When SEO attacks!

How our obsession with SEO fills the internet with garbage

How Google works
How Google works

It’s a strange fact of life that among the people who are most likely to spam you with marketing noise are search engine optimisation (SEO) specialists. Indiscriminate mass mail-outs telling you how your Web presence should be optimised and finely targeted? Ironic.

A SEO consultant messaged me on LinkedIn recently, explaining how his services could give one of my websites a much higher profile. I instantly disconnected from him. It wasn’t just that his blunt-instrument approach was a patronising misuse of a social platform – not a great advert for a digital ‘expert’ – it was also that the website in question was already number one on Google for most relevant search terms, and page one for all others. So what was he offering to do?

Clearly, he hadn’t seen my website – or any of the others he was targeting. But out of curiosity, I checked the site against an online benchmarking and analysis tool, which told me in its machine-generated, coldly logical terms that it was very poorly optimised for SEO, with a score of just 13 per cent*. This, remember, was an automated report on a website that’s number one on Google. 

But this problem isn’t limited to SEO consultants. Across the ‘content industry’ machine logic is being applied to data resources (websites) that are designed to be read by human beings, not machines – often by publishing houses that are distorting the very fabric of information itself in their relentless pursuit of page views.

The journalist’s nightmare

A tech journalist friend recently shared a conversation that he’d had with a commissioning editor: “Could I kindly ensure I include the phrase ‘cloud migration’ at least five times in my 500-word blog that has nothing to do with that horrible phrase? Because trying to game a search engine is a much more fruitful marketing strategy than trying to produce a blog that says something interesting, is well written, doesn’t use unnecessary jargon, and people might actually want to read.” Quite.

Conversations like these happen every day across every part of the media. The implication is that clicks, not quality, are what count – despite the fact that once you’ve clicked on that cloud migration story and found that it isn’t about cloud migration, you’ll forever see that website as a resource that misrepresents its own content. Hardly a long-term strategy for growth.

Put another way, human beings are starting to think more and more like machines in their attempts to second-guess the workings of a hidden, and constantly evolving, set of proprietary search engine algorithms.

Google says that its mission is to make information easier for us to find. But the problem is that information is regularly changed to make it easier for Google to find. 

The result is that all information on the web is now influenced by ‘the Google effect’, in much the same way that the fabric of space time is distorted by massive objects, like the sun or Jupiter, which bend everything else around them.

Here’s another example.

Stuck inside of mobile

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article about the economics of the mobile handset market. It focused on the problems being experienced by one maker, Samsung, and explained how Nokia’s finances had recovered after it sold its phone business to Microsoft. About two-thirds of the way into the piece, a single paragraph touched on Apple and the iPhone, purely by way of comparison.

It was at this point that a subeditor stepped in. With the brief to maximise page hits and lift the story up through the rankings, he changed the original headline – which said what the piece was actually about – and stuffed the article full of stock SEO-friendly words and phrases.

The result was a substantially different text, crammed with irrelevant clickbait, and a new headline which shouted that Apple’s handset business was in trouble. This completely misrepresented the article and changed its key conclusions. Kerching! Lots of clicks – on a story that was now inaccurate, misleading, poorly described, and stuffed full of SEO-focused garbage. A self-defeating strategy, with my byline attached.

(Source unknown)
(Source unknown)

So why did this happen? It’s because the universe of business and IT journalism is full of massive objects that distort the truth, and these include the words ‘Apple’, ‘Google’, and ‘Gartner’ – and, as my journalist friend found, clickbait, memes, SEO-friendly verbiage, and irrelevant jargon. Together, they’re turning the internet into a billion channels of white noise.

Tech publications routinely shoehorn words like ‘Google’, ‘Apple’, and ‘Gartner’ into stories in the belief that more people will read them, and other outlets adopt the same tactics in their own sectors, using their own clickbait terms.

Publishers, PR people, marketers, and even journalists regularly change facts in pursuit of clicks, and this happens every second of every day across every part of the ‘content’ industry, which is increasingly becoming a network of Chinese whispers, with each whisper moving at near-light speed.

Over time, this creates distortions in the fabric of information itself: “Write more about Gartner!”, “Mention Apple!”, “Use the phrase cloud migration!” and so on. I’ve been briefed like this a thousand times, as has every tech journalist I know. In this way a news agenda rapidly becomes a cynical, cyclical click agenda, content providers become noise generators, and language becomes a meaningless grey goo.

The inventory of gibberish

Last year, the worst example of this yet came my way: a major conference and event company approached me to blog for them, because (they said) they respected my independent voice and liked the fact that my opinions challenged norms and got people talking. No one was reading their content, they explained, so they wanted to change tack.

Naturally, my alarm bells started ringing, just as they do whenever someone says, “You can trust me”.

