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Soon we'll all answer to the 'Numerati'

Stephen Baker

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

TESS VIGELAND: Over the past few weeks you may have found yourself with many headaches, as I did, trying to understand credit default swaps or mortgage-backed securities.

Writer and commentator Stephen Baker has been trying to wrap his mind around a different set of mathematical innovations -- for pretty personal reasons. He wants to push his blog to the top of the Google rankings. And he says he's learned a lot in the process.


STEPHEN BAKER: A woman came into my office last week. She's an expert on what's called search engine optimization. In other words, she helps people adjust their websites by putting in just the right words in the right places so that they'll rise to the top of the search results on Google. This is important, because if you or your business shows up on the third or fourth page on Google, you might as well not exist. No one finds you.

She had some bad news for me. The headlines on my blog are terrible for Google. They have jokes in them, irony, references to things that only humans can understand. If I want to get a good Google ranking, I'll first have to make my case, and establish my relevance, to a machine.

I thought about this. In industry after industry, we're being understood and ranked by our data. If the machines cannot find us, the humans never will. Those who figure out best how to organize their data will pop to the top of all kinds of lists. They'll be the first name you see in online dating. They'll be the first choice for the promotion to the Paris office. They may even be the first dog trainer you come across.

For centuries, we developed all kinds of tricks to make ourselves stand out. A whiff of cologne, a firm handshake, a letter of recommendation, a resume with just the right font. That was how we made ourselves findable in the analog age. But now we live in a world defined largely by data. So we have to read the minds of the people who tell the machines what to look for. I call them the Numerati. We have to decode their instructions -- or algorithms -- and then give them what they're after. This type of analysis is going to become the norm in a world managed by the Numerati. If we need any help, you can bet than an entire consulting industry will rise up to help us make our case to machines and hone our own algorithms.

VIGELAND: Stephen Baker's new book is called "The Numerati." He's also a senior writer for BusinessWeek.

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All true, except for the suggestion that "an entire consulting industry will rise up" in the future to help us improve our search engine rankings. The fact is, that happened in the past, more than a decade ago.

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