Algorithms can be controversial, overwhelming, powerfully beneficial and everything in between. Moreover, their intangibility yet all-encompassing power over the digital realm can make them seem rather intimidating and challenging to understand. While their reputation may make ‘algorithms’ seem like just another buzzword in our technological world, it is far from that. Instead, algorithms are the infrastructural backbone helping users navigate the endless scope of content across media platforms. They are so critical that without them, platforms, as we know them, would cease to function. The functionality, structure and purpose of algorithms can have an overriding effect on any digital activity. Unfortunately, this is not only exclusive to user experience but includes marketing efforts as well. Essentially, any decision you make when posting or consuming content on the internet is passed through and sorted by the power of an algorithm. While it’s clear that algorithms keep the internet functioning relatively smoothly, how exactly do they do so? The most simple to the most complex tasks can be completed using algorithms, so to what extent should digital marketers be taking advantage of these abilities? More importantly, how can these algorithms be adequately understood and managed from a digital marketing perspective?
Despite the lack of tangibility of algorithms, if you know what you’re looking for, they are not as invisible or impossible to comprehend as they may seem. So, we have summarised the vital aspects of digital algorithms and how they function to consider them in your marketing practices better.
What is an Algorithm?
We have recognised that algorithms are “the infrastructural backbone of media platforms”, but what exactly does this mean?In a technological sense, an algorithm is a set of rules for solving a problem in a definite number of steps. They act as mini instruction manuals that tell platforms how to complete a task or manipulate any data it is presented with. They can tell the platform these instructions through a process of input, transformation, and output called machine learning. As content on platforms evolves, algorithms must evolve subsequently. This evolution occurs through data mining and constant modification of the algorithms to provide the best user experience possible. Despite the numerous benefits of algorithms and platforms reliance on their functionality, they do not exist without flaws. With the potential to offload cultural work onto computers, databases, and other digital technologies, algorithms can prompt a reshuffling of culture. This is what media scholar, Ted Striphas, calls algorithmic culture, which indicates the influence algorithmic infrastructure has on our offline lives. As algorithms structure our news feeds, deliver recommendations, power our search results, and predict our behaviour, it poses many questions around regulation. For, who is to determine how people view the world through the meticulous structure of algorithms?The question of whether algorithms we know today are ethical or not is highly valid, but a whole other field of discussion. Nevertheless, it is essential to understand how algorithms work and adapt accordingly to comprehend them in a digital marketing space.
Social Media Algorithms
Social media platforms are built to connect, engage and interact with users through the content cycle that involves sharing and consuming. This means that the infrastructure behind the dopamine hit that comes from scrolling through social media is what truly functions to show users content that keeps them engaged. While algorithms vary depending on the social media platform, they ultimately sort posts in a users’ feed based on relevancy instead of recency. The algorithms understand this ‘relevancy’ through machine learning processes as a branch of artificial intelligence that learns from user data and patterns. In this sense, platform users act as commodities, helping build the very platform they are using. Mining user data and translating it into algorithms is how social media platforms prioritise which content a user sees in their feed first. Before algorithms were such a structured element of social media platforms, most social media feeds simply displayed posts in reverse chronological order, prioritising recency. While this had certain perks, it made it difficult for users to sift through content and find quality and tailored content. Considering the complex reasoning behind the existence of social media algorithms, they are not going away anytime soon. For marketing efforts, content must be adjusted to what the algorithms ‘want’ and deliver content relevant to and reaches the target audience. While some platforms can be transparent about what content will rank as high quality on their platforms, they are traditionally vague about the specifics. Therefore, it is vital to pay close attention to the minimal information that is released about the algorithms and additionally attempt to determine further functionality through experimentation.
Google has a highly complex set of algorithms for serving search results, which also changes very frequently. Although Google doesn’t always publicly announce algorithm changes, there are a few elements that can be self-identified that impact SERPs. Much like social media, Google uses algorithms to sort data and feed the user-engaging content. While the platform now favours relevancy over recency, before major Google Core updates, this was not always the case. What specifically structures these are somewhat of a mystery, but what can be helpful to marketers is Google’s public explanation of what determines search results, including:
- The meaning and intent of a query,
- How relevant a particular webpage is to that query,
- The quality and reliability of the content,
- The usability of the page, and
- The context and settings related to the individual conducting the search.
