the frequency a kenny chung blog

Last month, Google broke the status quo by actually publicly disclosing a part of their top secret search algorithm. What change could possibly have been so significant that Google would announce it from the rooftops? As it turns out, Google now officially considers a page’s load time in its algorithm.

Matt Cutts even recorded a YouTube video confirming the weight that load time has in Google’s decision-making. Both Cutts’ video and the official blog touted the importance of User Experience: the quicker a page loads, the more usable/useful it is for searchers. It was a simple concept that made sense, and Google exhibited a rare complete transparency in disclosing it.

Fast forward one month. It’s the 30 year anniversary of the classic arcade game Pac-Man. As the top search engine is usually wont to do when nerdy dates cross the Google Calendar, the design team created a custom logo. But Friday, May 21st went down in Google history as the first interactive logo. It was a fully functional two-player Pac-Man game, complete with sound effects. It added 225 kb to the load time (a whopping 330% increase) and caused an intro sound to automatically play.

Google Pac-Man Load Time
Load Time and File Sizes according to Firebug plugin

Some loved it; others hated it. I personally played it through four or five levels for some lunch break nostalgia, and Google even created a dedicated static page for the applet. However, despite the potential fun, it was very apparent that the homepage took a lot longer than usual to load.

In short, the search engine that has long positioned itself as the sleekest, quickest method to find anything on the web created a cumbersome default homepage to celebrate a video game anniversary. Was this arrogance on the part of Google? If Google didn’t have 64% market share (as of May, according to the Wall Street Journal), would it have sacrificed speed to create some social media bait? I also don’t believe it was an isolated incident. In an attempt to incorporate feature-rich functions, Google has (in the past year) included real-time social streams in its Universal Search, implemented fading effects on the homepage, and redesigned the entire SERP. Google seems to be continually willing to compromise core values (see also Google Censorship) to play the Web 2.0 game.

So was this a hypocritical move by Google? All signs point to yes, but it wasn’t that big of a jump, all things considered.

Every first year Psychology student has learned about the phenomenon of confirmation bias. In a nutshell, it means that people tend to selectively interpret information in order to reaffirm their preexisting beliefs. For instance, let’s say you believe that microwave popcorn tastes better than movie theater popcorn. Then there’s a good chance that the next time you microwave the perfect bag, you’ll forget all the other times when not all the kernels popped or when it came out a bit burnt. You’ll only retain the memories of when the popping went right and ignore the consistency of the theater’s popping machines.

What does this have to do with branding and social media? Consider Twitter’s trending topics. Millions of Tweeters determine the trends of the day, week, or even month. At the most basic level, these trending topics tell us where the conversation is. In an ideal system, the topics would also be what people value the most or hold the most important. In a way, trending topics are an open system of self-reinforced agenda setting. Agenda setting is a mass communication theory that posits that the media can control what the public believes to be newsworthy simply by reporting about it. Repetition combined with freshness will make people believe that a story or issue is important (this ties in really neatly with the psychological concept of the availability heuristic).

Now think about how this can help or hurt a brand. Let’s use the Tiger Woods Nike Commercial that I last blogged about as an example. If Person A (let’s call him Brandon) just saw the commercial on TV without any context or explanation, where would he find information? A lot of people would go to news sites or social networks. So Brandon types in “Tiger Woods Nike” into the Twitter search box, which returns tons of opinions in real-time (more or less). In turn, Brandon, who hadn’t previously formed an opinion about the commercial, will see that different people find the commercial brilliant, confusing, or downright creepy. It’s possible that these Tweets will help Brandon make up his mind and feelings about the commercial.

But what if the person already had an opinion on a topic but still wanted to see what other people thought? Let’s consider Person B, named Judy. She watched American Idol last night and found her favorite singer Lee to be the best performer. So later on, she clicks onto a TV show review blog and reads blog posts or comments either saying that Lee was awesome or that Lee was terrible. Because Judy already formed an opinion on the matter, she’ll likely disagree with the divergent blog post or comments. Rather than consider both sides of the argument, Judy will knowingly nod her head when she reads thoughts that she agrees with and vehemently shake her head when she wonders how others can have a differing opinion.

For established brands selling products or services, returning customers and loyalists are much more valuable than new one-time purchasers. If Apple had to choose, I’d venture that the marketing team would rather have the person who buys every new generation iPod as a customer than the person who makes the iPad his or her only on-brand purchase (Apple has actually done an amazing job grooming more consumers to fit into the former category).

By extension, when it comes to social media pushes, the brand behind them should be looking to target both the Brandon’s and the Judy’s. Provide a jump-off for the social conversation and let people discuss freely. Companies have to accept that they cannot control the conversation anymore. Agenda setting is now crowdsourced by anybody who wants to get involved. Social media should not be an exercise in damage control, but rather, a chance to gain real-time feedback on whether or not a campaign was well done.

Therefore, if brands reward and reinforce the positive feelings that people like Judy have about them, that’s already more than half the battle. I’m not saying that the potential Brandon’s should be ignored, but brands shouldn’t have tunnel-vision and take the loyalists for granted. Treat them well, and their words will do a lot of the brand building legwork for you.

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