Google’s Helpful Content Update Launches – Spotlight #433

Good Monday Morning

It’s August 29. America returns to the moon this morning with the scheduled liftoff of Artemis I at 8:33 a.m. ET. There’s an informative NASA page with multiple short videos and gorgeous images that will get you up to speed on plans for this mission and the program.

Housekeeping: we’re off next week for Labor Day and back in your email on September 12.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,293 words — about 5 minutes to read.

News To Know Now

Quoted: “We have seen no evidence that this incident involved any access to customer data or encrypted password vaults.

— LastPass CEO Karim Toubba in a letter to users explaining that hackers were able to steal some of the company’s software code, but could not access user information.

Driving the news: Conspiracy theory and political rhetoric are ramping up outrage against federal agencies including the IRSNational Archives, and the EPA. Some of that is taking the form of cyber attacks although physical security is also concerning agency leaders. The Government Executive website headline: Stay Vigilant.

Three Important Stories

1) Amazon is closing the telehealth service it launched to great fanfare in 2019. The company’s plans appear to be more mainstream now that is has committed $4.6 billion combined to acquire PillPack and healthcare clinic chain One Medical. The Wall Street Journal also reported last week that Amazon is negotiating against CVS, among others, to acquire home health care company Signify for as much as $8 billion.

2) Twitter is under fire after its former head of security disclosed as a whistleblower that the company is aware that it has major cybersecurity issues. Peiter “Mudge” Zutko is an ethical hacker who has worked for the Defense Department, Google, and Motorola, as well as a Twitter senior executive. That company says that he is a disgruntled former employee. Part of the frenzy around the story includes Zutko’s allegations that the company has misled regulators about cybersecurity and that allegations made by Elon Musk when trying to back out of acquiring Twitter were accurate.

3) Meta announced that it canceled hundreds of accounts, pages, and groups affiliated with the Proud Boys terror organization on Facebook and Instagram. The company banned the group from its platforms in 2018 for violating its policies against hate speech.

Trends & Spends

Spotlight Explainer — Google Launches Helpful Content Update

Google is launching an update this week that it calls Helpful Content. It’s a big deal with some industry experts likening it to a famous 10-year-old update series called Penguin that penalized websites for using automation to manipulate ranking systems. The Penguin update affected around 8% of all search queries. If this week’s Helpful Content update matches that number, there could be up to 1 billion daily searches affected.

Helpful Content: Designed to Fight Automated Content

Dozens of software packages have launched in the last two years that create seemingly human written content with a fatal flaw —  some of that content is wrong. 

The software is trained on large language models and uses machine learning to create a corpus of facts and styles mimicking human writers. The age-old saying of “garbage in, garbage out” means that inaccurate facts or inappropriate positions are made.

Microsoft’s Tay chatbot posted on Twitter in 2016 that “Hitler was right” and “9/11 was an inside job.” Last week we wrote about Meta’s BlenderBot telling a journalist that Ronald Reagan had been president for more than two terms and that Donald Trump was still president.

Publishing Garbage at Scale

Google search executive Danny Sullivan wrote last week that Helpful Content was designed to “tackle content that seems to have been primarily created for ranking well in search engines rather than to help or inform people.” Danny’s correct.

I can create a website in minutes and have bots create plausible, mostly accurate essays as content. Add in machine generated images of people and places and surround the whole thing with ads. Millions of people globally have those skills and could generate several of those sites every day. One of the biggest complaints I’ve seen in forums for that type of software is that the content creation process doesn’t automatically run and relies on human prompts, which slows it down.

New Product Review Updates

There’s something to be said for real reviews by nonexperts, but that has also been proven to be an area rife with fraud. Sullivan says that Google will be rolling out a new update in the coming weeks to have Google results show “more helpful, in-depth reviews based on firsthand expertise in search results.”

Even SEO Software Can Be Based on False Facts

As a young executive in the data industry, I quickly learned about the power of asynchronous data flow and the inequities that arose when one party in a transaction has more information than another.

That’s the perpetual state that search engine optimization has been in since Danny Sullivan and several other pioneers popularized the concept more than 25 years ago. Even today, well regarded tools can incorrectly insist that successful web content requires specific word counts, placement of keywords, or specific keyword densities. 

The real trick to getting this information right is learning what works and monitoring it to take action when your tactics no longer outperform others.

Did That Really Happen? — Florida’s Banned Book List

Book banning is a very real problem, and we’ve previously posted a link to this remarkable Book Censorship list by the advocacy group EveryLibrary Institute. 

Unfortunately, last week a meme surfaced that claimed to be a list of books that Florida has banned in its schools. The plausible list included oft-censored titles like The Handmaid’s Tale, To Kill A Mockingbird, and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. 

Actor Mark Hamill and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten shared the list, which was more than enough to make it viral. USA Today unpacks the details.

Following Up — We Love Instagram Reels

We wrote one month ago about Meta changing the way its feeds are generated. Newly published data from HypeAuditor show that short-form video Reels on Instagram receive more reach engagement than other forms of content. HypeAuditor found that Reels accounted for 22% of content types but 35% of all likes and 34% of all reach.

Protip — Let Your Devices Update

Cybersecurity experts say we can help protect ourselves online by allowing our computers and phones to automatically update their operating systems. That’s because those updates often contain new code to keep your device safe. Here’s how to check and reset your preferences for each device type.

Screening Room — Dove Canada

We’re taking a break from YouTube this week and giving props to the never-shy Dove brand which waded into the controversial firing of Canadian news anchor Lisa LaFlamme. CTV cut the announcer loose after she had spent 35 years there, eleven of them as an anchor, following a network executive’s comment, “Who let Lisa’s hair go gray?”

Dove Canada’s 15 second spot is on Twitter.

Science Fiction World — Google’s Helper Robots

If you think Google has money now, watch what happens if they get helper robots correct and at a price point that ordinary consumers can afford.

Coffee Break — Gorgeous, Weird Medieval Medicine

You must take some coffee break to see this amazing and beautiful website being constructed by the Cambridge University Library showing a digitizing project for 180 medieval manuscripts about medicine. It’s breathtaking art and science.

Sign of the Times

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