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How Amazon and Google are collaborating to ruin search results

(TECHNOLOGY) Google remains the primary search tool in the market, and they’re complicit in allowing Amazon to dominate the search results.

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If you’ve tried looking up products in which you’re interested lately, you’ve probably noticed that the majority of the top search results come from Amazon. While this isn’t terribly surprising given Amazon’s status as the largest online retailer in the United States, Monji Dolon has come to a startling realization regarding the phenomenon – and it’s something to which everyone should start paying attention.

Dolon, CEO and cofounder of Measured (a “consumer health startup”) posits that Amazon has had a profound (and negative) effect on the process of researching products. What’s worse is that Google, once a shining paradigm of search excellence, seems to be in on the joke.

In his experience of searching for bicycles under $500, Dolon ran into a seemingly innocuous article comparing ten different bikes. These kinds of articles (usually framed as “Top Ten [Product] Under [Price]”) are ubiquitous in consumer search results, and they offer what appears to be a variety of options. Knowing this, Dolon selected the article for further reading.

At this point, Dolon observed two key problems.

Firstly, the website on which the bicycle comparison appeared was an architecture publication. “Why, pray tell, are they reviewing bicycles? Your guess is as good as mine,” Dolon says, expressing the kind of incredulity that should accompany this kind of dissonance.

But secondly, and more to the point, Dolon noticed that the bikes listed in the article were all linked to Amazon’s inventory using affiliate links, meaning that the website receives a small commission each time a consumer uses one of the links to complete a purchase.

“[The use of affiliate links] goes quite well with the dozen or so ads plastered across the site (some of which are autoplaying videos with sound),” says Dolon.

As far as unbiased, complete research goes, the bicycle article itself fails on all fronts – and it isn’t the only one. Dolon reports that “of the results shown on the first page for ‘best bicycles under $500,’ I found that 8 out of 10 websites only list products found on Amazon using affiliate links.”

“Amazon has a limited selection of bikes in their catalog and many of the more reputable brands are completely left out of these review sites,” he adds. With Google bringing up such a myopic list of results for what should be a widely varying search query, Dolon’s premise – that Amazon and Google are collaborating to ruin the free research process – seems fair.

It isn’t fair to hold Google as accountable as Amazon, though. As culpable as the Alphabet search engine may be, Dolon notes that Amazon is still present in other search engine results for the same request – if not quite as egregiously so.

“[I]f you’re curious how DuckDuckGo compares, the results were (arguably) slightly better,” he reports. “While the first result is still an Amazon affiliate review site, I did see some of the other, bigger brands mentioned on other results.”

Amazon is clearly a convenient service, one which heavily influences product results simply by virtue of ease of use – and that’s a bigger problem than Google can be held responsible for.

For example, my recent search for highly rated woks yielded a New York Magazine comparison article on which the vast majority of recommended products are – you guessed it – available on Amazon. While the article in question offers actionable advice and does not appear to incorporate affiliate links, it still serves the purpose of largely confining one’s possible purchases to Amazon without considering much in the way of alternative solutions.

In academia, the key principle in any effective research is variety. If one is unable to retrieve comparable information from different sources, the credibility of one’s research suffers.

Unfortunately, this principle also extends to consumer research – and with Google and Amazon doing their respective best to become monopolies in their fields, any collaboration between the two is worrisome, not to mention counterproductive to organic, rich, varied research results.

As we continue to compare and contrast the products we consume, it may be time to ditch the first couple of pages of search results in favor of finding less-biased, less-Amazon-prone products. The alternative, Dolon fears, is an environment in which consumers oscillate between Google and Amazon with no true variety elsewhere.

Google once put great efforts into punishing site scraping and rewards originators of content, and millions of other algorithm updates have proven their ability to evolve – their search product could easily devalue “articles” featuring numerous Amazon affiliate links. But they won’t.

“Google, like many of the other tech giants, benefits from an uninformed user base,” he warns.

Jack Lloyd has a BA in Creative Writing from Forest Grove's Pacific University; he spends his writing days using his degree to pursue semicolons, freelance writing and editing, oxford commas, and enough coffee to kill a bear. His infatuation with rain is matched only by his dry sense of humor.

Real Estate Technology

How deepfake images could infiltrate the market

(REAL ESTATE TECH NEWS) The rise in quality of deepfakes has even lead to the development of fake images in geography and housing. Here’s what to look out for.

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A digital map open on a computer, where one has to be wary of fake images.

With the onset of the computer age, we have seen a great deal of false information spreading around the world. From photoshopped images to presidents broadcasting fake information, there is a lot to be wary of. The internet is rife with data that truly needs to be verified at any given turn. The dangerous part is not only what people can do with that information, but also how they can hide things with it.

