely still wear masks and practice social distancing. Many of us will continue to work from home. Local flare-ups will still necessitate intermittent school and business closures. We will be reluctant to be inside with more than 20 or 30 people at a time. It’s unlikely that most of us will feel comfortable getting on a plane or embarking on a cruise ship. This period, according to Christakis, will last for a couple years.

Again, advertising will have to try to thread this psychological needle between fear and hope. It will be a fractured landscape on which to build a marketing strategy. Any pretense of marketing to the masses, a concept long in decline, will now be truly gone. The market will be rife with confusing signals and mixed motivations. It will be incumbent on advertisers to become very, very good at “reading the room.”

Finally, starting in 2024, we will have finally put the pandemic behind us. Now, says Christakis, four years of pent-up demand will suddenly burst through the dam of our delayed self-gratification. We will likely follow the same path taken a century ago, when we were coming out of a war and another pandemic, in the period we call the “Roaring Twenties.”

Christakis explained: “What typically happens is people get less religious. They will relentlessly seek out social interactions in nightclubs and restaurants and sporting events and political rallies. There’ll be some sexual licentiousness. People will start spending their money after having saved it. They’ll be joie de vivre and a kind of risk-taking, a kind of efflorescence of the arts, I think.”

Of course, this burst of buying will be built on the foundation of what came before. The world will likely be very different from its pre-pandemic version. It will be hard for marketers to project demand in a straight line from what they know, because the experiences they’ve been using as their baseline are no longer valid. Some things may remain the same, but some will be changed forever.

COVID-19 will have pried many of the gaps in our society further apart — most notably those of income inequality and ideological difference. A lingering sense of nationalism and protectionism born from dealing with a global emergency could still be in place.

Advertising has always played an interesting role in our lives. It both motivates and mirrors us.

But the reflection it shows is like a funhouse mirror: It distorts some aspects of our culture and ignores others. It creates demand and hides inconvenient truths. It professes to be noble, while it stokes the embers of our ignobility. It amplifies the duality of our human nature.

Interesting times lie ahead. It remains to be seen how that is reflected in the advertising we create and consume.

Have More People Become More Awful?

Is it just me, or do people seem a little more awful lately? There seems to be a little more ignorance in the world, a little less compassion, a little more bullying and a lot less courtesy.

Maybe it’s just me.

It’s been a while since I’ve checked in with eternal optimist Steven Pinker.  The Harvard psychologist is probably the best-known proponent of the argument that the world is consistently trending towards being a better place.  According to Pinker, we are less bigoted, less homophobic, less misogynist and less violent. At least, that’s what he felt pre-COVID lockdown. As I said, I haven’t checked in with him lately, but I suspect he would say the long-term trends haven’t appreciably changed. Maybe we’re just going through a blip.

Why, then, does the world seem to be going to hell in a hand cart?  Why do people — at least some people — seem so awful?

I think it’s important to remember that our brain likes to play tricks on us. It’s in a never-ending quest to connect cause and effect. Sometimes, to do so, the brain jumps to conclusions. Unfortunately, it is aided in this unfortunate tendency by a couple of accomplices — namely news reporting and social media. Even if the world isn’t getting shittier, it certainly seems to be. 

Let me give you one example. In my local town, an anti-masking rally was recently held at a nearby shopping mall. Local news outlets jumped on it, with pictures and video of non-masked, non-socially distanced protesters carrying signs and chanting about our decline into Communism and how their rights were being violated.

What a bunch of boneheads — right? That was certainly the consensus in my social media circle. How could people care so little about the health and safety of their community? Why are they so awful?

But when you take the time to unpack this a bit, you realize that everyone is probably overplaying their hands. I don’t have exact numbers, but I don’t think there were more than 30 or 40 protestors at the rally. The population of my city is about 150,000. These protestors represented .03% of the total population. 

Let’s say for every person at the rally, there were 10 that felt the same way but weren’t there. That’s still less than 1%. Even if you multiplied the number of protesters by 100, it would still be just 3% of my community. We’re still talking about a tiny fraction of all the people who live in my city. 

But both the news media and my social media feed have ensured that these people are highly visible. And because they are, our brain likes to use that small and very visible sample and extrapolate it to the world in general. It’s called availability bias, a cognitive shortcut where the brain uses whatever’s easy to grab to create our understanding of the world.

