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Are SEOs Responsible For Google Search Bias?

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Are SEOs Responsible For Google Search Bias?

In 2016, the U.N. declared that access to the internet is a human right.

This decision was made on the understanding that the internet is a tool for everyone to access information affordably and express themselves.

This resolution stirred up discussion around access in terms of infrastructure, where fiber cables are installed or updated, or allowing uninterrupted access during civil unrest and other emergencies.

While these are valid and important points, the internet is not just wires and screens, and the information accessed can be altered based on algorithms.

As the internet has integrated into our lives, it is now part of our social infrastructure (similar to medical or educational services).

It is well documented that biases exist within medical and educational spaces, including access to care and quality of care, but what about search results?

Are they fair? Are they representative of the world around us? Or are they causing more harm than good?

What’s In An Algorithm?

In digital marketing, “algorithm” is a term that is being tossed around daily regardless of whether someone understands what it means. Each platform has one (or multiple), and our job is to try and satisfy them.

An algorithm is a procedure followed when a system is performing a computation.

This process takes an input and utilizes formulas, rules, or other problem-solving operations to produce an output.

For search, this means queries entered into a search box are the input, and the SERP (search engine results page) is the output.

This is a highly simplistic explanation of what is happening. Google uses multiple algorithms in combination with AI (Artificial Intelligence) and machine learning.

To dissect the whole system would be well beyond my scope and beyond the purpose of this article.

The Canary In The SERPs

As a woman, I am no stranger to biases in websites, policies, and society in general.

Every day I navigate the world with a pinch of salt. Investigating the potential biases in search results is something I’ve been interested in for some time, and I began researching the topic in 2021.

An original research project (Full disclosure: That I helped conduct) called Give Us Features, Not Flowers examined the gender bias of social and search landscape for professional photographers.

Several gender-neutral queries were tested, such as “best photography Instagram accounts” or “best photographers.”

The results?

Women were featured as professional photographers far less than men in rich results and within the content on page one, despite composing 50% of professionals.

Who is responsible for these biases? The writers who wrote the articles? Search engines for rewarding those pages? SEO pros for recommending the article to their client?

My gut reaction is to blame whoever created the algorithm.

While this is true to a degree, it is not the whole story and simply isn’t fair.

Biases are rooted in our existing societal structures, woven into our culture, government, and our interactions with the world around us.

Is The PageRank Algorithm Biased?

Research published in 2011 has already called into question the fairness of PageRank.

Models show that as the web has grown, the stability of the top-ranking websites becomes more stable, leaving remaining websites to argue for scraps.

Nature, a peer-reviewed journal, published an article in February 2022 examining the PageRank algorithm to see if it introduces or amplifies biases.

To put this in the simplest of terms, researchers created five potential societal models with varying degrees of homophily (“the tendency to connect to similar others”).

Each model contains 20 nodes, but let’s refer to them as websites. Then each website was assigned a page rank and either as part of the majority or minority within the society.

Inequality was measured using the Gini coefficient (a statistical analysis to measure inequality) to see how an individual scored against an equal distribution. Inequity was measured by calculating the percentage of minorities in the top search results.

Their findings show that PageRank’s algorithm can reduce, replicate, or amplify biases depending on the model used.

In models with a high degree of homophily, the dominant voices perpetuated those perspectives and biases while under-representing minorities.

On the other hand, when the majority group is heterophilic (the tendency to collect in diverse groups), there is an over-representation of minorities.

This lays some groundwork for future research around potential interventions or bias reduction to algorithms.

The Intersection Of Culture And Google Image Search Results

Plenty of research has shown that algorithms can be and that many are biased. As previously discussed, PankRank can play into these biases to amplify or diminish them, but algorithms do not act alone.

In the instance of Google, there are not only multiple algorithms at play but also AI and machine learning. All of these elements are evolving continuously through our (human) interactions.

Another piece of research that was published this year investigated if societal gender inequalities were present in Google Image search results (via localized search algorithms).

Researchers plotted gender inequality by country (based on the Global Gender Gap Index) and the percent of men that appeared in Google Image search results when searching for “person” in each country’s respective language (using a VPN to access local results).