Satellite imagery has been on the rise for a few decades. An image that is already grainy and hard to see would be child’s play to alter. Maybe even to create from scratch. Tagging GPS coordinates are a simple alteration inside of photoshop too. Fakes, upon fakes, upon fakes.

In 2019, the US military warned about the possibility of fake geographical information being perpetuated across the internet. It then actually came true to the embarrassment of the Chinese government. Satellite “evidence” was used to report detention camps hidden away in the countries. The “camps” turned out to be re-education facilities for China’s mentally deviant populace. However, that’s another rabbit hole to run down. The point here is that the images that were released in 2015 showed absolutely no facility and then pictures in 2018 showed a massive facility.

An assistant professor, Bo Zhao, with the University of Washington decided to illustrate this again with a study. His opinion was “the first step to tackling these issues is to make people aware there’s a problem in the first place”. He and his colleagues published a paper on “deep fake geography.”

They conducted experiments in generating and detecting imagery for suburban homes, which clearly demonstrated the affect of this technology on our economy. They were able to easily convert the shape and layout of a neighborhood in their images.

From this work we have a few new terms to be aware of. Threats of “paper towns” and “trap streets” are two of the new resounding terms. These new ideas can lead to a modicum of potential issues. The team actually created a software that has the ability to create these fake images. They did the work themselves, leading one to believe that the basic knowledge is there for anyone with a little know-how.

The moral of the story is, don’t trust anything from the internet. It’s all an opinion coming from some other flawed human being, and you don’t ever really know why people are putting that information out there. Always know and check your sources.

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Real Estate Technology

Value privacy? DuckDuckGo is the answer to breaking up with Google

(TECHNOLOGY) DuckDuckGo is a search engine that doesn’t listen to home recordings, sell you stuff, or track your every movement. They just provide search results.

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A popular Wired editorial caught our eye, urging folks to consider using DuckDuckGo instead of Google. We continue revisiting this story. And as someone who does use DuckDuckGo as my default search engine, it made me smile.

In the modern world of telecommunications, the only real currency is trust. When you buy an iPhone or an Android, you’re not really buying a set of features. You’re buying assurance that the cell phone company you’ve chosen isn’t going to screw you over too badly. You have a device in your pocket that tracks you, everywhere you go.

Even when you have location services off, your smartphone knows where you are through a combination of the Wi-Fi networks nearby and your phone’s motion sensor. Here’s an article from nearly a decade ago talking about how this process is 90% accurate. How much better do you reckon it’s gotten since then?

The thing is, Apple and Google both kinda suck at the privacy thing. Here’s an article about Siri recordings being made when Siri isn’t meant to be turned on, and the quality assurance contractors who then have to listen to people having sex. (Apple is ending the contractor program, after a public outcry.) Here’s an article about a big ol’ leak of Google Home recordings, many of which were made without the user activating Google Home. Here’s an article about Amazon leaking 1,700 audio recordings from someone’s Alexa to a complete stranger!

So your phone companies don’t really protect you that well. Apps take advantage of this too. If you still have the FB app, you should probably delete it! Here’s a story about a psychiatrist realizing that Facebook was suggesting that her patients add each other!

So privacy matters, and Google sucks at it. Google is also a HUGE business. It’s an enormous company that wields so much influence on ours lives that there is an entire industry now called “search engine optimization” dedicated to unraveling its whims.

And what whims! One major update a few weeks ago caused a 30-40% drop in traffic for some websites. These updates are pretty opaque, and a whole constellation of websites has arisen to help the search engine optimization workers (or SEOs, for short) untangle what those updates mean, and why their traffic has suddenly gone down.

And at this point, Google only kinda wants to serve you results. Mostly they wanna serve you ads, and highly-optimized shopping results. One of the big problems facing SEO workers right now is that you can bust your ass to get a company to the front page of results, and it may not matter if you don’t crack the top 3. Because people do most of their Internetting on their phones now, and ads take up most of the screen space when someone Googles.

So Google isn’t great at privacy AND their priorities are skewed. But this is an article about DuckDuckGo, right? And we’ve barely covered it! So let’s talk about that a little.

DuckDuckGo doesn’t save your searches. It forgets everything you search. And you know what? That feels incredible. There are drawbacks. When I type the letter L into DuckDuckGo, it doesn’t immediately suggest “Leonard Bernstein shirtless” like Google does. But the ten seconds it takes to type that out is worth the knowledge that my data isn’t being stored by my search engine.

And yes, Google pours a ton of money and attention into their algorithms, and they’ve got a years-long head start on DuckDuckGo. But usually, DuckDuckGo still manages to get me exactly what I want. Sometimes, it’s even better at giving me what I want. Because it’s not serving me ads, or trying to second-guess me. It just…gives me the thing I asked for.

