Life, the Universe, and SEO

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.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

8 replies on “Life, the Universe, and SEO”

I think it is fine to offer white-hat SEO services. Quite fine. In fact, it is just in line with a long tradition in Information Retrieval…

This being said… You will find a lot of highly popular sites that do not use any SEO trick. They rank highly because they have a lot of users or offer a service people really need. Twitter comes to mind.

Would I pay for SEO services? Absolutely. I wish my university would! However, the benefits might not be overly large.


I think that SEO matters most for sites in a highly competitive space, e.g., retailers competing to sell the same products. To a lesser extent, publishers (especially those focused on current events) compete to tell the same stories. A related factor that raises the important of SEO is the need to promote deep content from sites with a large number of pages.

Twitter doesn’t meet the above criteria. It doesn’t have direct competitors, unless you count Facebook and LinkedIn. And I doubt that most folks discover Twitter through serendipitous search results, so I don’t see Twitter trying to promote the deep content of update logs.

Better examples to make your case are Youtube and Wikipedia. But they are also exceptional. I don’t know if Youtube ever did any SEO, but now they are inside the Googleverse, they presumably don’t have to. And, even through Google doesn’t own Wikipedia, I suspect the Google actually favors Wikipedia content, whether explicitly or implicitly by how they’ve tuned their ranking algorithms.

All in all, it seems that SEO is a must-have for most competitive retailers and publishers.


Lets not forget that Google’s Revenue comes from PPC, not from providing “the most relevant results”. With that said, SEO is very important, to make the true relevancy of a site visible, and fundamentally any site could benefit from it. SEO in itself is not bad, is the way that its applied that defines its nature, and wether is helping you, your visitor, or both.


True, but I’ll give Google the benefit of the doubt that they aren’t breaching the Chinese Wall between organic and sponsored results, and in particular that they aren’t sabotaging their organic results in order to increase the demand for sponsored ones.

And, as I said, SEO is necessary today, so I’m not trying to take away your livelihood. But the adversarial and opaque aspects of SEO are artifacts of Google’s (and, to be fair all the major web search engines’) black box approach to relevance. It would be more efficient for sites to compete for attention on a transparent and level playing field.


Often lost in the SEO discussion is the notion that much of web search (spiders, PageRank, etc.) was originally built around traditional web concepts. Documents, hyperlinks, etc. But once web sites started being replaced with web applications, and then those application started being replaced with RIAs, well now you have an interesting challenge. You still want to provide the best experience possible to your end users, but you also need to provide what basically amounts to static “shadow” content for page catalogs like Google. It’ll be interesting to watch how web search content acquisition strategies evolve (or don’t) to account for this. But in the mean time, web search can impose a pretty hefty tax on web application design.


Jack, that’s a good point. And it’s unrealistic for search engines to take on the full responsibility of converting database-backed sites or AJAX web applications into indexable documents (though the “indexing the deep web” meme never seems to die).

In any case, you reinforce the fact that SEO today is necessary, even for sites want nothing more than to honestly communicate their content to search engines. But that necessity in turn reinforces my frustration that the indexing process is part of an adversarial game.


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