When It Comes to Investments -- and Google -- It Pays to Be Clear

Why It's Dangerous to Let Algorithms Report the News

By Published on .

The investment-adviser market is undergoing some major changes as baby boomers start reaching retirement age.

Lots of attention is being directed at marketing and branding efforts to differentiate one firm from another at a time when investment products and advisers are pretty interchangeable.

"Branding gives you a chance to extol your competitive virtues and let people know what you stand for," a marketing expert who works with financial-services companies told Ad Age sibling InvestmentNews.

The problem is that even if firms say they sustain wealth across generations or focus on making your money last, those claims still won't be much different from the other guy's.

What makes more sense is to really differentiate by broadening the services they offer. As I said in a column for the 10th anniversary of InvestmentNews, what's most exciting is the increasingly important role financial advisers are playing in their clients' lives, way beyond traditional investments.

After all, investment advisers have been trusted allies of their clients for many years. So when baby boomers reach retirement, they're going to reach out to their financial planners in new ways, like for advice on where to resettle -- a college town? By the sea?

Financial planners, I predict, increasingly will assume the roles of American Express Black Card concierges. Already, planners are helping clients find the right college for their children, and soon they'll assist in finding the most-satisfying second career or best fractional jet-ownership program.

Trust, of course, is the key ingredient, and that trust has been eroded by some financial companies that were less than forthcoming about the fine print of their mortgage and loan documents. And it will be difficult for clients to have faith in the stability of financial-service companies when they read about the massive write-offs in the subprime mess.

Financial companies can gain footholds among prospective clients by being very transparent about the details of their offerings. And if advisers don't insist on such candor, all that marketing and branding will fall on deaf ears.

Trust is, of course, of the utmost importance to all our publications, and it's very frustrating and troubling when we risk losing the confidence of readers through no fault of our own -- done in by algorithms from cyberspace.

Google picked up a story from the May 19 issue of InvestmentNews and rewrote the headline to make it sound like a congressman from Louisiana was charged with investment fraud.

As Editor Jim Pavia explained, "Apparently, Google's display protocol and its search algorithms ... erred. Their mistake was to truncate the original InvestmentNews sentence."

Jim contacted Google, which replied "There is nothing that Google can do to remove the offending content without the cooperation of the site's webmaster."

The Google "rewrite" has been picked up by the major internet blogs. One blog, Techcrunch, has received more than 784,000 page views since making mention of Google's headline revision.

What Jim did to remedy this situation was remove the "offending" reference from the electronic version of the story on our website. So when Google's web crawlers start trolling, they no longer will be able to accuse an innocent man of a crime.

Our IT guy, Paul Dalpiaz, says there are ways to outfox Google's search engines. "At the end of the day, it is all about abbreviations and the computer assuming an end of sentence."

What we did was abbreviate the word Louisiana to La. -- as in D.-La. -- to designate the congressman's affiliation. But Google's computers interpreted the word after the period as the beginning of a new sentence, leading to the false accusation. It's a lesson learned in the digital age.
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