But availability bias is nothing new. Our brains have always done this. So, what’s different about now?

Here, we have to understand that the current reality may be leading us into another “mind-trap.” A 2018 study from Harvard introduced something called “prevalence-induced concept change,” which gives us a better understanding of how the brain focuses on signals in a field of noise. 

Basically, when signals of bad things become less common, the brain works harder to find them. We expand our definition of what is “bad” to include more examples so we can feel more successful in finding them.

I’m probably stretching beyond the limits of the original study here, but could this same thing be happening now? Are we all super-attuned to any hint of what we see as antisocial behavior so we can jump on it? 

If this is the case, again social media is largely to blame. It’s another example of our current toxic mix of dog whistlecancel culturevirtue signaling, pseudo-reality that is being driven by social media. 

That’s two possible things that are happening. But if we add one more, it becomes a perfect storm of perceived awfulness. 

In a normal world, we all have different definitions of the ethical signals we’re paying attention to. What you are focused on right now in your balancing of what is right and wrong is probably different from what I’m currently focused on. I may be thinking about gun control while you’re thinking about reducing your carbon footprint.

But now, we’re all thinking about the same thing: surviving a pandemic. And this isn’t just some theoretical mind exercise. This is something that surrounds us, affecting us every single day. When it comes to this topic, our nerves have been rubbed raw and our patience has run out. 

Worst of all, we feel helpless. There seems to be nothing we can do to edge the world toward being a less awful place. Behaviors that in another reality and on another topic would have never crossed our radar now have us enraged. And, when we’re enraged, we do the one thing we can do: We share our rage on social media. Unfortunately, by doing so, we’re not part of the solution. We are just pouring fuel on the fire.

Yes, some people probably are awful. But are they more awful than they were this time last year? I don’t think so. I also can’t believe that the essential moral balance of our society has collectively nosedived in the last several months. 

What I do believe is that we are living in a time where we’re facing new challenges in how we perceive the world. Now, more than ever before, we’re on the lookout for what we believe to be awful. And if we’re looking for it, we’re sure to find it.

Our Brain And Its Junk News Habit

Today, I’m going to return to the Reuter’s Digital News Report and look at the relationship between us, news and social media. But what I’m going to talk about is probably not what you think I’m going to talk about.

Forget all the many, many problems that come with relying on social media to be informed. Forget about filter bubbles and echo chambers. Forget about misleading or outright false stories. Forget about algorithmic targeting. Forget about the gaping vulnerabilities that leave social media open to nefarious manipulation. Forget all that (but just for the moment, because those are all horrible and very real problems that we need to focus on).

Today, I want to talk about one specific problem that comes when we get our news through social media. When we do that, our brains don’t work the way they should if we want to be well informed.

First, let’s talk about the scope of the issue here. According to the Reuter’s study, in the U.S. more people — 72% — turn online for news than any other source. Television comes in second at 59%. If we single out social media, it comes in third at 48%. Trailing the pack is print media at just 20%.

Reuters Digital News Study 2020 – Sources of News in US

If we plot this on a chart over the last seven years, print and social media basically swapped spots, with their respective lines crossing each other in 2014; one trending up and one trending down. In 2013, 47% of us turned to print as a primary news source and just 27% of us went to social media.

If we further look at those under 35, accessing news through social media jumps to the number-one spot by a fairly wide margin. And because they’re young, we’re not talking Facebook here. Those aged 18 to 24 are getting their news through Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok.

The point, if it’s not clear by now, is that many of us get our news through a social media channel — and the younger we are, the more that’s true. The paradox is that the vast majority of us — over 70% — don’t trust the news we see on our social media feeds. If we were to pick an information source we trusted, we would never go to social media.

This brings up an interesting juxtaposition in how we’re being informed about the world: almost all of us are getting our news through social media, but almost none of us are looking for it when we do.

According to the Reuter’s Report, 72% of us (all ages, all markets) get our news through the “side door.” This means we are delivered news — primarily through social media and search — without us intentionally going directly to the source of the information. For those aged 18 to 24, “side door” access jumps to 84% and, of that, access through social media jumps to 38%.

