SEO: Friend or Foe?

I write this post at great risk of offending some good friends in the SEO business.

So let me begin by saying this: SEO is not easy. It requires diligent attention to a constantly-changing set of rules and competence with a constantly-evolving set of tools. It requires an enormous capacity for detailed analysis and focus, and a truly respectable amount of discipline for executing the work. Some of the smartest people I know have dedicated their careers to SEO.

However, I think the SEO industry, in the long run, is a house of cards.

Maybe, secretly, my SEO friends do too.

If the internet is like a big house party, Google basically walked in around 2001 and proposed we all play a game they invented.  It’s a good game that made the party a lot more fun for everyone, so we all decided to play. As time passed, this game made a lot of money for a lot of people, and certain folks became experts at winning. It’s only natural that they would offer their expertise to help others win too, but we’ve begun to forget something very crucial…

It’s Google’s game.

Google makes the rules. Google plays both league commissioner and referee, and no matter how many people win, nobody wins bigger than Google. It’s Google’s job to make sure of that.

Google invented this game to put the most valuable and relevant information possible in front of searchers and consumers. When searchers find what they want, they come back for more. The more they come back, the more money Google makes from advertisers who pay for a chance to meet them. If Google displays results that aren’t the best for searchers — results that expert game-players worked hard to achieve but didn’t genuinely earn — then Google’s explicit mission is to change the rules and exclude them.

Last week’s cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek discussed Google’s next efforts for innovation and market leadership. They plan to keep search results genuine and credible in a world full of game-players. Here’s an excerpt:

The search engine, like much else at Google, has been under attack recently. Marketers and some technology industry bloggers say it is returning more links to spammy sites such as cheaply produced content mills and user-generated question-and-answer pages. “Searching Google is now like asking a question in a crowded flea market of hungry, desperate, sleazy salesmen who all claim to have the answer to every question you ask,” wrote entrepreneur Marco Arment in a widely read post on his blog earlier this month.

While Singhal [head of Google’s search engine division] disputes this sentiment, Google has recently moved to address the complaints. A blog post on Jan. 21 from Matt Cutts, who shares an office with Singhal, pledged to penalize companies that churn out pages with low-quality content and then try to fool Google’s technology in order to appear prominently in search results. When The New York Times exposed a fraudulent eyeglass merchant in December that was featured high in Google search results, Singhal assembled a team that in three days came up with a batch of “signals,” or indications that could better discriminate between dishonest merchants and legitimate ones. He says such sellers are now heavily penalized and nearly invisible in Google’s results.

Good SEO firms are playing by the rules and helping legitimate organizations bring real value to consumers. We shouldn’t let a few bad apples give SEO a bad name and I have no problem with the ethics of SEO.

I do have a problem with the long-term business viability of SEO.

The SEO industry is nearly autocratic in Google’s authority. As a result, it has a shelf life. The problem is that we’re simply playing someone else’s game. It’s wonderfully profitable today for those who know what they’re doing, and hopefully those folks will generate enough value to endure after the game is over. But it’s inevitable that the game will either change beyond recognition, or simply be replaced by a new game.

I would rather follow Google’s example than play Google’s game: introduce your own game, make your own rules, and let everybody else fight over the best ways to make you money.

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One Response to SEO: Friend or Foe?

  1. Pingback: Google’s SEO Game: Judge, Jury, and Executioner | Succincity

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