Countries with greater gender inequality saw more images of men for the gender-neutral keyword “person.” Which they claim is a link between societal norms and algorithmic output.

The second part of the study looked into how these biased results can influence individuals’ decision-making.

Participants looked at screenshots of Google Image results from low-inequality and high-inequality nations and were asked questions about gender and occupation.

Skipping the details (although I think the article is worth a read), the results showed that the cultural biases that are present in algorithms can (and do) influence individual decision-making.

When participants saw image results from low-inequality nations, their results were more egalitarian compared to results from high-inequality nations, where results reinforced gender biases.

The level of societal gender inequality is reflected in the search algorithm, which leads me to wonder just how much. The combination of these elements is then influencing individual perception through each use.

Who Is Responsible For The Biases In SERPs?

I began this journey by asking this very question hoping for a simple answer.

Unfortunately, there isn’t one because we are all responsible for biases in search results. From the original coders to the writers, to the SEO pros and the link builders, and also society, culture, and the environment we exist in.

Imagine all of the algorithms you interact with daily. If exposure to those algorithms influences your perception of the world, then it gets messy, untangling the strings of multiple inputs.

How Can We Make It Better?

As a hopeless optimist, I can’t leave you with such a heavy burden. Let’s start the discussion around how we can make search and content a more inclusive space.

The researchers who examined biases in PageRank discussed that while homophilic networks were driving inequalities in representation, minorities can overcome this through strategic networking.

That is not a reasonable solution, so they suggested implementing DPAH (don’t worry, I will not go into the details!).

This model would eliminate the need for minorities to be required to network with majorities.

Psychology-based interventions were suggested by the other study as they concluded that societal gender inequality was being reflected in the algorithm. They call for a more ethical AI that combines our understanding of psychology and society.

Typically an SEO pro’s biggest concern is how to appeal to the algorithm rather than question the equity or equality of them or how we might be perpetuating harmful biases.

Through the use of AI-powered software to interpret AI-powered algorithms, there should be a moment where we start to question the ethical component of our work.

Currently, search results are not an accurate representation of an equitable world when they can be.

As SEO pros, content creators, and marketers, we play a large role in reproducing inequitable content, increasing visibility to already large voices, and perpetuating our local-cultural biases.

Here are a few other suggestions I had to help create a more equitable search landscape.

  • Stop replicating biased content – share your platform with diverse voices and create new narratives around your niche.
  • Audit AI content – I’m not going to say no to all AI content, but it should be reviewed by a human as it risks falling into the same patterns.
  • Algorithm audits – similarly to how we audit websites, algorithms can be audited. There are resources to audit the potential biases and audit for impact assessments.
  • Support education – support or volunteer with organizations that provide coding, software, or technical training to women, people of color, or other marginalized groups. Shoutout to Women in Tech SEO for being one of those spaces.
  • Multi-lingual resources – create SEO and other marketing resources in languages other than English to allow for diverse voices and perspectives.
  • Create less biased algorithms and AI – easier said than done, but Google AI announced KELM last year, which has some potential in regards to fact-checking and reducing bias
  • Stop the gentrification of search – To be anti-competitive is to be anti-business. It suppresses new and diverse voices, so I would like to see more companies in the search landscape and more variety in results.

I don’t intend to have the final word on this topic, as this conversation should continue in Twitter threads, at conferences, over coffee, and in our daily work.

Please share your thoughts or questions about this topic so we can start discussing the creation of a search experience that does not harm society.

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Gen Z Ditches Google, Turns To Reddit For Product Searches

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In this photo illustration, the Reddit logo is displayed on a smartphone screen.

A new report from Reddit, in collaboration with GWI and AmbassCo, sheds light on the evolving search behaviors of Generation Z consumers.

The study surveyed over 3,000 internet users across the UK, US, and Germany, highlighting significant changes in how young people discover and research products online.

Here’s an overview of key findings and the implications for marketers.

Decline In Traditional Search

The study found that Gen Z uses search engines to find new brands and products less often.

That’s because they shop online differently. They’re less interested in looking for expert reviews or spending much time searching for products.

There are also frustrations with mobile-friendliness and complex interfaces on traditional search platforms.