Our loyalty to the brand and quality of an information provider is slipping between our fingers and we don’t seem to care. We say we want objective, non-biased, quality news sources, but in practice we lap up whatever dubious crap is spoon-fed to us by Facebook or Instagram. It’s the difference between telling our doctor what we intend to eat and what we actually eat when we get home to the leftover pizza and the pint of Häagen-Dazs in our fridge.

The difference between looking for and passively receiving information is key to understanding how our brain works. Let’s talk a little bit about “top-down” and “bottom-up” activation and the “priming” of our brain.

When our brain has a goal — like looking for COVID-19 information — it behaves significantly differently than when it is just bored and wanting to be entertained.

The goal sets a “top down” intent. It’s like an executive order to the various bits and pieces of our brain to get their shit together and start working as a team. Suddenly the entire brain focuses on the task at hand and things like reliability of information become much more important to us. If we’re going to go directly to a information source we trust, this is going to be when we do it.

If the brain isn’t actively engaged in a goal, then information has to initiate a “bottom-up” activation. And that is an entirely different animal.

We never go to social media looking for a specific piece of news. That’s not how social media works. We go to our preferred social channels either out of sheer boredom or a need for social affirmation. We hope there’s something in the highly addictive endlessly scrolling format that will catch our attention.

For a news piece to do that, it has to somehow find a “hook” in our brain.  Often, that “hook” is an existing belief. The parts of our brain that act as gatekeepers against unreliable information are bypassed because no one bothered to wake them up.

There is a further brain-related problem with relying on social media, and that’s the “priming” issue. This is where one stimulus sets a subconscious “lens” that will impact subsequent stimuli. Priming sets the brain on a track we’re not aware of, which makes it difficult to control.

Social media is the perfect priming platform. One post sets the stage for the next, even if they’re completely unrelated.

These are just two factors that make social media an inherently dangerous platform to rely on for being informed.

The third is that social media makes information digestion much too easy. Our brain barely needs to work at all. And if it does need to work, we quickly click back and scroll down to the next post. Because we’re looking to be entertained, not informed, the brain is reluctant to do any unnecessary heavy lifting.   

This is a big reason why we may know the news we get through social media channels is probably not good for us, but we gulp it down anyway, destroying our appetite for more trustworthy information sources.

These three things create a perfect cognitive storm for huge portions of the population to be continually and willingly misinformed. That’s not even factoring in all the other problems with social media that I mentioned at the outset of this column. We need to rethink this — soon!

How We Forage for the News We Want

Reuters Institute out of the UK just released a comprehensive study looking at how people around the world are finding their news. There is a lot here, so I’ll break it into pieces over a few columns and look at the most interesting aspects. Today, I’ll look at the 50,000-foot view, which can best be summarized as a dysfunctional relationship between our news sources and ourselves. And like most dysfunctional relationships, the culprit here is a lack of trust.

Before we dive in, we should spend some time looking at how the way we access news has changed over the last several years.

Over my lifetime, we have trended in two general directions – less cognitively demanding news channels and less destination specific news sources. The most obvious shift has been away from print. According to Journalism.org and the Pew Research Center, circulation of U.S. Daily newspapers peaked around 1990, at about 62 and a half million. That’s one subscription for every 4 people in the country at that time.

In 2018, it was projected that circulation had dropped more than 50%, to less than 30 million. That would have been one subscription for every 10 people. We were no longer reading our news in a non-digital format. And that may have significant impact on our understanding of the news. I’ll return to this in another column, but for now, let’s just understand that our brain operates in a significantly different way when it’s reading rather than watching or listening.

Up the end of the last century, we generally trusted news destinations. Whether it be a daily newspaper like the New York Times, a news magazine like Time or a nightly newscast such as any of the network news shows, each was a destination that offered one thing above all others – the news. And whether you agreed with them or not, each had an editorial process that governed what news was shared. We had a loyalty to our chosen news destinations that was built on trust.

Over the past two decades, this trust has broken down due to one primary factor – our continuing use of social media. And that has dramatically shifted how we get our news.

In the US, three out of every four people use online sources to get their news. One in two use social media.  Those aged 18 to 24 are more than twice as likely to rely on social media. In the UK, under-35s get more of their news from Social Media than any other source.

Also, influencers have become a source of news, particularly amongst young people. In the US, a quarter of those 18 to 24 used Instagram as a source of news about COVID.

This means that most times, we’re getting our news through a social media lens. Let’s set aside for a moment the filtering and information veracity problems that introduces. Let’s just talk about intent for a moment.

