Rankings started to be crucial to me back in 1996 when I jumped into the world of search engine optimization. Suddenly, the 10 blue links on a search results page took on critical importance.
The most important, naturally, was the first result. It turned on the tap for a flow of business many local organizations could only dream of.
My company once got a California Mustang parts retailer that number one ranking for “Ford Mustang Parts.” The official site of Ford -- Ford.com -- was number two. The California business did very well for a few years. We probably made them rich.
Then Google came along and the party was over. We soon found that as quickly as that tap could be turned on, it could also be turned off. We and our clients rode the stormy waters of multiple Google updates. We called it the Google dance.
Now that I’m in my second life (third? fourth?) as a tourism operator, I’m playing that ranking game again. This time it’s with TripAdvisor. You would not believe how important a top ranking in your category is here. Again, your flow of business can be totally at the mercy of how well you rank.
The problem with TripAdvisor is not so much with the algorithm in the background or the criteria used for ranking. The problem is with the delta between riches and rags. If you drop below the proverbial fold in TripAdvisor, your tourism business can shrivel up and die. One bad review could be the difference. I feel like I’m dancing the Google dance all over again.
But at least TripAdvisor is what I would call a proximate ranking site. The source of the rankings is closely connected to the core nature of the industry. Tourism is all about experiences, and TripAdvisor is a platform for experience reviews. There is some wiggle room there for gaming the system, but the unintended consequences are kept to a minimum. If you’re in the business of providing good experiences, you should do well in TripAdvisor. And if you pay attention to the feedback on TripAdvisor, your business should improve. This is a circle that is mostly virtuous.
Such is not always the case. Take teaching, for example. Ratemyprofessors.com is a ranking site for teachers and professors, based on feedback from students. If you read through the reviews, it soon becomes obvious that funny, relatable, good-looking profs fare better than those who are less socially gifted. It has become a popularity contest for academics.
Certainly, some of those things may factor into the effectiveness of a good educator, but there is a universe of other criteria given short shrift on the site. Teaching is a subtle and complex profession. Is a popular prof necessarily a good prof? If too much reliance is placed on ratings like those found on ratemyprofessors.com, will the need to be popular push some of those other less-rankable attributes to the background?
But let’s step back even a bit further. Along with the need to quantify everything comes a demand for transparency. Let’s step into another classroom, this time in your local elementary school. The current push is to document what’s happening in the classroom and share it on a special portal that parents have access to.
In theory, this sounds great. Increasing collaboration and streamlining the communication triangle between teachers, students and parents should be a major step forward. But it’s here where unintended consequences can run the education process off the rails. Helicopter parents are usually the most frequent visitors to these kinds of portals. They also dominate new communication channels now open to their children’s teachers.
And -- if you know a helicopter parent -- you know these are people who have no problem picking up the phone and calling the school administrator or even the local school board to complain about a teacher.
Suddenly, teachers feel as if they’re constantly under the microscope. They alter their teaching style and course content to appeal to the types of parents constantly monitoring them.
Even worse, teachers find themselves constantly interrupting their own lessons to document what’s going on to keep these parents satisfied. What appears to be happening in the classroom, as reported on social media, becomes more important than what’s actually happening in the classroom.
If you’ve ever tried to actively present to a group and also document what’s happening at the same time, you know how impossible this can be. Pity, then, the poor teacher of your children.There is a quote that is often (incorrectly) attributed to management guru Peter Drucker: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” The reality is a lot more nuanced. As we’re finding out, what you’re actually measuring matters a lot. It may be leading you in the completely wrong direction.