What Google’s Search Result Changes Could Mean for Companies Everywhere

Originally featured in Strixus Magazine

The global market for SEO services is valued at over $46.6 million, yet the mere act of search engine optimization goes against Google’s guidelines. Of course, those guidelines have been ignored since the dawn of the internet, so why would anyone care now? 

Prior to Google becoming the go-to search engine around 2007, early internet adopters had over 1,600 search engines to play with — each with different ranking algorithms that they quickly learned to exploit. Nearly two decades later, SEO gurus continue to circumvent guidelines and find ways to use Google’s ever-changing algorithm to their advantage. But Google isn’t giving up.

In August, Google released the single biggest update to its search engine algorithm in years with the help of new AI and machine learning. The so-called “Helpful Content” update, followed by multiple “Spam Updates” designed to harm the rankings of content that doesn’t adhere to Google’s guidelines, has shaken things up for websites big and small. That has implications for anyone investing in SEO. 

Are You Going Against Google’s Guidelines? 

The mere act of creating content with its future search engine rankings as the primary focus contravenes Google’s guidelines. In fact, Google’s experts routinely remind people that writing for the human is the best way to see better rankings, but is that true? 

Search engine optimization hasn’t become profitable just by serving up empty promises. True SEO gurus have devoted years to intensely studying the algorithm and the hundreds of updates that are made every month. They closely track changes in rankings and split-test thousands of variables in order to pinpoint key ranking factors. Once that information is uncovered, it’s only a matter of time before it makes it into SEO checklists and is touted as a rule. 

Sometimes, SEO gurus manage to improve the overall quality of content on the web by pushing publishers to incorporate certain elements — like image alt text and multiple headings — in order for their content to remain competitive in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). Other times, they identify exploits that don’t actually improve quality or readability, and that’s when Google has to make yet another algorithm change to stay a step ahead.

Google’s latest guidelines have adapted to keep up with evolving definitions of “helpful content” and “spam content.” The former is vaguely described as content that offers a satisfying user experience. The latter is clearer, but perhaps controversial, with Google dubbing all of the following content as spam:

  • Content generated using extensive automation.
  • Content that merely summarizes other content on the web.
  • Content that is “fluffed up” to hit a specific word count.
  • Content that suggests an answer to a question that has no answer.

The question is, and always has been, whether or not Google’s search algorithm can confidently identify content that meets these definitions. For instance, how can Google say with any certainty whether an article was produced using one of the countless AI writing tools on the market today? As it turns out, while not perfect, the algorithm is stronger than ever. 

What’s in the Helpful Content Update? 

Google’s web crawlers are constantly reviewing and analyzing content, discovering more than 40 billion spammy pages every day. Last year alone, the company managed to reduce sites with scraped and auto-generated content by more than 80% compared to two years prior. This year’s Helpful Content update brought them another step closer to bringing spammy results down to zero. 

The goal of August’s algorithm update was to bring more original, helpful content to searchers. It was unique in many ways, but one of the most notable aspects is that Google explicitly told publishers that deleting potentially unhelpful content could help the rest of their content rank better. For SEO gurus who have believed in creating “topic clusters” and content chains for decades now, this suggestion emphasized that Google Search is headed in a new direction. 

In an attempt to give priority to content that’s written with a “people-first” mindset, Google laid out new guidelines. These include:

  • Ensuring that your site has a primary purpose or focus. 
  • Creating content that aligns with your primary audience’s needs and interests. 
  • Clearly demonstrating first-hand expertise and depth of knowledge when covering a topic. 
  • Enriching content with unique value not found elsewhere on the internet. 
  • Taking steps to make sure readers will feel satisfied and like they have learned enough after finishing your content.

If you find that your website isn’t in alignment with these priorities, taking strides to reform your existing content, and removing some of it altogether, could help you climb the SERPs. 

Is Google Trying to Drive Down the Value of SEO? 

The concept of search engine optimization will always present a conundrum. While Google advises publishers to never cater to the algorithm when creating content, the SEO priority will always persist as businesses feel pressured to stay on top of key ranking factors to remain competitive.