I have talked extensively in the past about information foraging when it comes to search. When information is “patchy” and spread diversely, the brain has to make a quickly calculated guess about which patch it’s most likely to find the information in it’s looking for. With Information Foraging, the intent we have frames everything that comes after.

In today’s digital world, information sources have disaggregated into profoundly patchy environments. We still go to news-first destinations like CNN or Fox News but we also get much of our information about the world through our social media feeds. What was interesting about the Reuters report was that it was started before the COVID pandemic, but the second part of the study was conducted during COVID. And it highlights a fascinating truth about our relationship with the news when it comes to trust.

The study shows that the majority of us don’t trust the news we get through social media but most times, we’re okay with that. Less than 40% of people trust the news in general, and even when we pick a source, less than half of us trust that particular channel. Only 22% indicated they trust the news they see in social media. Yet half of us admit we use social media to get our news. The younger we are, the more reliant we are on social media for news. The fastest growing sources for news amongst all age groups – but especially those under 30 – are Instagram, SnapChat and WhatsApp.

Here’s another troubling fact that fell out of the study. Social platforms, especially Instagram and SnapChat, are dominated by influencers. That means that much of our news comes to us by way of a celebrity influencer reposting it on their feed. This is a far cry from the editorial review process that used to act as a gate keeper on our trusted news sources.

So why do we continue to use news sources we admit we don’t trust? I suspect it may have to do with something called the Meaning Maintenance Model. Proposed in 2006 by Heine, Proulx and Vohs, the model speculates that a primary driver for us is to maintain our beliefs in how the world works. This is related to the sense making loop (Klein, Moon and Hoffman) I’ve also talked about in the past. We make sense of the world by first starting with the existing frame of what we believe to be true. If what we’re experiencing is significantly different from what we believe, we will update our frame to align with the new evidence.

What the Meaning Maintenance Model suggests is that we will go to great lengths to avoid updating our frame. It’s much easier just to find supposed evidence that supports our current beliefs. So, if our intent is to get news that supports our existing world view, social media is the perfect source. It’s algorithmically filtered to match our current frame. Even if we believe the information is suspect, it still comforts us to have our beliefs confirmed. This works well for news about politics, societal concerns and other ideologically polarized topics.

We don’t like to admit this is the case. According to the Reuter’s study, 60% of us indicate we want news sources that are objective and not biased to any particular point of view. But this doesn’t jive with reality at all. As I wrote about in a previous column, almost all mainstream news sources in the US appear to have a significant bias to the right or left. If we’re talking about news that comes through social media channels, that bias is doubled down on. In practice, we are quite happy foraging from news sources that are biased, as long as that bias matches our own.

But then something like COVID comes along. Suddenly, we all have skin in the game in a very real and immediate way. Our information foraging intent changes and our minimum threshold for the reliability of our news sources goes way up. The Reuters study found that when it comes to sourcing COVID information, the most trusted sources are official sites of health and scientific organizations. The least trusted sources are random strangers, social media and messaging apps.

It requires some reading between the lines, but the Reuters study paints a troubling picture of the state of journalism and our relationship with it. Where we get our information directly impacts what we believe. And what we believe determines what we do.

These are high stakes in an all-in game of survival.

Just in Time for Christmas: More Search Eye-Tracking

The good folks over at the Nielsen Norman Group have released a new search eye tracking report. The findings are quite similar to one my former company — Mediative — did a number of years ago (this link goes to a write-up about the study. Unfortunately, the link to the original study is broken. *Insert head smack here).

In the Nielsen Norman study, the two authors — Kate Moran and Cami Goray — looked at how a more visually rich and complex search results page would impact user interaction with the page. The authors of the report called the sum of participant interactions a “Pinball Pattern”: “Today, we find that people’s attention is distributed on the page and that they process results more nonlinearly than before. We observed so much bouncing between various elements across the page that we can safely define a new SERP-processing gaze pattern — the pinball pattern.”

While I covered this at some length when the original Mediative report came out in 2014 (in three separate columns: 1,2 & 3), there are some themes that bear repeating. Unfortunately, I found the study’s authors missed what I think are some of the more interesting implications. 

In the days of the “10 Blue Links” search results page, we used the same scanning strategy no matter what our intent was. In an environment where the format never changes, you can afford to rely on a stable and consistent strategy. 