Sure enough, after my first couple of blogs, the commissioning editor dropped me an email. Bad news! he said, my first piece had gained nearly four times as many views than their previous blogs, and people were commenting and sharing. Job done, you might think: people were engaged, talking, and looking at their site. But that wasn’t what they wanted at all: my writing had thrown their SEO strategy off course, he explained, as I wasn’t mentioning any of the stock phrases that they had identified as being essential.

Then came the clincher: Could I make my blogs less engaging? Those were his exact words. Naturally, he emailed me a list of the things he wanted me to say each week.

The list was a smorgasbord of clickbait, an inventory of gibberish: an A4 sheet full of meaningless jargon – of the type he had assured me they didn’t want. Shortly after, the booking was cancelled and they returned to publishing blogs that no one reads or engages with, but which – in some arcane way – boost their SEO.

This is what content becomes when clicking becomes an end in itself. You might say that clicks are the end of content.

Flocking hell!

Here’s another example of the flocking behaviours that characterise the age of networked information. Everyone in IT publishing believes that stories about Gartner are inherently important and more widely read, and so everyone mentions Gartner at every opportunity, thus amplifying the analyst house’s perceived importance still further. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy, a self-replicating, self-propelling behaviour – a meme.

(Source unknown)
(Source unknown)

The truth is that Gartner is no better or worse than any other analyst house. Sometimes it’s right about market trends and provides solid statistical analysis, but sometimes its content is appalling – take the cloud seminar in London a few years ago at which the Gartner host told a standing-room-only audience that he had no idea how to define cloud computing or what it was.

Here are two articles that unpick facile thinking on Gartner’s part: Gartner on retail analytics (diginomica); and Gartner on IoT trends (diginomica).

Of course, all networks contain noise – and the bigger the network, the louder the ‘noise floor’ of the system – but today there’s so much hiss and static online that it is hard to locate any ‘signal’: information that you can trust among the clickbait. Increasingly, people recognise this fact and use it to influence their readers in what many people now call the ‘post truth world’.

The conclusion is inescapable: the ‘Google effect’ bends facts, to such an extent that some people now believe that verifiable data is a kind of liberal conspiracy. Google doesn’t make information easier to find, it makes a handful of pages easier to find among trillions. It’s like looking at the Grand Canyon through a pinhole.

Once we spent hours in libraries; today, we give up looking for information if we can’t find what we want in 10 seconds. Who browses below the fold, or beyond page two or three in a search? Google turns a world of depth into a village of surface and instant gratification. Worse, it’s changing the very nature of information itself and making much of it untrustworthy, such that people are increasingly going ‘off grid’ in search of a signal.

But Google doesn’t care because – in a sense – it’s neither its problem, nor its fault. It just sits there being massive while everything bends around it. And what’s it for? Selling advertising – messages that many people want to switch offGroup hug.

SEO: the unfortunate truth

I could name several publishing houses whose SEO staff outnumber their journalists, and whose SEO rules forbid the use of certain tags and force writers to reuse the same phrases as often as possible, even if it means bending the facts of a story to accommodate them. It’s a commonplace practice, and yet – intriguingly – those publishers’ stories almost never rate highly on Google.

So what does it all mean? To find out, I phoned a developer friend, whose strictly standards-based sites are highly visible to search engines and are enjoyed by the human beings they’re designed for (the mix we should all aspire to!). He’s been in the Web business since 1995, and so knows a thing or two.

“SEO?” he said, sounding irritated, “it’s all bollocks!”

Granted, my friend was in a bad mood, but there’s a serious underlying point: if you’re in the information-access business, as Google is – the business of making information more easily available (while learning about readers and selling that data to advertisers) – would you prefer sites that have been ‘SEOed’ into meaningless garbage to make them more attractive to your service? Or would you give greater weight to stories that are genuine, accurate, and stick to the point?

Go on: have a guess.

The only SEO advice you need

Now, of course it’s possible to make websites more visible to search engines by being clear and precise, rather than woolly and obscure. So I’ll take a leaf out of that SEO salesman’s book by giving you some in-depth SEO consultancy of my own, even though you haven’t asked for it:-

• Build a consistently and thoroughly standards-based site, one that’s accessible, mobile-ready, and mobile-friendly, and then use your platform to say what you mean, and mean what you say, as clearly, as accurately, and as honestly as possible, to an audience that you can define.

• And then describe and tag it meaningfully, accurately, and helpfully so that human beings can find and read the information that they actually want. Then – if both sides agree – start a relationship with those people that’s based on respect, tact, and mutual knowledge, not spam.

There you go. Just leave the cash in used twenties in the usual place and we’ll say no more about it.


*: It suggested my humanoid robot’s website should repeat the word ‘robot’ as often as possible. It’s a website about a robot, in which the word ‘robot’ is mentioned in every paragraph, alongside pictures of robots. This is what happens when robots read your text, not people.

Further reading:

The End of Facts (New Yorker)

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© Chris Middleton 2015 and 2016. The article referred to in this blog is not one linked to from this website.