On SEO: Authority vs Originality

2013-05-29 2 min read

    A while ago I read Bruce Schneier’s Liars and Outliers and came across a neat passage:

    There was this kid who came from a poor family. He had no good options in life so he signed up for the military. After a few years he was deployed to a conflict infested, god-forsaken desert outpost. It was the worst tour of duty he could have been assigned. It was going to be hot and dangerous. Everyday he had to live with a hostile populace who hated his presence and the very sight of his uniform. Plus, the place was swarming with insurgents and terrorists.
    Anyhow, one morning the soldier goes to work and finds that he's been assigned that day to a detail that is supposed to oversee the execution of three convicted insurgents. The soldier shakes his head. He didn't sign up for this. His life just totally sucks. "They don't pay me enough," he thinks, "for the shit I have to do."
    He doesn't know he's going to be executing the Son of God that day. He's just going to work, punching the time clock, keeping his head down. He's just trying to stay alive, get through the day, and send some money back home to Rome.

    Bruce mentions that he found this on the internet and cited it appropriately in the footnotes. But when I tried Googling for the phrase “There was this kid who came from a poor family” the top links were people citing Liars and Outliers, including my own highlight on Readmill. I even came across a page that linked to the original source that Bruce cited before I found a link to the original source.

    I realize this conflict between authority and originality is a challenge for search engines but it seems that they rank authority ahead of originality. This leads to the unfortunate consequence that if any major site cites your personal blog they will appear earlier in the search results. I had this occur with my post on the history of why cell phones don’t have dialtones; searching for “cellphones dialtone” shows the Gizmodo link ahead of my blog’s. The nice thing is that Google seems to be getting better - right now searching for “There was this kid who came from a poor family” shows the original source in the third position; a few months ago it was at the bottom of the first page. Let’s hope this trend continues.