In our first eye tracking study, published in 2004, this consistent strategy led to something we called the Golden Triangle. But those days are over.

Today, when every search result can look a little bit different, it comes as no surprise that every search “gaze plot” (the path the eyes take through the results page) will also be different. Let’s take a closer look at the reasons for this. 

SERP Eye Candy

In the Nielsen Norman study, the authors felt “visual weighting” was the main factor in creating the “Pinball Pattern”: “The visual weight of elements on the page drives people’s scanning patterns. Because these elements are distributed all over the page and because some SERPs have more such elements than others, people’s gaze patterns are not linear. The presence and position of visually compelling elements often affect the visibility of the organic results near them.”

While the visual impact of the page elements is certainly a factor, I think it’s only part of the answer. I believe a bigger, and more interesting, factor is how the searcher’s brain and its searching strategies have evolved in lockstep with a more visually complex results page. 

The Importance of Understanding Intent

The reason why we see so much variation in scan patterns is that there is also extensive variation in searchers’ intent. The exact same search query could be used by someone intent on finding an online or physical place to purchase a product, comparing prices on that product, looking to learn more about the technical specs of that product, looking for how-to videos on the use of the product, or looking for consumer reviews on that product.

It’s the same search, but with many different intents. And each of those intents will result in a different scanning pattern. 

Predetermined Page Visualizations

I really don’t believe we start each search page interaction with a blank slate, passively letting our eyes be dragged to the brightest, shiniest object on the page. I think that when we launch the search, our intent has already created an imagined template for the page we expect to see. 

We have all used search enough to be fairly accurate at predicting what the page elements might be: thumbnails of videos or images, a map showing relevant local results, perhaps a Knowledge Graph result in the lefthand column. 

Yes, the visual weighting of elements act as an anchor to draw the eye, but I believe the eye is using this anticipated template to efficiently parse the results page. 

I have previously referred to this behavior as a “chunking” of the results page. And we already have an idea of what the most promising chunks will be when we launch the search. 

It’s this chunking strategy that’s driving the “pinball” behavior in the Nielsen Norman study.  In the Mediative study, it was somewhat surprising to see that users were clicking on a result in about half the time it took in our original 2005 study. We cover more search territory, but thanks to chunking, we do it much more efficiently.

One Last Time: Learn Information Scent

Finally, let me drag out a soapbox I haven’t used for a while. If you really want to understand search interactions, take the time to learn about Information Scent and how our brains follow it (Information Foraging Theory — Pirolli and Card, 1999 — the link to the original study is also broken. *Insert second head smack, this one harder.). 

This is one area where the Nielsen Norman Group and I are totally aligned. In 2003, Jakob Nielsen — the first N in NNG — called the theory “the most important concept to emerge from human-computer interaction research since 1993.”

On that we can agree.

Looking Back at a Decade That’s 99.44% Done

Remember 2010? For me that was a pretty important year. It was the year I sold my digital marketing business. While I would continue to actively work in the industry for another 3 years, for me things were never the same as they were in 2010. And – looking back – I realize that’s pretty well true for most of us. We were more innocent and more hopeful. We still believed that the Internet would be the solution, not the problem.

In 2010, two big trends were jointly reshaping our notions of being connected. Early in the year, former Morgan Stanley analyst Mary Meeker laid them out for us in her “State of the Internet” report. Back then, just three years after the introduction of the iPhone, internet usage from mobile devices hadn’t even reached double digits as a percentage of overall traffic. Meeker knew this was going to change, and quickly. She saw mobile adoption on track to be the steepest tech adoption curve in history. She was right. Today, over 60% of internet usage comes from a mobile device.

The other defining trend was social media. Even then, Facebook had about 600 million users, or just under 10% of the world’s population. When you had a platform that big – connecting that many people – you just knew the consequences will be significant. There were some pretty rosy predications for the impact of social media.

Of course, it’s the stuff you can’t predict that will bite you. Like I said, we were a little naïve.

One trend that Meeker didn’t predict was the nasty issue of data ownership. We were just starting to become aware of the looming spectre of privacy.