There are still some instances that send me to Google. If I’m looking for a specific image or gif, for instance. Or if I’m looking for a certain news story. And there are certain niche searches where Google’s experience is necessary. But for the vast majority of what I need, DuckDuckGo is there, serving up only what I want and protecting my privacy while it does. And it feels GREAT.

This story was first published in December 2019.

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Real Estate Technology

20 of the best free professional tools for your business

(TECHNOLOGY) Running a small business is a ton of work and you need all the help you can get. Here are 20 free tools that help make it a little easier.

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When running your business, big or small, you’re only as good as what’s in your arsenal. This applies to your ability to be creative and think on your feet, as well as to having tangible tools at your disposal.

Below, we’ve outlined 20 of the top free tools that are designed to help grow your business – let us know in the comments what you love or what you’d add!

  1. Google Analytics – this is a definite need. With the world continuing to grow more and more digital, it’s necessary to know how your business is operating in the online realm. Google Analytics provides data about your small business, including traffic to your site and clicks on links. It gives you an idea of who is visiting and when, allows you to track your goals, and generate audience reports. Google also offers virtual classes that teach you how to master the platform.
  2. Hotjar – want to understand exactly how visitors are using your site without getting lost in the shuffle of numbers and data? Hotjar is where it’s at. You can see a user’s behavior and their exact process of perusing the site. There are also tools like feedback polls that allow your audience to interact with you when using your site.
  3. Canva – this is one of the best visual tools to create graphics for your company, both to print for physical display and to use on social media. The platform is easy-to-use and allows for a myriad of sizing options, backgrounds, and stock images.
  4. ProProfs Help Desk – this is a ticketing system that allows your visitors to contact customer service and start a thread of communication; all while keeping everything ticketed and organized. This also allows for shared inboxes, ticket resolution via chat, and ticket reduction up to 80 percent with knowledge base.
  5. JungleScout – this is your best friend when it comes to learning to sell on Amazon. Regardless of where you are in your seller journey, this tool will help you maximize your skillset.
  6. Kickstarter – crowd sourcing for your business without giving away the equity. This lets you recruit micro-investors and donors for your new business venture.
  7. MailChimp – This is an all-in-one tool that is necessary for all small business users. According to their website, “Bring your audience data, marketing channels, and insights together so you can reach your goals faster. With Mailchimp, you can promote your business across email, social, landing pages, shoppable landing pages, postcards, and more — all from a single platform.”
  8. Shopify – this platform has helped over one million businesses around the world and is continuing to help small businesses thrive. Shopify allows users to create and design an ecommerce website that is backed by helpful tools that help discover new customers, drive sales, and manage your business’s day-to-day operations.
  9. Buffer – provides simple social media tools that receive authentic engagement. Tell the story of your brand while growing your audience. The platform includes publishing, analytics, and engagement.
  10. Qualaroo – this is a customer and user feedback software that states its value as ten times higher than email surveys. It comes with what you need for useful feedback, including AI-powered analytics and reports.
  11. Zapier – a platform to connect your apps and automate workflow. Zapier moves information automatically between your web applications, allowing for more focus on the most important work.
  12. Doodle – a scheduling platform that allows meetings to be booked faster and smarter. No more need for an hour of back-and-forth emailing in order to nail down a meeting time.
  13. Docracy – a home for contracts and other legal documents, created by the community that uses them. The idea is to make these common documents easily available for everyone.
  14. Slack – the ideal way to communicate with your team and keep everyone on the same page at all times. This is a central communication hub where you and your team will stay in the loop, ask questions, and share updates.
  15. GoDaddy Website Builder – this is an extremely user-friendly tool that allows you to build websites that looks as though you paid someone hundreds to build it for you. There’s many options for customization, and they have the tools that help your site look great on both desktop and mobile.
  16. ToDoIst – For many, it’s impossible to stay organized without use of a to do list. With this tool, you (and your team!) can stay organized with the most important tasks and priorities.
  17. Grammarly – When writing copy for your business’s brand, it is important to have as many eyes read through it as possible for any errors. Grammarly is a tool where you can plug your copy in and it will automatically find and highlight any grammar errors or typos. You can never be too careful!
  18. AdobeSign – Formerly known as EchoSign, this tool allows for paperless signatures that help make signing contracts and agreements as easy as the swipe of a finger.
  19. Sumo – a platform filled with tools to help you grow your website. It’s a free email capturing tool that takes only seconds for sign up.
  20. Pixabay – We don’t always have the time or the money to take photos to go along with our website copy and social media posts. Pixabay helps alleviate that need with free stock images that will help your message pop.

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