Google’s goal is not to get in the way of optimization, but to ensure that optimization does not get in the way of delivering quality content to readers. The Helpful Content update represents the single biggest improvement Google has ever made to align its algorithm with the needs of searchers. 

As a result of this year’s updates, even as individuals and SEO agencies continue to prioritize ranking factors over everything else, Google’s algorithm will help make sure those ranking factors intentionally push publishers to write more relevant and more valuable content that keeps the reader in mind.

Friendly Fire: Fighting Consumer Fraud With Machine Learning

Originally featured in Strixus Magazine

So-called “friendly fraud” has surged since the pandemic began with more than 44% of Britons and 66% of Americans admitting to filing chargebacks over the last 12 months. The problem is that friendly fraud rarely leads to consequences for consumers; instead, it forces business owners to foot the bill. 

As of this year, an astounding 94% of merchants say that friendly fraud is an issue for their business, but fewer than three in 10 have found a successful strategy for dealing with it. Friendly fraud doesn’t come cheap, either, with recent estimates pinning the annual cost at $125 billion.

In response to the chargeback crisis, brands like Mastercard and Visa are investing in artificial intelligence solutions that aim to fill the information gap between card issuers and merchants to eliminate the problem for good.

What is Friendly Fraud? 

The mechanism for requesting a chargeback exists to protect consumers from unauthorized transactions, like fraudulent purchases made by someone who stole their card information or recurring charges for a subscription that they previously canceled. However, roughly 63% of chargebacks fall under the category of “friendly fraud” because the disputes involve transactions that the cardholder did authorize. 

A consumer might dispute a legitimate transaction on their credit card or bank statement for any number of reasons, such as if they think it’s fraudulent or feel they are entitled to a refund. For instance, a consumer might initiate a chargeback if they don’t remember making a purchase, missed a return window, or simply didn’t like an item.

However, a shocking number of people are now using chargebacks as a way to “punish” merchants whose values differ from their own. An astonishing 44% of U.S. consumers have admitted to doing just that, dubbing it “chargeback activism.” Friendly fraud is also surging for crypto and buy now, pay later (BNPL) transactions for far less noble reasons — simply because consumers don’t want to pay. 

“Consumers on both sides of the Atlantic increasingly see chargebacks as simply part and parcel of the retail process — a protection they’re entitled to avail themselves of if they feel in any way disappointed by their shopping experience,” says Roenen Ben-Ami, co-founder of tech startup Justt. Unfortunately, the impact on merchants is anything but trivial.

How Much Does Friendly Fraud Cost Businesses?

Merchants generally have 45 to 60 days to work with a card issuer to prove that a transaction was authorized, but this process adds to a business’s overhead costs. What’s more, merchants must pay a fee for every dispute, which can range from $20 to $100 or more per chargeback. Plus, even if the business is successful in canceling the chargeback, this fee is not refunded.

Once fees, labor, and lost merchandise are factored in, it’s estimated that merchants lose an average of $240 for every $100 in chargebacks.

Now, with friendly fraud increasing at such an astonishing rate, disputes are putting greater financial strain on businesses that have already had to overcome two trying years. 

Regardless of why a consumer files a chargeback, merchants are rarely given the option to make things right. Even though more than half of consumers say that generous return policies would make them change their chargeback habits, nearly 60% of consumers didn’t even reach out to the merchant before filing a claim.

To consumers, chargebacks are better than going to the merchant because the filing process is quick and painless: Their money is credited immediately and they don’t have to deal with returning faulty or unwanted items. This lure of convenience combined with new ulterior motives like chargeback activism have driven friendly fraud to new highs. Now, businesses are desperate for a means to fight back. 