The biggest Internet related story of 2010 was WikiLeaks. In February, Julian Assange’s site started releasing 260,000 sensitive diplomatic cables sent to them by Chelsea Manning, a US soldier stationed in Iraq. According to the governments of the world, this was an illegal release of classified material, tantamount to an act of espionage. According to public opinion, this was shit finally rolling uphill. We revelled in the revelations. Wikileaks and Julian Assange was taking it to the man.

That budding sense of optimism continued throughout the year. By December of 2010, the Arab Spring had begun. This was our virtual vindication – the awesome power of social media was a blinding light to shine on the darkest nooks and crannies of despotism and tyranny. The digital future was clear and bright. We would triumph thanks to technology. The Internet had helped put Obama in the White House. It had toppled corrupt regimes.

A decade later, we’re shell shocked to discover that the Internet is the source of a whole new kind of corruption.

The rigidly digitized ideals of Zuckerberg, Page, Brin et al seemed to be a call to arms: transparency, the elimination of bureaucracy, a free and open friction-free digital market, the sharing economy, a vast social network that would connect humanity in ways never imagined, connected devices in our pockets – in 2010 all things seemed possible. And we were naïve enough to believe that those things would all be good and moral and in our best interests.

But soon, we were smelling the stench that came from Silicon Valley. Those ideals were subverted into an outright attack on our privacy. Democratic elections were sold to the highest bidder. Ideals evaporated under the pressure of profit margins and expanding power. Those impossibly bright, impossibly young billionaire CEO’s of ten years ago are now testifying in front of Congress. The corporate culture of many tech companies reeks like a frat house on Sunday morning.

Is there a lesson to be learned? I hope so. I think it’s this. Technology won’t do the heavy lifting for us. It is a tool that is subject to our own frailty. It amplifies what it is to be human. It won’t eliminate greed or corruption unless we continually steer it in that direction. 

And I use the term “we” deliberately. We have to hold tech companies to a higher standard. We have to be more discerning of what we agree to. We have to start demanding better treatment and not be willing to trade our rights away with the click of an accept button. 

A lot of what could have been slipped through our fingers in the last 10 years.  It shouldn’t have happened. Not on our watch.

The Gap Between People and Platforms

I read with interest fellow Spinner Dave Morgan’s column about how software is destroying advertising agencies, but not the need for them. I do want to chime in on what’s happening in advertising, but I need a little more time to think about it.

What did catch my eye was a comment at the end by Harvard Business School professor Alvin Silk: “You can eliminate the middleman, but not his/her function.”

I think Dave and Alvin have put their collective thumbs on something that extends beyond our industry: the growing gap between people and platforms. I’ll use my current industry as an example – travel. It’s something we all do so we can all relate to it.

Platforms and software have definitely eaten this industry. In terms of travel destination planning, the 800-pound Gorilla is TripAdvisor. It’s impossible to overstate its importance to operators and business owners.  TripAdvisor almost single-handedly ushered in an era of do-it-yourself travel planning. For any destination in the world, we can now find the restaurants, accommodations, tours and attractions that are the favorites of other travellers. It allows us to both discover and filter while planning our next trip, something that was impossible 20 years ago, before TripAdvisor came along.

But for all its benefits, TripAdvisor also leaves some gaps.

The biggest gap in travel is what I’ve heard called the “Other Five.” I live in Canada’s wine country (yes, there is such a thing). Visitors to our valley – the Okanagan – generally come with 5 wineries they have planned to visit. The chances are very good that those wineries were selected with the help of TripAdvisor. But while they’re visiting, they also visit the “other five” – 5 wineries they discovered once they got to the destination. These discoveries depend on more traditional means – either word of mouth or sheer serendipity. And it’s often one of these “other five” that provide the truly memorable and authentic experiences.

That’s the problem with platforms like TripAdvisor, which are based on general popularity and algorithms. Technically, platforms should help you discover the long tail, but they don’t. Everything automatically defaults to the head of the curve. It’s the Matthew Effect applied to travel – advantage accumulates to those already blessed. We all want to see the same things – up to a point.

But then we want to explore the “other five” and that’s where we find the gap between platforms and people. We have been trained by Google not to look beyond the first page of online results. It’s actually worse than that. We don’t typically scan beyond the top five. But – by the very nature of ratings-based algorithms – that is always where you’ll find the “other five.” They languish in the middle of the results, sometimes taking years to bump up even a few spots. It’s why there’s still a market – and a rapidly expanding one at that – for a tour guided by an actual human. Humans can think beyond an algorithm, asking questions about what you like and pulling from their own experience to make very targeted and empathetic suggestions.

