By: Yaron Marcus
If you know anything about SEO, you know that it’s all about relevancy. Succeeding in SEO means following the best SEO practices and increasing link popularity in order to “persuade” the search engine bots that your site is truly relevant to a given set of keywords. While a small fraction of SEO projects involve fixing the technical kinks on a site that would otherwise get rankings, most campaigns are about manipulating the bots and gaming the algorithm into associating your site with your keywords.
Now, the bots are fully capable of determining on their own which sites should come up for which keywords, so SEO work is really about working the system to make sure the bots rank your site as being most relevant. I don’t know why, but something about that rubs me the wrong way.
That’s not to say that I personally do not engage in SEO or that I think there are ethical issues involved. At the end of the day, SEO that is conducted to help legitimate businesses get better exposure to their end-users in a manner that is legal and does not hurt anyone along the way is a great thing. The real question is, how does SEO as an industry impact the web and the search engine business overall?
I believe any honest SEO expert would agree that for the most part, SEO only hurts the web and overall user experience. If sites that receive top rankings were there based on their true merits, such as natural link popularity and site relevancy to the keyword searched by the user, the search engines would provide more legitimate and reliable results (notice that I didn’t say more relevant results, as I believe results on Google are extremely relevant and helpful to users). Rather, the sites with top rankings are there because they have the largest SEO budgets and most talented SEO people. Add to this the billions of pages on web that are loaded with useless, keyword stuffed content, all the result of SEO people attempting to manipulate the Google bots into determining that a given site has “valuable content,” and the final conclusion is that SEO is bad for users and bad for the web.
In my opinion, the problem is not that sites appearing in the search results are irrelevant, but that the playing field needs to be leveled. In a perfect world, if a mom and pop ecommerce store has high customer satisfaction, then over time the blogosphere would spread the word around and the link juice would get them Google rankings. In reality, since the big online brands have large SEO teams and budgets, they are able to purchase “link buzz” on sites like Text Link Ads and Buy Blog Reviews, making it impossible for the little guy to compete. The net result is that the little guy may have better prices and service, yet still never get the recognition he deserves. The web was supposed to help democratize the world, giving talented people and deserving companies an equal opportunity to succeed regardless of their ad budgets. But it looks like SEO is foiling this grand vision.
A great example for “manipulation” of the system can found by searching the highly competitive keyword “dating” on Google. Aside from dating sites and dating information sources, you will find debbiedoesdating.com in the top 4 positions. This site is a dating blog with just 15 posts and a bunch of banner ads. So how does a site like this find itself ahead of actual dating sites like Match.com and dating reviews sites? Well, 60,000 inbound links should do the trick. And that’s what I found when I looked it up on Yahoo site explorer. Does anyone really believe that 60,000 webmasters found the content on this dating tips blog so valuable that they felt compelled to link to it? Obviously Google does, but I doubt anyone else buys it.
SEO is also helping to shape how sites are structured. If you Google the word “web design service” you will find two sites in the top 5 who’s design was clearly inspired by SEO and ignores their users altogether.
The first site, is essentially a link farm with dozens of internal links.
The second site, in an effort to provide lots of content for the sake of getting rankings, has placed ten articles on their homepage in gray font on a black background. This way, they get the SEO benefits of having lots of useless content without it getting in the way of having their users complete the form, because it’s nearly impossible to read. And this is coming from web design consultants. More and more, we are seeing sites that were designed to please Google rather than users. I wonder if this is what Larry Page and Sergey Brin had in mind when they set out to rank websites by quality and relevancy.
Fortunately, the social revolution can counter the “SEO effect”. While search engine results may be hit-or-miss, websites recommended by friends are much more reliable. The communities formed around review sites like Yelp are evidence of users’ increased appreciation for the opinions of others, even strangers. I know some may say that consumer review sites are not social, but trust me, users taking time to contribute their opinions simply for the sake of helping others, is very social. Further proof of this trend is Facebook’s surpassing Google in referring traffic to other sites. Aside from being prescreened for quality, sites referred to users by their friends are naturally more consistent with the values and preferences of the users themselves.
Just to be clear, I do appreciate the professionalism of many SEO experts that have developed tremendous expertise in their field. The results these people deliver are significant and have built some of the most important properties on the web. But we cannot ignore that in the long run, many of them are hurting the web.
This is just another reason for Google to watch out for the Facebook threat. With Facebook helping provide users with validation for destination sites and getting more involved in the search game, there’s hope for people like me that fear a future in which we find ourselves drinking coffee at a Google cafe, while sitting in front of a Google laptop, paying bills online through Google bank in the United States of Google. Though Google could take immediate steps to improve the web, such as removing the company websites of all SEO agencies and SEO blogs from their index or taking their gloves off when it comes to penalizing sites with suspicious growth and substandard user interfaces, I doubt that will ever happen. In the meantime, they need to better prepare for Facebook becoming a major obstacle in their path to world domination.