Although we can never fully understand Google’s algorithms, as marketers, we can use what we do know to optimise sites for SEO purposes. As much as this may sound highly technical and confusing, the more you understand, the easier it is to navigate. An algorithm’s ability to assess vast amounts of data and effectively target individual needs makes them a special tool and an increasingly essential one for the success of any digital marketing campaign.
How to Beat the Algorithms
Platform algorithms are not built to throw a spanner in the works of your marketing plans. So rather than fighting against them, adapt and optimise your marketing efforts to give the algorithms what they want. The challenge is balancing what an algorithm demands and creating genuinely engaging and valuable content for your audience. While no algorithms are the same, there are some general yet effective ways you can work to outsmart the algorithms across all media platforms. Although SEO and social media tactics vary from one another, the consideration towards algorithmic structures remains just as important to understand.
1. Generate engagement from your audience
Engagement indicates relevancy, and understandably this is very appealing to platform algorithms. Essentially, the more engagement a post gets, the more likely it is to be rewarded by the algorithm. Engagement can be generated in a variety of ways depending on the platform and type of content. On social media platforms where users also circulate content, encouraging feedback, shares, and comments are valuable sources of engagement. Specifically, creating shareable content is extremely valuable, no matter what platform you use, as a tactic to prove to the algorithm that your site is valuable.
2. Choose hashtags wisely
The majority of platforms have advanced to the point where they can identify when hashtags are being used in a spammy format. While using hashtags in this manner is just poor practise, it can also cause your site or page to be penalised, ranked much lower on search engines and feeds.Choosing appropriate hashtags means choosing ones that add value to your content and the larger goal you are trying to achieve. This will mean you actually generate meaningful engagement, garner hashtag analytics, and are ultimately favoured by the algorithm.
3. Optimise your post timing
While algorithms no longer prefer recency, your content won’t garner engagement if posted on your chosen platform during quiet times. Timing is a significant factor, especially for boosting reach and beating algorithms on social media platforms. While the best time to post on social media depends on the platform and your audience, you can identify these specifics through online data and metric tools. Ultimately, posting at a time when your audience is most likely to be active means that your posts are much more likely to be seen and engaged with.
4. Publish content frequently
Understandably, appealing to the ‘relevancy’ factor of algorithms includes being relevant. This can be achieved by posting frequently and regularly engaging and building a relationship with your audience. Social media accounts, in particular, tend to reward accounts that post frequently. To keep up with this demand, planning through a content calendar can save a lot of time and confusion. This also includes web content, as Google’s algorithm prefers sites that frequently update articles, downloads and pages.
5. Publish more video content
Not only is there an outrageous amount of data indicating the appeal of video for users, but it can garner much more engagement than any other content type. When done well, videos are visually appealing, engaging and an easy way to digest content. For this reason, they generally stick around for longer, generate more interactions, and appear as highly relevant pieces of content.
6. Track audience behaviour
Your audience is the determining factor for your marketing campaigns success. If you don’t fully understand your audience and what appeals to them, there is no chance you will be able to reach them through the complex platform algorithms. Fortunately, user behaviour can be tracked to assist with the process of audience segmentation. The typical four tiers of targeting include geographic, demographic, interest and behaviour. While the first three can be understood through platform tools and dashboards, user behaviour can only be truly understood by considering the algorithms.
7. Understand the algorithms
The final and most crucial method to stay ahead of the algorithms is to understand them. At the same time, Google’s algorithms are constantly undergoing minor and unpublished changes, but they make major core updates publicly available. Therefore, analysing and understanding these major updates is vital as they can negatively impact your digital activity and marketing efforts. The most major historical change made was modifying the algorithms to prefer relevancy over recency. This change meant marketers had to drastically shift their focus and vastly improve the quality of their content, which is ultimately a great step forward for better practice in the marketing industry. You can stay up to date with these changes by reading the published reports, tracking changes, and understanding past updates. Social media platforms also modify their algorithms and platform structures regularly. While these algorithms have typically been built to value relevancy over recency, they certainly go deeper than this. In addition, while sometimes these platforms are transparent about their algorithms, they generally only reveal a small portion. So, any information they do release is worth paying attention to, and additional factors can be understood through experimentation. The fact is, algorithms are here to stay. They are the backbone of the functionality behind media platforms, and despite their flaws, they provide immeasurable benefits. For more marketing advice in the age of algorithms, visit Anchor Digital. As marketing experts, we understand the importance of staying up to date with industry trends, and we specialise across all relevant digital marketing fields. Contact us today for more information.