The problem with platforms is their preoccupation with scale. They feel they have to be all things to all people. I’ll call it Unicornitis – the obsession with gaining a massive valuation. They approach every potential market focused on how many users they can capture. By doing so, they have to target the lowest common denominator. The web thrives on scale and popularity; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Yes, there are niche players out there, but they’re very hard to find. They are the “other five” of the Internet, sitting on the third page of Google results.

This has almost nothing to do with advertising, but I think it’s the same phenomenon at work. As we rely more on software, we gain a false confidence that it replaces human-powered expertise. It doesn’t. And a lot of things can slip through the gap that’s created.

 

Is Google Politically Biased?

As a company, the answer is almost assuredly yes.

But are the search results biased? That’s a much more nuanced question.

Sundar Pinchai testifying before congress

In trying to answer that question last week, Google CEO Sundar Pinchai tried to explain how Google’s algorithm works to Congress’s House Judiciary Committee (which kind of like God explaining how the universe works to my sock, but I digress). One of the catalysts for this latest appearance of a tech was another one of President Trump’s ranting tweets that intimated something was rotten in the Valley of the Silicon:

Google search results for ‘Trump News’ shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake New Media. In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD. Fake CNN is prominent. Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out. Illegal? 96% of … results on ‘Trump News’ are from National Left-Wing Media, very dangerous. Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good. They are controlling what we can & cannot see. This is a very serious situation-will be addressed!”

Granted, this tweet is non-factual, devoid of any type of evidence and verging on frothing at the mouth. As just one example, let’s take the 96% number that Trump quotes in the above tweet. That came from a very unscientific straw poll that was done by one reporter on a far right-leaning site called PJ Media. In effect, Trump did exactly what he accuses of Google doing – he cherry-picked his source and called it a fact.

But what Trump has inadvertently put his finger on is the uneasy balance that Google tries to maintain as both a search engine and a publisher. And that’s where the question becomes cloudy. It’s a moral precipice that may be clear in the minds of Google engineers and executives, but it’s far from that in ours.

Google has gone on the record as ensuring their algorithm is apolitical. But based on a recent interview with Google News head Richard Gingras, there is some wiggle room in that assertion. Gingras stated,

“With Google Search, Google News, our platform is the open web itself. We’re not arbiters of truth. We’re not trying to determine what’s good information and what’s not. When I look at Google Search, for instance, our objective – people come to us for answers, and we’re very good at giving them answers. But with many questions, particularly in the area of news and public policy, there is not one single answer. So we see our role as [to] give our users, citizens, the tools and information they need – in an assiduously apolitical fashion – to develop their own critical thinking and hopefully form a more informed opinion.”

But –  in the same interview – he says,

“What we will always do is bias the efforts as best we can toward authoritative content – particularly in the context of breaking news events, because major crises do tend to attract the bad actors.”

So Google does boost news sites that it feels are reputable and it’s these sites – like CNN –  that typically dominate in the results. Do reputable news sources tend to lean left? Probably. But that isn’t Google’s fault. That’s the nature of Open Web. If you use that as your platform, you build in any inherent biases. And the minute you further filter on top of that platform, you leave yourself open to accusations of editorializing.

There is another piece to this puzzle. The fact is that searches on Google are biased, but that bias is entirely intentional. The bias in this case is yours. Search results have been personalized so that they’re more relevant to you. Things like your location, your past search history, the way you structure your query and a number of other signals will be used by Google to filter the results you’re shown. There is no liberal conspiracy. It’s just the way that the search algorithm works. In this way, Google is prone to the same type of filter-bubble problem that Facebook has.  In another interview with Tim Hwang, director of the Harvard-MIT Ethics and Governance of AI Initiative, he touches on this:

“I was struck by the idea that whereas those arguments seem to work as late as only just a few years ago, they’re increasingly ringing hollow, not just on the side of the conservatives, but also on the liberal side of things as well. And so what I think we’re seeing here is really this view becoming mainstream that these platforms are in fact not neutral, and that they are not providing some objective truth.”

