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15 July 2015

SEO and algorithms? Numbers can’t match up to plain good taste

Truly independent expertise can never be swayed. Numbers, on the other hand, can be manipulated reasonably easily.

By Ed Smith

After 30 years in business, Video City on Notting Hill Gate has been forced to shut. The much-loved DVD shop in west London was a victim of soaring business rates, escalating property prices (leading to the flight of bohemia) and, finally, the modern technology of streaming films on the internet.

I feel a personal debt of thanks. The films that have left a lasting impression on me in the past few years were mostly recommended to me by staff at Video City – The Lives of Others, a superb take on life in 1980s East Berlin; the Argentinian thriller The Secret in Their Eyes; Marriage Italian Style, starring Marcello Mastroianni.

They were much too smart, however, to think that good cinema had to be art-house or foreign-language. The best recommendation of all was Friday Night Lights, the television series about a high-school American football team in small-town Texas that hovers somewhere between Shakespeare and Home and Away.

It is true that the DVD rental store, like the CD shop, is a business model in apparently irreversible decline. Yet this column is not just a futile lament inspired by nostalgia. Some technological advances are victimless. With the exception, perhaps, of the bank teller, the ATM has been good for everyone. Sometimes, however, a new convenience comes with grave costs that emerge only slowly.

Visiting Video City was an experience, not a convenience. It was independent in every sense, an independence founded on disinterested expertise. Instead of deals with Hollywood studios and PR departments, its only leverage was good judgement. Its staff kept recommending good films, so customers kept going back.

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To borrow a phrase from public service, this expertise was supplied at the point of delivery. And the expert had skin in the game. So the business relied on trust: the consumer trusted the knowledge and taste of the vendor. None of this applies to the industry that has replaced shops such as Video City: internet streaming. Because there is no human being present during the sale, streaming is good at providing you with what you already knew you wanted – or thought you wanted. It is bad at leading you towards things you didn’t know you wanted. As Henry Ford pointed out, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”

Instead of human expertise, streaming companies use an algorithm to make “recommendations” based on customers’ buying or search history. Amazon uses a similar technique. The algorithms are improving all the time but they usually make a central assumption that poorly serves a whole category of viewers and readers. Algorithms push viewers towards works in the same genre.

But what if you don’t have any genre preferences? What if you care only about quality (or, at least, your perception of quality), regardless of subject matter or genre? Using the four rentals I mentioned earlier as a guide, I might be recommended Spanish-language films about an American-football-playing prostitute. My wider aesthetic tastes tend towards Richard Wagner, Vikram Seth, Roger Federer and Bob Dylan. No algorithm is likely to capture all of these.

This has a troubling knock-on effect on the creative industries, as well as on consumers. It reinforces two forms of risk aversion. First, it encourages derivative works that try to cling to the coat-tails of recent successes. Second, genre dependency discourages artists – or those preoccupied with finding a reliable market – from moving between genres and seeking challenges. After one success, writers and directors are advised to spin it out in a series, a dubious franchising of the creative process.

Yet a common characteristic of the superb talents I listed above (with the exception of Federer) is that no sooner had they mastered one genre than they moved towards an entirely different one – usually by inventing or reinventing it.

It is also a misconception that doing business on the internet inherently tends towards democracy, as it uses numbers to gauge tastes. Quite the reverse. Truly independent expertise can never be swayed. Numbers, on the other hand, can be manipulated reasonably easily.

This is what happens when a firm offers to supply “search engine optimisation”. The product on sale here is the conscious and deliberate manipulation of the apparently democratic results that come up when words are typed into an online search engine. The larger a firm’s budget, the easier it is to pretend that its product – whether it is a service, a good or a person – is the most searched-for item when that cluster of words is typed into Google. “Democratic” ranking, to a degree, can be bought.

What about chat rooms and viewer reviews? With the decline of professional criticism (by which I mean properly paid professional criticism), people are increasingly likely to turn to amateur reviews. Most of these are doubtless authentic. The creative industries, however, have become all too worldly about social media “campaigns” that are designed to look spontaneous and organic.

In his book The New Few, Ferdinand Mount makes the persuasive point that ­corporate systems naturally tend towards oligarchy. The big players in any game have a self-interest in achieving a lockout of smaller upstarts.

With the extinction of a small, independent DVD shop in west London, a tiny bulwark against corporate control of the film industry has been lost. And it is another ­defeat for the true expert – the noble middleman – who makes his living by steering us gently towards what we didn’t know we wanted.