Technical Communication and Computer Algorithms
Posted by jeffreyuw
For my final paper, I wrote about the complex computer algorithms that drive Google’s search engine and Facebook’s news feed. My paper explored the many variables that determine how Google’s search engine ranks web pages, and the user inputs that influences the content users see on Facebook. I also discussed what this means for technical communicators, and how they can use these algorithms to communicate effectively with online audiences.
Google’s Search Engine Algorithm
When conducting research on this topic, I found one journal article that argued that Google’s search engine forces technical communicators to write for two audiences: human and robots. The author argues that technical communicators have to write content that is interesting and helpful for people, while writing in quantifiable and structural ways for Google’s search engine. In order to rank on Google’s search results, you have to repeatedly use certain keywords that match the reader’s intent, write a concise headline that Google’s robots can easily read, and use numerous links throughout the post.
This was probably one of the more interesting insights for me while writing this paper. I had not thought of it in this way before, but it’s true. Even major newspapers (like the New York Times) had to change their writing practices in order to rank on Google’s search engine. The same journal article found that the NYT’s web articles use more literal titles than it’s newspaper headlines. They use more literal headlines because these titles can rank on Google’s search engine more easily.
Facebook’s News Feed Algorithm
When it came to Facebook’s news feed algorithm, there are a lot of factors that technical communicators have to consider. Unlike Google’s search engine algorithm, Facebook’s algorithm is controlled more by user activity than writers. Facebook users also have a better idea that their every move is being tracked. This is largely due to the many scandals and news headlines that have brought attention to the issue. For instance, this article shows how Facebook is reading your text messages if you have downloaded certain applications.
This has caused many users to be rather distrustful of the content they find on Facebook. One study found that users changed their behaviors once they learned how Facebook’s news algorithm worked. This can put technical communicators in a tricky situation. They have to use Facebook’s algorithms to reach certain user groups, which means they benefit from a system that tracks a user’s every move. Facebook’s users tend to be more hostile because of this fact.
Computer Algorithms Implications
For these reasons, technical communicators need to practice transparency when using computer algorithms. This can be difficult because technical communicators often serve mixed interests: they write quality content for the user, but they also serve a larger entity like a company. This requires technical communicators to write for a company’s needs rather than a user. As such, technical communicators need to balance these two roles accordingly if they wish to communicate with users effectively.
I recommend that technical communicators become UX experts and researchers in order to balance these roles effectively. By being UX experts, writers must thoroughly understand the needs of the user so they can best write content for them. By being research experts, technical communicators must use the best tools (like Google’s search plan and google analytics) to best learn the key terms they need to know to rank on pages.
Personally, this has been an incredibly interesting course and semester. Everyone has written such thoughtful blog posts and has caused me to think more deeply about my own online habits and use of digital technologies. I look forward to seeing what you guys have written about for your final papers! Good job, everyone.
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