Because of this, traditional SEO strategies might not work well for reaching younger customers.

Takeaway

Companies trying to reach Gen Z might need to try new methods instead of just focusing on being visible on Google and other search engines.

Rise Of Social Media Discovery

Screenshot from Reddit study titled: “From search to research: How search marketers can keep up with Gen Z.”, June 2024.

Gen Z is increasingly using social media to find new brands and products.

The study shows that Gen Z has used social media for product discovery 36% more frequently since 2018.

This change is affecting how young people shop online. Instead of searching for products, they expect brands to appear in their social media feeds.

1719123963 547 Gen Z Ditches Google Turns To Reddit For Product SearchesScreenshot from Reddit study titled: “From search to research: How search marketers can keep up with Gen Z.”, June 2024.

Because of this, companies trying to reach young customers need to pay more attention to how they present themselves on social media.

Takeaway

To succeed at marketing to Gen Z, businesses will likely need to focus on two main things:

  1. Ensure that your content appears more often in social media feeds.
  2. Create posts people want to share and interact with.

Trust Issues With Influencer Marketing

Even though more people are finding products through social media, the report shows that Gen Z is less likely to trust what social media influencers recommend.

These young shoppers often don’t believe in posts that influencers are paid to make or products they promote.

Instead, they prefer to get information from sources that feel more real and are driven by regular people in online communities.

Takeaway

Because of this lack of trust, companies must focus on being genuine and building trust when they try to get their websites to appear in search results or create ads.

Some good ways to connect with these young consumers might be to use content created by regular users, encourage honest product reviews, and create authentic conversations within online communities.

Challenges With Current Search Experiences

The research shows that many people are unhappy with how search engines work right now.

More than 60% of those surveyed want search results to be more trustworthy. Almost half of users don’t like looking through many search result pages.

Gen Z is particularly bothered by inaccurate information and unreliable reviews.

1719123963 785 Gen Z Ditches Google Turns To Reddit For Product SearchesScreenshot from Reddit study titled: “From search to research: How search marketers can keep up with Gen Z.”, June 2024.

Takeaway

Given the frustration with search quality, marketers should prioritize creating accurate, trustworthy content.

This can help build brand credibility, leading to more direct visits.

Reddit: A Trusted Alternative

The report suggests that Gen Z trusts Reddit when looking up products—it’s their third most trusted source, after friends and family and review websites.

1719123963 403 Gen Z Ditches Google Turns To Reddit For Product SearchesScreenshot from Reddit study titled: “From search to research: How search marketers can keep up with Gen Z.”, June 2024.

Young users like Reddit because it’s community-based and provides specific answers to users’ questions, making it feel more real.

It’s worth noting that this report comes from Reddit itself, which probably influenced why it’s suggesting its own platform.

Takeaway

Companies should focus more on being part of smaller, specific online groups frequented by Gen Z.

That could include Reddit or any other forum.

Why SEJ Cares

As young people change how they look for information online, this study gives businesses important clues about connecting with future customers.

Here’s what to remember:

  • Traditional search engine use is declining among Gen Z.
  • Social media is increasingly vital for product discovery.
  • There’s growing skepticism towards influencer marketing.
  • Current search experiences often fail to meet user expectations.
  • Community-based platforms like Reddit are gaining trust.

Featured Image: rafapress/Shutterstock

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Google Clarifies Organization Merchant Returns Structured Data

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Google updates organization structured data for merchant returns

Google quietly updated their organization structured data documentation in order to clarify two points about merchant returns in response to feedback about an ambiguity in the previous version.

Organization Structured Data and Merchant Returns

Google recently expanded their Organization structured data so that it could now accommodate a merchant return policy. The change added support for adding a sitewide merchant return policy.

The original reason for adding this support:

“Adding support for Organization-level return policies

What: Added documentation on how to specify a general return policy for an Organization as a whole.

Why: This makes it easier to define and maintain general return policies for an entire site.”

However that change left unanswered about what will happen if a site has a sitewide return policy but also has a different policy for individual products.

The clarification applies for the specific scenario of when a site uses both a sitewide return policy in their structured data and another one for specific products.

What Takes Precedence?

