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Search Engines and the E-Cig

The perceptible shift in press treatment of the e-cigarette goes beyond occasional opinion pieces in major newspapers.

Search engines have much to do with the shaping of publicity, and when you enter e-cig as a keyword for an internet search, the SERP you get (that's “search engine results page”) is determined by the secret algorithm of the engine as well as its current ranking protocols.

When you enter “e-cig” on Google, you get the Wikipedia article first, followed usually by an ad for Blu (but not a sponsored link: it seems to be generated by actual hits, according to their algorithm that determines rank by degree of interconnection), and then a few other popular brand pages.

A few hits down from Wikipedia, you get a group of hits subtitled “News for e-cigarette”, that will have several (usually three) actual news articles or op-ed pieces from the past 24 hours. That's where Sally Satel's op-ed piece in the Washington Post appeared on Monday the seventeenth. Today, Tuesday the eighteenth, there was a National Public Radio blog about the popularity of candy-flavored vaping among teens. Not a pro-vaping piece, but apocalyptic hand-wringing was refreshingly at a minimum.

This news section typically has the usual sprinkling of local articles about municipalities considering public use bans, states considering sale-to-minors bans, and countries considering medicalisation.

Beyond the news subheading one finds the main body of hits, apparently popularity-driven, usually equally divided between promos for e-cig suppliers and vape shops on the one hand, and on the other hand jeremiads from smoking ban enthusiasts, fretting about everything from the dread “dual use” and “gateway”, on to vapers who leave their liquid bottles lying around open so that their children drink them, and of course those hapless bozos who charge their batteries in automotive cigarette lighters so they explode. (But not, blessedly, anti-freeze any more. Anti-vaping zealots seem to have finally given up on the effort to persuade the public that propylene glycol is what you put in your car's radiator.)

This is followed by “Images for e-cigarette”, with a row of photos of mods, celebrity vapers, and the like.

Below this will be the meatiest section of your SERP: “In-depth articles”, including lengthier treatments from major print publications and their online coordinates. Sometimes the same articles will appear for months in this section. Without being privy to the search engine's well-guarded algorithms, and so not knowing whether appearance and rankings here are popularity-driven (as regular hits are supposed to be) or determined by company-defined priorities, one can nonetheless make some guesses about the significance of changes here.

Recently some pieces critical of e-cigarettes, that have appeared in this space for months, seem to have disappeared, and the general tone of these “in-depth articles” appears to have turned in a direction more positive to the product. Whether this is hit-driven or company-determined, in either case the shift is very significant.

On Tuesday, February 18, 2014, the “in-depth” section includes ”The Case for Tolerating E-Cigarettes”, a December 12, 2013 op-ed piece from the New York Times by two Columbia University professors of Public Health (covered here on December 10), ”Has NJOY Changed E-Cigarette's Image?”, an extended, and tentatively positive, article from New York Magazine last April (when it appeared with the title “Smoke Without Fire”), and ”No Smoke Without Ire”, a positive treatment from the Manchester Guardian a year ago (which has been appearing in this spot for months without budging).

The “in-depth articles” segment of your SERP can be expanded by clicking a little plus sign, and most of the articles listed are fairly even-handed treatments of the pros and cons of the debate. The chronological spread of these articles leads one to believe that ranking may not be totally hit-driven, but the principles by which search engines determine such things remain shrouded in the mists (but not in smoke or vapor).