Category: Digital

AI for Human Happiness

As I posted last week, I came across an interesting article that prompted multiple thoughts in my head. I wrote about one of them (Greed and Development) last week. Here is the second.

An interesting section of the New Yorker article spoke about Artificial Intelligence (AI). This is a topic I am ambivalent and frankly, confused about. We hear about this all the time. While the majority of views are positive, there are a few dissenting views around. I believe this is a significant issue that demands us to pay a lot more attention and engage constructively around.

Most of the discussion around AI is driven from a technology point of view. It is no doubt creditable that technology has developed so rapidly that AI / ML is now increasingly impacting our daily lives. And yes, I have no doubt that it’s making and will increasingly make our lives easier and possibly more comfortable.

What concerns me, though, as the article implies, is that I am not sure that stakeholders in this (and that includes all of us) have given much thought to what is the end goal that we would like AI to solve for? Private players, for the most part, have vested interests that would impact the direction they would like to AI to move towards. And, at the moment, that seems to be towards maximising corporate profits. While I have no qualms about that, I do worry that we are not thinking enough of how we could leverage AI to make people happier.

I am not sure that making lives easier automatically equates to making us happier. I am not a pyschologist nor a sociologist and therefore, do not have a good answer to exactly what would make us happier. But here are some points that, I believe, are relevant:

  • Sense of connection / belonging: We humans are inherently social animals. The more we feel a sense of connection to the community at large, the more I believe it would make us happier.
  • Sense of purpose: We are increasingly, in a digital world, trying to find out what our purpose in life is. I believe a lack of purpose leads to unhappiness.
  • Feeling connected with nature: This might probably not resonate with everyone, but I believe spending time with nature can make us happier.
  • Health: No explanations required here, I would imagine.

The good news is that there are qualified people grappling with, and expressing their opinion about, this topic. An article on Pew Internet called Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humans includes the views of many experts in this field. I particularly liked the views expressed by Baratunde Thurston, futurist, former director of digital at The Onion. A few of his comments below:

  • “The problems to which we are applying machine learning and AI are generally not ones that will lead to a ‘better’ life for most people. That’s why I say in 2030, most people won’t be better due to AI.
  • By 2030, we may cram more activities and interactions into our days, but I don’t think that will make our lives ‘better.’ A better life, by my definition, is one in which we feel more valued and happy.
  • To create a different future, I believe we must unleash these technologies toward goals beyond profit maximization.
  • We need to ask that they ask us, ‘What is important to you? How would you like to spend your time?’ But that’s not the system we’re building. All those decisions have been hoarded by the unimaginative pursuit of profit.”

Let’s hope that we see some more public discussions around this topic in the near future.

Image of Nature

SEO and ‘nofollow’ links

SEO links
Links and nofollow in SEO

I teach Digital Marketing at some Business Schools. In one of my recent classes, I was discussing SEO, or Search Engine Optimisation (the process by which you aim to have your site rank high on the Organic Search Results page of Search Engines).

SEO is a complex topic encompassing technical, on-page and off-page tactics. As I was explaining these concepts, it was interesting to find that the topic that generated the maximum number of questions was the role of ‘nofollow’ in links.

As I reflect on this now, a few days after the session, I can understand why this might be a difficult topic to grasp, especially for people who are new to this field. Here is an attempt to explain this further.

As many people know, links are a very important signal of a site or page’s popularity. And popularity, in addition to relevance, are important factors (out of hundreds) that influence a page’s ranking on Search Results Pages. The key thing to note is that not all links are equal. Links that come in from another page (or domain) that already ranks high and is considered as an authority on a topic carries greater value than a link from a relatively obscure site.

A simple way to think about this is that typically, your home page would be the highest ranking or most important page in your web site. And, therefore, any links from your home page would carry more value than links from a page buried deep within your site.