What happens if a merchant uses both a sitewide and product return structured data? Google’s new documentation states that Google will ignore the sitewide product return policy in favor of a more granular product-level policy in the structured data.

The clarification states:

“If you choose to provide both organization-level and product-level return policy markup, Google defaults to the product-level return policy markup.”

Change Reflected Elsewhere

Google also updated the documentation to reflect the scenario of the use of two levels of merchant return policies in another section that discusses whether structured data or merchant feed data takes precedence. There is no change to the policy, merchant center data still takes precedence.

This is the old documentation:

“If you choose to use both markup and settings in Merchant Center, Google will only use the information provided in Merchant Center for any products submitted in your Merchant Center product feeds, including automated feeds.”

This is the same section but updated with additional wording:

“If you choose to use both markup (whether at the organization-level or product-level, or both) and settings in Merchant Center, Google will only use the information provided in Merchant Center for any products submitted in your Merchant Center product feeds, including automated feeds.”

Read the newly updated Organization structured data documentation:

Organization (Organization) structured data – MerchantReturnPolicy

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What Is It & How To Write It

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What Is It & How To Write It

In this guide, you will learn about alternative text (known as alt text): what it is, why it is important for on-page SEO, how to use it correctly, and more.

It’s often overlooked, but every image on your website should have alt text. More information is better, and translating visual information into text is important for search engine bots attempting to understand your website and users with screen readers.

Alt text is one more source of information that relates ideas and content together on your website.

This practical and to-the-point guide contains tips and advice you can immediately use to improve your website’s image SEO and accessibility.

What Is Alt Text?

Alternative text (or alt text) – also known as the alt attribute or the alt tag (which is not technically correct because it is not a tag) – is simply a piece of text that describes the image in the HTML code.

What Are The Uses Of Alt Text?

The original function of alt text was simply to describe an image that could not be loaded.

Many years ago, when the internet was much slower, alt text would help you know the content of an image that was too heavy to be loaded in your browser.

Today, images rarely fail to load – but if they do, then it is the alt text you will see in place of an image.

Screenshot from Search Engine Journal, May 2024

Alt text also helps search engine bots understand the image’s content and context.

More importantly, alt text is critical for accessibility and for people using screen readers:

  • Alt text helps people with disabilities (for example, using screen readers) learn about the image’s content.

Of course, like every element of SEO, it is often misused or, in some cases, even abused.

Let’s now take a closer look at why alt text is important.

Why Alt Text Is Important

The web and websites are a very visual experience. It is hard to find a website without images or graphic elements.

That’s why alt text is very important.

Alt text helps translate the image’s content into words, thus making the image accessible to a wider audience, including people with disabilities and search engine bots that are not clever enough yet to fully understand every image, its context, and its meaning.

Why Alt Text Is Important For SEO

Alt text is an important element of on-page SEO optimization.

Proper alt text optimization makes your website stand a better chance of ranking in Google image searches.

Yes, alt text is a ranking factor for Google image search.

Depending on your website’s niche and specificity, Google image search traffic may play a huge role in your website’s overall success.

For example, in the case of ecommerce websites, users very often start their search for products with a Google image search instead of typing the product name into the standard Google search.

Screenshot from search for [Garmin forerunner]Screenshot from search for [Garmin forerunner], May 2024

Google and other search engines may display fewer product images (or not display them at all) if you fail to take care of their alt text optimization.

Without proper image optimization, you may lose a lot of potential traffic and customers.

Why Alt Text Is Important For Accessibility

Visibility in Google image search is very important, but there is an even more important consideration: Accessibility.

Fortunately, in recent years, more focus has been placed on accessibility (i.e., making the web accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities and/or using screen readers).

Suppose the alt text of your images actually describes their content instead of, for example, stuffing keywords. In that case, you are helping people who cannot see this image better understand it and the content of the entire web page.

Let’s say one of your web pages is an SEO audit guide that contains screenshots from various crawling tools.

Would it not be better to describe the content of each screenshot instead of placing the same alt text of “SEO audit” into every image?

Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Alt Text Examples

Finding many good and bad examples of alt text is not difficult. Let me show you a few, sticking to the above example with an SEO audit guide.

