Search Engine Optimization and the Race to the Bottom

In the Radar back-channel, Wesabe’s Marc Hedlund points us to a provocative post by Merlin Mann likening today’s obsession with Google search rankings to cargo cults. Indeed, the desire for high rankings on a Google search page and the implied financial returns from that is making us do crazy things: making headlines boring, giving incorrect information up top in an article to steal attention, even — and this pains me as a former copy editor — abandoning the active voice. (On a related note, Ian Kallen of Technorati has a trenchant but hilarious talk that he delivered at a recent San Francisco Ignite, in which he likened comment spam, an extreme of SEO, as a battle between good and evil.)

One of my favorite pieces we’ve run this year in Release 2.0 — and one I believe is relevant to the search engine optimization (SEO) issue — is Nat Torkington’s warning of the dangers inherent in building a business on someone else’s API, an expanded version of his Six Basic Truths of Free APIs post for Radar. He argues, conclusively, that API owners can change their platforms any way they want any time they want, and building anything atop such APIs without explicit written assurances from the owner of the API is a sure way to fail. (As a generation of young Facebook developers will soon find out for themselves, it’s very easy for platform owners to compete and win against independents. It’s no accident that the most successful software built atop Microsoft Windows is Microsoft’s own Office suite.)

In a sense, Google’s PageRank system works like an API. Google has complete control over PageRank’s underlying algorithms and changes them regularly to refine their system and foil the black-hat SEOs. But aren’t black-hat and white-hat SEOs doing almost the same thing? SEO started as an activity done by people for various nefarious purposes. But, it turns out, the practice works, so the good guys have picked up the same methods. It’s a race to the bottom. But there’s no guarantee that the way a publisher contorts content to be rewarded by Google’s PageRank will work down the line. Publishers are rewriting and redesigning to meet criteria that could change at any time for any reason. And when those changes come, as they always do, publishers will change again and again and force site visitors to behave in different ways each time. No reader deserves that treatment.

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