Beyond PR

Feb 23, 2012

Curation: The Human Touch vs. Algorithms

 “The State of Curation” session at Social Media Week NY was one of the best sessions I attended.  The speakers examined the human element of curating versus the promise (and drawbacks) of algorithms.

In other words, it’s people vs. robots in the ultimate battle for content delivery supremacy! OK, it’s probably not all that dramatic. But each side has its own imperfections.  Just as each has its strengths.

Let me be clear: Algorithms are great. Google is amazing. Think about your life before it. It’s more than a brand. It’s a verb. It changes everything we do.

Can you imagine searching the internet without search engine algorithms? It would be like walking down a dark hallway full of bookshelves that stretched for miles and miles. Put another way, it would make search annoying and quite possibly impossible. The internet would be a totally different experience.

But many critics of algorithms point to the fact that they focus too strongly on search engine optimization, or SEO. And they do. Algorithms are robots. (They don’t know any better!)

Algorithms don’t measure good content. They measure page views.  But, true engagement is not just about click-throughs.  By that I mean, let’s say a 1,000 people went to your website today. That’s great. But did any of them do anything? Did any of them spend money? Did they share what they found there? Did any of them engage? Site traffic is wonderful, but it can be very transient. And without engagement, there’s very little value in it.

What’s more, being good at SEO doesn’t mean you’re good at content. Unfortunately, the reverse also is true. Good content that can’t be found by the algorithms is kind of pointless. I mean, it’s nice that the content’s good and all. But who would ever read it? Who would ever share it? Who would ever engage with it?

The problem is context. Google knows a lot of things. But it doesn’t necessarily understand two pieces of contents’ relation to one another the way a human being does.  A search engine will never be as smart as a person who understands context. An algorithm can’t do what a curator does.

And, the best curators aren’t necessarily experts. Instead, they weave a narrative through unrelated things. Or as it was said during the panel: “Curation is the ability to get people to look at content they wouldn’t predict they’d find useful otherwise.” An algorithm can’t do that.

But as audience member, Meghan Butler pointed out on Twitter during the session, ‘perhaps human curation and algorithms aren’t mutually exclusive. Perhaps they can be used as complements to each other.’

I think she’s right. Algorithms couldn’t exist if people didn’t put things on the internet. And, we probably couldn’t find most of those things on the internet without the help of search engines.

Algorithms are imperfect, but they will get better when they have more people’s opinions on how to make them better. In other words, they need a human touch.

Author Tom Hynes is PR Newswire’s manager of blogger relations. And as you may have guessed, he has a twitter account.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Shiny Things.

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