In The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams tells the story of how the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Thinking Persons protest the development of a computer called Deep Thought to provide the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. Lunkwill and Fook, two of the philosophers, argue, “what’s the use of our sitting up half the night arguing that there may or may not be a God if this machine only goes and gives us his bleeding phone number the next morning?”
Deep Thought addresses their concerns as follows:
“but the programme will take me a little while to run.”
Fook glanced impatiently at his watch.
“How long?” he said.
“Seven and a half million years,” said Deep Thought.
Lunkwill and Fook blinked at each other.
“Seven and a half million years …!” they cried in chorus.
“Yes,” declaimed Deep Thought, “I said I’d have to think about it, didn’t I? And it occurs to me that running a programme like this is bound to create an enormous amount of popular publicity for the whole area of philosophy in general. Everyone’s going to have their own theories about what answer I’m eventually to come up with, and who better to capitalize on that media market than you yourself? So long as you can keep disagreeing with each other violently enough and slagging each other off in the popular press, you can keep yourself on the gravy train for life. How does that sound?”
Adams wrote these words in 1979, before there was an Internet, let alone a World Wide Web or an attention economy based on it. And yet Adams could have been writing a parable about Google and the search engine optimization (SEO) industry.
According to Wikipedia, “Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of improving the volume and quality of traffic to a web site from search engines via “natural” (“organic” or “algorithmic”) search results.” More importantly, there is a cottage industry of SEO software tools and consultants, all ready to help you optimize your web site for a fee.
You might think that Google, the search engine whose traffic most SEO efforts are optimizing, might frown on the use of SEO. After all, Google’s number one tenet is “Focus on the user and all else will follow.” Nowhere in their list of “ten things” do I see mention of supporting a multi-billion dollar industry of companies and consultants trying to manipulate result ranking.
And yet Google’s official position on SEO is hardly one of censure. Here is an excerpt:
If you’re thinking about hiring an SEO, the earlier the better. A great time to hire is when you’re considering a site redesign, or planning to launch a new site. That way, you and your SEO can ensure that your site is designed to be search engine-friendly from the bottom up. However, a good SEO can also help improve an existing site.
Full disclosure: Endeca sells SEO / SEM tools, and our customers see great results from them. We pursue a white-hat goal of “ensuring that all your content is exposed to Web search engines the right way”.
So, is SEO good or bad? Today, it’s actually necessary. Google and other web search engines rely on SEO efforts to compensate for the limitations of their indexing. This is an example of where sites share in the responsibilitiy for contextualizing a user’s experience.
But the adversarial nature of SEO is surely suboptimal for all parties. Well, for all parties other than SEO consultants and vendors. As Deep Thought said, “So long as you can keep disagreeing with each other violently enough and slagging each other off in the popular press, you can keep yourself on the gravy train for life. How does that sound?”
It sounds pretty lame to me. But it’s what we get when the attention economy of the web centers around a black box approach to relevance.