The Verge Writes About SEO

“In evolutionary theory, this is called the Red Queen phenomenon,” Malcolm said. “Because in Alice in Wonderland the Red Queen tells Alice she has to run as fast as she can just to stay where she is. That’s the way evolutionary spirals seem. All the organisms are evolving at a furious pace just to stay in the same balance. To stay where they are.”

That’s from The Lost World, by Michael Crichton. I loved reading it, back when I was in Junior College, and for some reason, this little excerpt has stuck with me.

I was reminded of it today, when I was reading an excellent article by Amanda Chicago Lewis in The Verge, on the topic of Search Engine Optimization.

You know what search engine optimization is, of course. Everybody does. But still, just in case:

SEO stands for “search engine optimization.” In simple terms, SEO means the process of improving your website to increase its visibility in Google, Microsoft Bing, and other search engines whenever people search for:

Products you sell.
Services you provide.
Information on topics in which you have deep expertise and/or experience.
The better visibility your pages have in search results, the more likely you are to be found and clicked on. Ultimately, the goal of search engine optimization is to help attract website visitors who will become customers, clients or an audience that keeps coming back.

Read that excerpt again, carefully, and see if you agree with me when I say that I find three bits especially important.

  1. SEO is the process of improving your website to increase its visibility in search engines.
  2. The better you are at SEO, the more likely you are to be found and clicked on.
  3. The ultimate goal of SEO is to have an audience that keeps coming back.

The reason I find these three bits to be especially important is because I think everybody would agree with the first bit. Your opinion about whether SEO is a good thing or a bad thing is very dependent on whether you think SEO ever gets to step 3, or just stops at step 2.

And most of us are increasingly under the impression that SEO stops at step 2, so much so that the “practice seems to have successfully destroyed the illusion that the internet was ever about anything other than selling stuff.”

Here’s a lengthy excerpt from the article:

Around this time, in 1997, an Italian professor published a journal article about what he called Search Engines Persuasion. “Finding the right information on the World Wide Web is becoming a fundamental problem,” he wrote. “A vast number of new companies was born just to make customer Web pages as visible as possible,” which “has led to a bad performance degradation of search engines.”

Enter Google. The company revolutionized search by evaluating websites based on links from other websites, seeing each link as a vote of relevance and trustworthiness. The founders pledged to be a neutral navigation system with no ads: just a clean white screen with a search box that would bring people off of the Google landing page and out to a helpful website as seamlessly as possible. Users quickly decided this link-based sorting methodology was superior to the existing search engines, and by the end of 1999, Google was handling the majority of online queries.

Almost as soon as Google took over, a secondary market emerged for links. For a few hundred bucks, a firm in India or the Philippines could provide thousands of links from blog networks built entirely for that purpose. It was easy: buy links that led to your site and watch your ranking in Google’s results rise.

I came to understand that, since the dawn of the internet, there have been people attempting to manipulate search and then people decrying those manipulations as the end of search’s ability to be useful. It works in cycles. People doing SEO find loopholes in the algorithm; critics complain about search results; search engines innovate and close the loopholes. Rinse, repeat.

And that, of course, is why I was reminded of the red queen phenomenon – because of the last paragraph in that excerpt.

There is one more reason this article is worth reading if you are a student of economics, and I’m sure some of the regular readers have figured it out already. Goodhart’s Law, of course! Remember, when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

How should one judge if a website is good or not? Google said that the best way to do it was by measuring the number of other websites that linked to this website. So the number of websites linking to a website was the measure of how good it was – SEO folks turned this into a target. And that, in a way, has resulted in the internet looking the way it does today. There’s much more to it than just that, of course – and an excellent way to get to all of it is by reading this lovely article.

Other things from the article I found interesting, in no particular order:

  1. Matt Cutts is a fascinating person.
  2. So is Danny Sullivan.
  3. What an anecdote!
    “Somebody showed up and brought her Aston Martin to a conference and parked it at the front door. Immediately got a parking ticket.” He suggested she might want to relocate the car before it got towed, but the woman told him she would just move it to the next parking spot and get another ticket. “She goes, ‘It’s cheaper for me to leave the car parked out front and use it as a way to start conversations with potential clients than it is for me to rent a suite at the hotel and get people to go to the suite to have the same conversation.’”
  4. Is E-E-A-T (Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness) a good substitute for other means of ranking search results?
  5. Remember the folks who stop at step 2?
    “Eventually, a site filled with computer-generated nonsense designed to maximize SEO will get removed from search results, Ray explained, but while it’s up, the creator might make as much as $50,000 or $100,000 a month. A lot of the people who did this, she said, live cheaply overseas in places like Bali and Chiang Mai. ”They make a bunch of money, that site dies, and they go do it again,” she said. “It’s like a churn and burn strategy. So if people are seeing those results, it can be very frustrating for users ‘cause it’s like, ‘This is terrible.’””
  6. This last bit I found to be very thought-provoking, in many different ways:
    “Google had started with a noble cause: trying to make the internet easier to navigate at scale. The company did accomplish that goal, but in doing so, it inadvertently and profoundly changed how the internet looked. The problem lay in Google trying to be an objective and neutral arbiter of an information landscape that was meant to pretend it did not exist. You cannot design a free, automated system to help people find information without some people trying to game that system. You can’t just be the most powerful observer in the world for two decades and not deeply warp what you are looking at.”

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