Fighting Fraud With Machine Learning

Almost half of all instances of friendly fraud are the result of mere misunderstandings, like a consumer not recognizing the billing descriptor on their credit card statement. For this reason, fraud-prevention platforms are investing heavily in sophisticated products backed by machine learning. The biggest players include Mastercard’s Ethoca, Visa’s Verifi, and tech innovators like Justt

Using collaborative networks, fraud-prevention platforms pull data from card issuers, partners, and merchants to provide real-time insights into potential fraud. By identifying the merchants associated with transactions, pinpointing when and where purchases were made, and even breaking down fees that may have created confusion over a price discrepancy, businesses are armed with the information they need to handle transactions more effectively.

These platforms are also attempting to tackle the issue of chargeback activism and instances where consumers just don’t want to pay. As more data is added to these networks, merchants can be warned of serial chargeback filers to deny or cancel transactions before friendly fraudsters have the chance to cost them time and money.

Everyone Benefits, Except Fraudsters  

Honest consumers stand to benefit from these solutions, too. Information on confirmed fraud and recent customer disputes is shared to notify merchants if a purchase was likely unauthorized. This allows the business to issue an immediate refund before the cardholder ever gets involved. In turn, the consumer gets their money back sooner while the business can avoid complaints and fees altogether. 

While solutions are still evolving, these technological advancements are finally helping businesses gain the upper hand when it comes to fighting the friendly fraud crisis.

What Dropbox’s Generous Parental Leave Policy Proves

Originally featured in Strixus Magazine

Decades of child development research demonstrate the importance of early attachment, yet the United States is just one of six countries where paid parental leave remains a rare privilege. This leaves it up to employers to do the right thing, but biases are holding families back. 

As of 2021, just 23% of civilian workers in the U.S. had access to paid parental leave. Employers against such policies often cite budgetary strain, but 41% of people admit they simply think working moms are less devoted to their jobs — and it’s misconceptions like these that are proving detrimental to families everywhere. 

In a rare exception to the rule, all Dropbox employees are entitled to 24 weeks of paid new child leave. That means birthing, non-birthing, and adoptive parents can all benefit from the industry-leading policy and, upon returning to the office, Dropbox also offers supports to help them transition back into the workplace. 

On the surface, the generosity of such a policy might be clouded by assumptions about its financial ramifications, but Dropbox and countless others are holding firm that paid parental leave is a key component to long-term success for employee and company alike. 

Are People Against Parental Leave?

In a 90-page Human Rights Watch report titled “Failing Its Families,” working mothers shared their experiences regarding job seeking, employment, and time off. The report states: “Many women said that merely revealing they were pregnant and requesting leave triggered tensions with employers, and sometimes demotions or pay cuts.” 

Paula R., an attorney, took only five weeks of unpaid maternity leave after birthing her daughter and, upon returning to work, discovered that someone else had been hired in her place, and her boss had given him Paula’s office. From that point, Paula was expected to work in the conference room. “I think once you’ve taken a leave as a working mother you’re always viewed as a flight risk. Like you’re not really putting your job first,” Paula said.

Another mother named Judith K. shared this: “[My boss] just felt like he’d done some great service to society allowing me a three-month unpaid leave … They gave pay increases to others, and felt giving three months off was enough for me. They didn’t send me to conferences. People think you’re not committed to work or a dependable employee.”

With story after story echoing these sentiments, it is no wonder why one in five women say they are nervous to tell their employers that they are pregnant. Another one in four say they are concerned about how colleagues will perceive them once they have children. Both fears stem from decades of unfair treatment of parents in the workplace. 

Up until 1993, working parents who took unpaid leave may have been terminated on the spot, or return to find that someone else had taken their position. Nearly 30 years ago, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) finally forced employers to let parents take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave — a monumental achievement at the time, but regulations have barely moved much in the decades since. 

What’s more, roughly 44% of U.S. workers don’t even qualify for the bare minimum benefits offered by the FMLA since it excludes part-time employees and smaller businesses. As a result, more companies are taking matters into their own hands. 

Why Dropbox Takes a Family-First Approach

Companies like Dropbox say that even though the numbers supported their decision to enact paid parental leave, the desire to put people first was their primary motivation. 