Good Alt Text Examples

So, our example SEO guide contains screenshots from tools such as Google Search Console and Screaming Frog.

Some good examples of alt text may include:

”The
”Google
”List
”Screaming

Tip: It is also a good idea to take care of the name of your file. Using descriptive file names is not a ranking factor, but I recommend this as a good SEO practice.

Bad And/Or Spammy Alt Text Examples

I’ve also seen many examples of bad alt text use, including keyword stuffing or spamming.

Here is how you can turn the above good examples into bad examples:

”google search console coverage report
”google
”seo
”seo

As you can see, the above examples do not provide any information on what these images actually show.

You can also find examples and even more image SEO tips on Google Search Central.

Common Alt Text Mistakes

Stuffing keywords in the alt text is not the only mistake you can make.

Here are a few examples of common alt text mistakes:

  • Failure to use the alt text or using empty alt text.
  • Using the same alt text for different images.
  • Using very general alt text that does not actually describe the image. For example, using the alt text of “dog” on the photo of a dog instead of describing the dog in more detail, its color, what it is doing, what breed it is, etc.
  • Automatically using the name of the file as the alt text – which may lead to very unfriendly alt text, such as “googlesearchconsole,” “google-search-console,” or “photo2323,” depending on the name of the file.

Alt Text Writing Tips

And finally, here are the tips on how to write correct alt text so that it actually fulfills its purpose:

  • Do not stuff keywords into the alt text. Doing so will not help your web page rank for these keywords.
  • Describe the image in detail, but still keep it relatively short. Avoid adding multiple sentences to the alt text.
  • Use your target keywords, but in a natural way, as part of the image’s description. If your target keyword does not fit into the image’s description, don’t use it.
  • Don’t use text on images. All text should be added in the form of HTML code.
  • Don’t write, “this is an image of.” Google and users know that this is an image. Just describe its content.
  • Make sure you can visualize the image’s content by just reading its alt text. That is the best exercise to make sure your alt text is OK.

How To Troubleshoot Image Alt Text

Now you know all the best practices and common mistakes of alt text. But how do you check what’s in the alt text of the images of a website?

You can analyze the alt text in the following ways:

Inspecting an element (right-click and select Inspect when hovering over an image) is a good way to check if a given image has alt text.

However, if you want to check that in bulk, I recommend one of the below two methods.

Install Web Developer Chrome extension.

Screenshot of Web Developer Extension in Chrome by authorScreenshot from Web Developer Extension, Chrome by author, May 2024

Next, open the page whose images you want to audit.

Click on Web Developer and navigate to Images > Display Alt Attributes. This way, you can see the content of the alt text of all images on a given web page.

The alt text of images is shown on the page.Screenshot from Web Developer Extension, Chrome by author, May 2024

How To Find And Fix Missing Alt Text

To check the alt text of the images of the entire website, use a crawler like Screaming Frog or Sitebulb.

Crawl the site, navigate to the image report, and review the alt text of all website images, as shown in the video guide below.

You can also export only images that have missing alt text and start fixing those issues.

Alt Text May Not Seem Like A Priority, But It’s Important

Every source of information about your content has value. Whether it’s for vision-impaired users or bots, alt text helps contextualize the images on your website.

While it’s only a ranking factor for image search, everything you do to help search engines understand your website can potentially help deliver more accurate results. Demonstrating a commitment to accessibility is also a critical component of modern digital marketing.

FAQ

What is the purpose of alt text in HTML?

Alternative text, or alt text, serves two main purposes in HTML. Its primary function is to provide a textual description of an image if it cannot be displayed. This text can help users understand the image content when technical issues prevent it from loading or if they use a screen reader due to visual impairments. Additionally, alt text aids search engine bots in understanding the image’s subject matter, which is critical for SEO, as indexing images correctly can enhance a website’s visibility in search results.

Can alt text improve website accessibility?

Yes, alt text is vital for website accessibility. It translates visual information into descriptive text that can be read by screen readers used by users with visual impairments. By accurately describing images, alt text ensures that all users, regardless of disability, can understand the content of a web page, making the web more inclusive and accessible to everyone.

More resources: 


Featured Image: BestForBest/Shutterstock

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