A few weeks ago I had a brief reminder of why Google remains the king of internet search engines, eclipsing its would-be rivals like Bing. And why small websites can prosper or wither depending on the whims of the tech giant’s inscrutable algorithms. Noticing an overnight surge in the number of visitors to An Sionnach Fionn, I assumed that a link had been posted somewhere on Facebook or Twitter directing extra traffic to my website. However when I drilled down into the statistics it became apparent that the vast majority of the new visits were coming from Google Search and were directed towards the site generally rather than towards any specific articles or posts.
Puzzled by this I did a quick look-up on Google Search using the terms “An Sionnach Fionn” and “ansionnachfionn” (minus the quotes*) and was surprised to see over 100,000 results. Up to that date Google had been returning less than 40,000 hits for these words. Actually this was only true since early 2015. In the spring of that year the internet firm introduced some changes to its search software, prioritising mobile-friendly sites over static ones but actually favouring larger corporate media sites, which slashed my referrals by over half. So the 100,000 results was something of a return to the old status.
Noticeably the spike in hits pulled in all of ASF’s related social media profiles as well as a wealth of published items on the website. A quick search for keywords like “Irish republican” and so on placed An Sionnach Fionn on the first page of Google results. This is a crucial position for any website since most internet users rarely move beyond this initial list of hits, the number of users decreasing rapidly as people click through to subsequent pages, hardly anyone going beyond the fourth page.
Inevitably the massive spike in visitors to the site didn’t last. Within twenty-four hours the numbers plummeted back to the current low average and, as I expected, another search for “An Sionnach Fionn” on Google returned just 35,000 results (including a lot of extraneous “chaff”, though “ansionnachfionn” is returning a rather better 70,000). Down through the years I’ve seen many website owners commenting on various professional forums about the travails of search engine optimisation (SEO) and how minor – and usually unacknowledged – tweaks in Google’s management of internet queries can kill a site’s potential to grow; or even survive.
If I was reliant on advertising to run An Sionnach Fionn, to pay for its upkeep or even my own, such vagaries would make it impossible to have any surety of income. This is why the internet will continue to be the domain of major businesses. However, the inbuilt biases of Google Search, well-intended no doubt, also limit the exposure of general internet users to a plurality of opinions. To seek out a diversity of thought people must carry out searches within the major search engines results, going beyond the initial result pages. And as we have seen on the ideological right this can lead unwary users down a rabbit hole into a warren of extremist sites that glory in their supposed “censorship” by Google and its clones. A sentiment that Donald Trump has intuitively latched onto for his own political advantage.
*The quotes, of course, limit the search to those specific words.