How Google is harming game of the year selections
By: Jeff Rivera
I'm a search engine optimization (SEO) specialist by trade, and I am constantly seeing how sites, including Gamer Theory, make concessions to perform better on search engines, most notably on Google. There are certain ways of writing and presenting your material that can make a site rank higher on Google for key search terms, and it's the reason why there's such a proliferation of top 10 lists, click bait editorials that make wild claims, and stories of seemingly low value to the reader.
Yes, search engines are basically a content director.
In order for a site to make money, it needs ad revenue. A site may charge advertisers a variety of ways, but the bottom line comes down to this: if you receive more pageviews than your competitors, you can generally charge more for ad placements or make more in ad clicks. If I am selling ad space on Gamer Theory (currently we don't court ads), my biggest selling point would be how many views those ads might get per day. The advertiser then evaluates how many clicks they can expect on that banner based on industry averages of ad click percentages. They also factor in exposure for ad impressions. If I can deliver clicks and impressions, they'll advertise with me.
One of the biggest searched for terms each year is "best games of XXXX," where XXXX is the current year. The searches begin modestly right in the middle of the year and ramp up quickly in November and peak in December. By January the searches start falling and they fade out as time goes on. This isn't unexpected behavior, aside from the fact that December is the peak month for "best game of the year" searches. December is still a key release month, yet people are already looking for game of the year award lists. Why? Because we've trained Internet users to look for our lists before all the games are actually out.
In the "first to publish gets the most clicks" mentality, publishing your game of the year awards before the competition means that you'll be able to capture more clicks. Every site owner with basic knowledge of search metrics tools knows this. The problem is compounded by Spike airing their VGAs in December, rather than January. People know that there will be a surge of Google queries for 2012 VGA results, so sites will try to get their own lists out around the same time to scoop up the extra search engine traffic.
Below are the search traffic numbers for the past 4 years for "best game of XXXX." December 2011 is the top moment on the chart, rated at 100/100. Everything else is relative to that month's performance. You can see that the pattern is ridiculously predictable. When would you want to publish your Game of the Year Awards? (click to enlarge chart)
So how is this hurting the quality of award selections? Well, it's easy: only the hardcore press is getting adequate time to play and publish their results; and even then, most editors only play a few of the nominated games. They hold roundtable discussions where editors argue for their selections and choices are either made via popular vote (as we do on Gamer Theory), or an EIC makes a call based on evidence presented.
This is problematic for many reasons. First, editors argue in favor of games they've played, but it's nearly impossible for an editor to know for sure that the game they argue for is indeed better than one they haven't played. Second, there's no time to replay or revisit games that were released early in the year due to the late rush of releases that fill up the Fall/Winter release schedule. Many games don't get a fair shake in this system. Finally, there's a huge slump of quality releases between the end of the year and March. It would be easy for editors to take time to properly evaluate 2012's offerings during late December, January, and February and to publish award lists in March or April.
But we don't do this. We won't do this, either. Even those of us that hate the publish in December system have to get on board, or at the very latest publish in January. We need it because we will die off without enough clicks. If we can't cover our hosting bills and operating costs, we simply can't survive. Heck, we can't even get into E3 if we don't meet a certain baseline for traffic, and missing out on E3 is disastrous to a small gaming site.
If we could push back our awards, everything would be for the better. Editors would be less stressed out while evaluating games, more games would get a fair shot at recognition, late-release games don't have to worry about being excluded, and early release games won't be forgotten. It's a shame, but Google's powerful sway is an impossible spell to break.
So yeah, look for our Best of 2012 Awards coming late December or early January. And please, forgive me for being pulled into the click race.