Let’s assume that you have a page on your website (not your homepage) that you would like to rank higher on Search. By linking to this page from your most important page – your home page – you are signalling to Google that this page is important enough to be linked from the home page. Let’s assume that your home page has a Page authority score of 100. If there are a total of 20 links to other pages on your site, then each of these 20 pages would get an authority score of 5 (100/20). Now, not all of those pages might be equally important to you from a SEO perspective. In fact, some of these links might also be pointing to pages on other domains that are not on your own. In such cases, you are passing on some of your valuable authority to those external domains as well.

This is where the role of ‘nofollow’ comes in. By including this tag in your html link, you are signalling to the Search Engine that the link is not important enough for you to be passing on your valuable authority to. This does not mean that the link will not be discovered or ranked by the Search Engine, just that the Search Engine would not assign any part of your domain or page authority to the linked page.

So, in the example above, if you mark 10 of the 20 links from your home page as ‘nofollow’, each of the remaining pages would get an authority score of 10 (100/(20-10)). This is twice the authority compared to the previous setting. And hence, each of those 10 pages would now have a better chance of ranking higher on the Organic Search Results page of Search Engines.

Interestingly, just a few days after my session, Google made a key change to how it considers ‘nofollow’ links. While previously, Google would not count any link with this attribute as a signal to use within their algorithms, they have recently announced that this would change from March 2020. Now, ‘nofollow’ will be considered as a ‘hint’ which they would use along with other signals to better understand how to analyse and use links within their algorithms.

I do not know yet how this change might affect the rankings of pages. This is something that SEO practitioners would have to watch out for.

I hope this helps understand the ‘nofollow’ attribute better. If you have any questions or comments, please do post below.

On e-book readers (Amazon Kindle)

Reading on a mobile phone

People who know me well would know that I am a bit of a Luddite when it comes to digital media for personal consumption (I know, I am a digital marketer, right!). For a long time, I refused to use digital streaming services (I use them now, but still prefer my CDs for serious music listening). I still read physical newspapers (though spend more time on digital news sites). And for the very longest time, I refused to use a digital book reader, preferring the tactile pleasures of flipping through the pages of a physical book.

Until, that is, a few months back, when I succumbed and started using the Amazon Kindle App on my phone. From a slow start, I now find myself very comfortable using it, and I have started using it regularly. What do I like about it?

  1. Convenience – I like that, once I find a book, I can start reading it almost immediately. No having to search for the book at various book stores, or ordering it online and waiting for it to be delivered.
  2. Any-time consumption – Since it’s not another device and part of my phone (which I carry around almost everywhere), I can pick up from where I left off my reading anytime, anywhere.
  3. Ability to magnify – I am no longer very young, and I appreciate the fact that I can magnify the text and read in pleasure without having to strain my (weakening) eyes or use a magnifying glass.
  4. Minimalistic – I rarely read a book more than once. When I was living abroad, I was a regular member of public library systems where I could borrow books for reading. India does not really have such a system. And where libraries do exist, they typically would have very few books that would interest me. So reading e-books is a great boon for me these days, as I can avoid having to buy books (saving money, paper and lowering carbon footprint).

Having said that, I do miss the following:

  1. The sensory pleasures of reading a book – There still exists a great pleasure in opening a book and getting that unmistakable book smell as well as feeling the quality of the pages and flipping through them that e-book readers (still) cannot deliver.
  2. The joys of wandering through book shops – I used to love walking through book (and music) shops, looking at the titles, browsing a few, and then maybe picking one up to buy and read. I hardly do that any more, except at airports, and I miss the experience. In fact, I wonder if my kids would ever go to a book shop, forget a music shop!

So it looks like e-book readers are here to stay with me. I do wish, though, that they could come up with a much better system for ‘discovering’ or ‘browsing’ through titles. The current system of scrolling through pages and pages of downright useless titles in the hope of finding that one interesting book is getting quite painful. Does anyone have any suggestions on this?

AI, PPC and Smart Bidding

Alphabet blocks spelling out SEM
Search Engine Marketing and Machine Learning

One of the things I have observed in my (still nascent) consulting career is the eagerness of entrepreneurs / (new to digital) marketers to adopt the ‘Smart Bidding’ strategies offered by Google within Adwords (now Google Ads). And this is understandable. Entrepreneurs have a lot of things to take care of, and therefore, why not leverage the AI powered options provided by Google, right?