The biggest challenge here lies not in the reality of what Google is or how it works, but in what our perception of Google is. We will never know the inner workings of the Google algorithm, but we do trust in what Google shows us. A lot. In our own research some years ago, we saw a significant lift in consumer trust when brands showed up on top of search results. And this effect was replicated in a recent study that looked at Google’s impact on political beliefs. This study found that voter preferences can shift by as much as 20% due to biased search rankings – and that effect can be even higher in some demographic groups.

If you are the number one channel for information, if you manipulate the ranking of the information in any way and if you wield the power to change a significant percentage of minds based on that ranking – guess what? You are the arbitrator of truth. Like it or not.

It’s Not Whether We Like Advertising – It’s Whether We Accept Advertising

Last week, I said we didn’t like advertising. That – admittedly – was a blanket statement.

In response, MediaPost reader Kevin VanGundy said:

“I’ve been in advertising for 39 years and I think the premise that people don’t like advertising is wrong. People don’t like bad advertising.”

I think there’s truth in both statements. The problem here is the verb I chose to use: “like.” The future of advertising hangs not on what we like, but on what we accept. Like is an afterthought. By the time we decide whether we like something or not, we’ve already been exposed to it. It’s whether we open the door to that exposure that will determine the future of advertising. So let’s dig a little deeper there, shall we?

First, seeing as we started with a blanket statement, let’s spend a little time unpacking this idea of “liking” advertising. As Mr. VanGundy agreed, we don’t like bad advertising. The problem is that most advertising is bad, in that it’s not really that relevant to us “in the moment.” Even with the best programmatic algorithms currently being used, the vast majority of the targeted advertising presented to me is off the mark. It’s irrelevant, it’s interruptive and that makes it irritating.

Let’s explore how the brain responds to this. Our brains love to categorize and label, based on our past experience. It’s the only way we can sort through and process the tsunami of input we get presented with on a daily basis. So, just like my opening sentence, the brain makes blanket statements. It doesn’t deal with nuance very well, at least in the subconscious processing of stimuli. It quickly categorizes into big generic buckets and sorts the input, discarding most of it as unworthy of attention and picking the few items of interest out of the mix. In this way, our past experience predicts our future behavior, in terms of what we pay attention to. And if we broadly categorize advertising as irritating, this will lessen the amount of attention we’re willing to pay.

As a thought experiment to support my point, think of what you would do if you were to click on a news story in the Google results and when you arrive at the article page, you get the pop up informing you that you had your ad-blocker on. You have been given two options: whitelist the page so you receive advertising or keep your ad-blocker on and read the page anyway. I’m betting you would keep your ad-blocker on. It’s because you were given a choice and that choice included the option to avoid advertising – which you did because advertising annoys you.

To further understand why the exchange that forms the foundation of advertising is crumbling, we have to understand that much of the attentional focused activity in the brain is governed by a heuristic algorithm that is constantly calculating trade-offs between resources and reward. It governs our cognitive resources by predicting what would have to be invested versus what the potential reward might be. This subconscious algorithm tends to be focused on the task at hand. Anything that gets in the way of the contemplated task is an uncalculated investment of resources. And the algorithm is governed by our past experience and broad categorizations. It you have categorized advertising as “bad” the brain will quickly cut that category out of consideration. The investment of attention is not warranted given the expected reward. If you did happen to be served a “good” ad that managed to make it into consideration – based on an exception to our general categorization that advertising is annoying – that can change, but the odds are stacked against it. It’s just that low probability occurrence that the entire ad industry is built on.

Finally, let’s look at that probability. In the past, the probability was high enough to warrant the investment of ad dollars. The probability was higher because our choices were fewer. Often, we only had one path to get to what we sought, and that path lead through an ad. The brain had no other available options. That’s no longer the case. Let’s go back to our ad-blocker example.

Let’s say the pop-up didn’t give us a choice – we had to whitelist to see the article. The resource – reward algorithm kicks into action: What are the odds we could find the information – ad-free –  elsewhere? How important is the information to us? Will we ever want to come back to this site to read another article? Perhaps we give in and whitelist. Or perhaps we just abandon the site with a sour taste in our mouth. The later was happening more and more, which is why we see fewer news sites offering the whitelist or nothing option now. The probability of our market seeing an ad is dropping because they have more ad-free alternatives. Or at least, they think they do.

And it’s this thought – precisely this thought – that is eroding the foundation of advertising, whether we like it or not.