Enter a few keywords in a popular search engine and it will appear there are infinite results for any term. But actually, there are plenty of “search data voids.” That is, there are many search terms where there is little quality or relevant content in the search engine’s database. Some of the available information may be inaccurate or present a deeply troubling fringe view.
In a recent article published in Data & Society, authors Michael Golebiewski and Danah Boyd labeled these as “data voids,” drawing attention to "situations where searching for answers about a keyword returns content produced by a niche group with a particular agenda."
Wired picked up on this phenomenon in an article on the complexity of searching for medical information. Commenting on the article on Twitter, Matt Cutts noted that when he was at Google, he called the phenomenon of data voids “the evil unicorn problem.”
When I was at Google I called this the "evil unicorn problem" (because there's not much content for evil unicorns, but you can still search for that), but "keyword voids" is much more evocative. An important piece by @noUpside https://t.co/oUMxUhvLQb
— Matt Cutts (@mattcutts) July 5, 2018
He called the "data voids" this because you can still search on the topic, but you will find little content on it. These data voids represent both a threat for those who rely on search for business and information in their daily lives and an opportunity for those that can supply information to fulfill users' appetites.
Opportunities for Exploitation of Search Data Voids
By focusing attention on developing machine learning algorithms that can interpret the user’s intent, search engines have conditioned the searcher to expect to find the answer to their query on the first page of the search results.
There is a problem with this for queries that are “data voids.” Where there is no quality information for the search engine to return in response to the query, those promoting fringe ideas or with malicious intent can flood the results with seemingly authentic or authoritative information and virtually own the first page of results.
Golebiewski provides a somewhat chilling discussion of how these “data voids” can be weaponized by adversarial actors. The search engine companies are actively searching for ways to continue to provide access to content while minimizing the potential that the searcher will fall upon potentially harmful content.
As responsible members of the search ecosystem, it is incumbent on all search marketers to do what we can to promote a healthy ecosystem.
All Things Unicorn
A “data void” presents a zone of opportunity for both evil actors and for those that want to expose content connected to their brand. Prompted by the label “evil unicorns,” I personally started looking for unicorns. No! I know they are mythical and unreal, but just try telling that to a child.
With access to a voice-activated digital assistant, a child could easily query: “Where do unicorns sleep?” or “What color is a unicorn’s hair?”
The first query offers ample child-friendly content. The second on hair color provides information on how to dye one’s hair into a unicorn hairstyle. This would not serve as an answer for a child looking for what color to select to use on the unicorn in their coloring book.
Using the same powerful tools used by bad actors to weaponize fringe medical or political ideas, a clever entrepreneur could rapidly create a brand or content vertical based on a data void (such as The Unicornacopia) or build an online retail presence. By creating a meme in social media and a pool of quality relevant content, the same entrepreneur could capture top search results and any business attendant with it.
Not sure how to find a “data void?” You need to watch what auto-suggest returns and you’ll find these unicorns.
The purpose of this blog is to provide insights and tips for how to use search profitably. It will cut through the volumes of information that threaten to overwhelm the busy marketer and will focus on what is truly important for making search work.