“At Dropbox, we believe people do their best work in a culture that supports the whole person, and we’ve worked hard to establish policies and benefits that aim to help all Dropboxers thrive,” says Melanie Collins, the company’s chief people officer.

In addition to 24 weeks of paid time off upon the birth or adoption of a new child, Dropbox also gives parents a transitional week upon returning to the workplace. During this week, returning parents only have to work 60% of the expected time, and they still receive a full paycheck.

Not long after Dropbox implemented its policy, the company was able to share its impact with a first-hand account from Devin Didericksen, a father who says the policy changed his family’s life.

“My wife was only 28 weeks along when she gave birth to my son, who was born at just 2.5 lbs and spent over two months in the NICU,” Devin recalled. His son was discharged just before Christmas fully recovered, along with his spouse. However, as Devin approached the end of his 24-week parental leave period, the idea of suddenly adopting a 40-hour work week again proved daunting.

To help him transition back, Devin’s manager worked with him to schedule two-day work weeks until he was ready to be back full-time. “I feel very grateful to work for a company that cares so much about their employees,” Devin said.

According to the American Psychological Association, policies like these are exactly what the workforce needs.

“Mothers fare better when they have paid time off after giving birth, including a 51% decrease in the risk of rehospitalization,” the APA writes.

The APA also enumerated countless mental health benefits associated with paid parental leave, adding: “Women who aren’t able to take as much time off — especially those who return to work in under two months — face more depressive symptoms and more marital and self-esteem problems … Even two to three years later, women who took shorter maternity leaves report more psychological distress.”

Back in the office, paid parental leave also has a measurable impact on the bottom line. One study of more than 1,500 employers found that over 70% reported an increase in employee productivity after enacting paid parental leave policies. What’s more, an astounding 80% reported an increase in employee morale. 

Moving Beyond Policy

Countless employees at Dropbox and beyond have been empowered by paid parental leave policies. Yet even with 82% cross-party support for a federal program, it is still in the hands of companies to deliver the rights that parents so desperately need. The question is, how do we put the stigma aside and actually start giving working parents the tools they need to have a healthy family and a successful career?

PayPal Answered the Call for Fair Pay, Now Others Are Following Suit

Originally featured in Strixus Magazine

If you could pull out a timeline of capitalism, one of its most dramatic shifts would be pinned in the year 1981 as Reginald Jones stepped down as CEO of General Electric, allowing Jack Welch to take his place. Welch went on to devote the next 20 years of his life to reshaping the company — and the economy — with his stark display of iniquity. 

In his book, David Gelles dubbed him “The Man Who Broke Capitalism” because Welch went down in history as the first CEO to use offshoring, outsourcing, and mass layoffs as a tool for growth. His management strategy could be summed up as “cheap labor at all costs” and — at the expense of every generation of working-class citizens since — his method became the de facto corporate model. 

Forty years later, while Welch’s imprint is a long way from disappearing, it is beginning to fade. Amid the cost-of-living crisis, a handful of executives remind us that the country’s wealth is becoming increasingly concentrated amongst one small slice of the population — and they’re actually doing something to disburse it.  

Why the Minimum Wage Isn’t Enough

Had the minimum wage kept up with increases in economic productivity, it would be set to $26. Instead, it hasn’t budged since 2009, when it was locked in at $7.25 an hour. That means a minimum-wage job at 40 hours per week adds up to a measly $15k per year, putting those workers scarcely above the poverty line.

Recognizing that the federal minimum wage simply isn’t enough to live on, more states have begun enforcing their own minimum wages. California has the highest at $15/hour (which adds up to $31k annually), but the difference in pay is nullified by extra expenses since the state’s cost of living averages $46,636 a year. 

Even for states like Connecticut and Massachusetts, which plan to match California’s minimum wage starting in 2023, the increases barely keep up with workers’ expenses. Still, these attempts are ever so slightly better than places that aren’t trying at all — like in the 32 other states where the minimum wage remains less than $10.50/hour. 

So if the minimum wage isn’t enough, what is? More private corporations are beginning to take it upon themselves to answer that question. Leaders like Dan Schulman, CEO of PayPal, say they would have acted a lot sooner if they had only been more in touch with the everyday worker. 