In my opinion (and limited experience), I have rarely seen this work. Here are a few reasons why I think businesses should not adopt these Smart Bidding strategies too early:

  • Performance: The smart bidding strategies are based on Machine Learning algorithms. And these algorithms need historical data to be trained upon. I genuinely believe that every business is unique. And therefore, even if reasonably relevant data exists from other businesses in the same industry and market, it is no guarantee that an algorithm based off that data might be the best one for your business.
  • Insights: Search Marketing (both Paid and Organic) can provide a wealth of information to businesses. What are the search terms that your users are using to find the information that you provide, how are they interacting with your ads, your website, what are your competitors doing? The use of manual bidding forces you to dig deep into all of this data, analyse and study them to understand what’s working and what’s not and in the process, gather very valuable marketing insights. When you use Smart Bidding, you do not need to analyse all of this closely, thereby losing out on the opportunity to learn.
  • Competition: The beauty of Paid Search Marketing (or PPC – Pay Per Click), is that it is based on an auction process and what you pay (and where you rank) is influenced significantly by what your competitors are up to. So what happens if you and your competitors are both using Smart Bidding techniques?

I can understand why Google (and Facebook) are developing these Machine Learning based techniques. It is in their interest to simplify the process of advertising on their platforms so that businesses no longer feel that they have to invest in PPC experts to do Search Marketing. And I am sure that, over a period of time, their algorithms will keep improving. However, for the reasons listed above, I believe that PPC experts would continue to have a key role to play within any business looking to leverage Paid Search Marketing.

This post was inspired by this article – Frederick Vallaeys on why digital marketers will still have jobs and what they’ll look like in an AI world

The time for Personal Branding is Now

Personal Branding - representative image

If you, like me, spend even some time on LinkedIn, you are bound to have come across articles talking about topic around changing nature of jobs, loss of jobs, ‘gig economy’ etc. While the Future of Work is a complex topic, I believe that one things all of us can, and should, do is to build a Personal Brand.

Gone are the days when one’s professional identity was defined by the organisation she or he worked for. The days when one joined an organisation for life and grew steadily up the corporate ladder are behind us. Yes, there might be still be people who spend a majority of their working lives in a single organisation, but my hunch (without any supporting data) is that these people would be in the tiny minority. The majority of people in the workforce today are likely to find themselves looking for a change from what they are currently doing and where they are currently employed at some time in the not-so-distant future. And these could be due to factors either within their control, or most likely, outside their control. And these are no longer just restricted to so-called ‘blue collar’ jobs.

In case you have missed these articles, here are a few:

How much will automation impact the middle class?

Future of work for tech workers

Fewer jobs from ecommerce to IT (Indian context)

So how can one prepare for this? Again, I do not presume to have a solution. But I do believe that it will be vital for everyone in the workforce to build an identity for themselves that can stand independent of the organisation they work for. By this, I mean creating a story about themselves that tells who they are, how they have reached where they are, and where they might want to go next. This might come easier for people who have spent a few years in the workforce, but it’s also important for people just starting their professional careers to continuously think about. This can help them narrow down their learning objectives, identify and connect with the relevant people both within and outside their organisation.

Prepare for the inevitable rise of the ‘gig economy’. Invest in continuous learning. Identify topics of interest, read about them and start participating in conversations around these. Use the many social channels wisely to start dissemination information about yourself. See if you can pick up some side projects that can give hands-on experience and feel for the areas that you want to invest in. And don’t be afraid to ‘pivot’ if you feel that your present career trajectory is unlike to go much further.

This is just another topic that convinces me that we have just entered an age where our understanding of what it means to ‘work’ and how we live our ‘life’ is going to be fundamentally questioned and possibly altered. I don’t know how ‘work’ and ‘life’ is going to look like when the dust finally settles, but I do believe that it’s up to us to proactively think about this and take appropriate steps to adjust as easily and painlessly as possible to this new era.