Giving New Definition to the Living Wage

Traditionally, the term “living wage” has been used to describe a pay rate high enough to cover health care, child care, taxes, housing, and food. However, the calculation leaves no room for eating out, entertainment, or savings. 

What’s more, since the actual cost of living ranges widely from one region to the next, it’s nearly impossible to peg down a true living wage. These reasons are precisely why Schulman, who became CEO of PayPal in 2014, decided that he needed a metric much more practical and transparent. 

At a company that’s now worth roughly $93 billion, Schulman assumed everyone at PayPal was being fairly compensated but he soon became aware that some 10,000 employees could hardly make ends meet. So in an attempt to define a healthy wage, Schulman collaborated with a handful of nonprofit and academic groups to create the NDI or “net disposable income” metric. 

Through months of research and surveys, Schulman and his colleagues determined that an NDI of 20% was an acceptable standard to cover all essential expenses (including clothes, school supplies, and healthcare) while still leaving enough for a household to save for the future. Now Schulman is challenging other companies to do the same. 

Using Data to Inspire Action

When Schulman first used the new NDI metric to assess PayPal’s compensation data, it revealed that roughly half of PayPal’s employees had an NDI of just 4%. In response, the company immediately raised wages for employees with low NDIs and introduced a program to help workers learn the ins and outs of managing, saving, and investing their money. 

PayPal then went a step further, giving every employee an opportunity to own PayPal stock. Schulman also introduced a $5 million fund to help workers cover unexpected expenses like car repairs and medical bills. Then PayPal cut healthcare costs by 60% for its lowest-paid workers, allowing them to take home bigger paychecks. 

Some months later, PayPal sent out its survey again to find that the lowest NDI had quadrupled to 16% and most targeted employees had successfully topped the 20% mark of financial security. With that, Schulman approached Brian Niccol, CEO of Chipotle, and encouraged him to measure his employees’ financial health with the same marker.

Upon discovering that many of Chipotle’s workers were also living paycheck to paycheck, Niccol didn’t hesitate to act. Employee wages were increased by nearly 20% to an average of $15/hour, plus the company bolstered benefits, introducing education reimbursement and debt-free degrees. In the months to follow, Niccol’s report was enthusiastic. “We’ve seen just a dramatic change in people’s retention as well as their confidence in their future,” he said.

The Shift in Corporate Thinking

Given the initial success of Schulman’s program, PayPal partnered with JUST Capital last year and, in collaboration with the Financial Health Network and the Good Jobs Institute, they established The Worker Financial Wellness Initiative. 

Within months, major corporations like Chobani, Even, Prudential Financial, and Verizon joined the initiative. Earlier this year, Synchrony also jumped on board, which means the initiative now represents over 800,000 American workers. 

Outside of the initiative, other corporations also say they are taking strides towards improved compensation but public outcry says it is far from enough.

Years ago, Amazon bumped its starting wage to $15/hour for all positions and they have been lobbying Congress to match it ever since. However, recent accusations against the retail giant cite unsafe working conditions, union-busting tactics, and exhausting productivity targets.

Following union complaints, walk-outs are now happening at Amazon facilities around the world. Stateside, protesting employees are demanding paid breaks, better medical leave, and a $30/hour minimum wage. 

Amazon workers have even been joined by the “People Over Prime Coalition,” which consists of 70 TikTok Creators with a combined 51 million followers. 

Until changes are realized, the coalition has sworn to prevent Amazon from monetizing their personal brands and — they hope — all of TikTok, a platform that generated millions in revenue for Amazon last year. 

An Outdated Ideology

Public movements such as this one in combination with the growing roster of companies joining Schulman’s initiative evince one thing: There is little room left for ideologies like Welch’s in today’s America. 

Whether business leaders are inspired by their own ethics, or forced to change their ways amid worker shortages and retaliation, wages are now rising at their fastest rate in decades and it seems the public is prepared to fight for more.