With the benefit of hindsight, big-name thinker Anil Dash has concluded that SEO has contributed to the ineffectiveness of Web search. He examines how we got here in his article, “Underscores, Optimization & Arms Races” at Medium. Starting with the year 2000, Dash traces the development of Internet content management systems (CMS’s), of which he was a part. (It is a good brief summary for anyone who wasn’t following along at the time.) WordPress is an example of a CMS.
As Google’s influence grew, online publishers became aware of an opportunity—they could game the search algorithm to move their site to the top of “relevant” results by playing around with keywords and other content details. The question of whether websites should bow to Google’s whims seemed to go unasked, as site after site fell into this pattern, later to be known as Search Engine Optimization. For Dash, the matter was symbolized by a question over hyphens or underbars to represent spaces in web addresses. Now, of course, one can use either without upsetting Google’s algorithm, but that was not the case at first. When Google’s Matt Cutts stated a preference for the hyphen in 2005, most publishers fell in line. Including Dash, eventually and very reluctantly; for him, the choice represented nothing less than the very nature of the Internet.
You see, the theory of how we felt Google should work, and what the company had often claimed, was that it looked at the web and used signals like the links or the formatting of webpages to indicate the quality and relevance of content. Put simply, your search ranking with Google was supposed to be based on Google indexing the web as it is. But what if, due to the market pressure of the increasing value of ranking in Google’s search results, websites were incentivized to change their content to appeal to Google’s algorithm? Or, more accurately, to appeal to the values of the people who coded Google’s algorithm?
Eventually, even Dash and his CMS caved and switched to hyphens. What he did not notice at the time, he muses, was the unsettling development of the entire SEO community centered around appeasing these algorithms. He concludes:
By the time we realized that we’d gotten suckered into a never-ending two-front battle against both the algorithms of the major tech companies and the destructive movements that wanted to exploit them, it was too late. We’d already set the precedent that independent publishers and tech creators would just keep chasing whatever algorithm Google (and later Facebook and Twitter) fed to us. Now, the challenge is to reform these systems so that we can hold the big platforms accountable for the impacts of their algorithms. We’ve got to encourage today’s newer creative communities in media and tech and culture to not constrain what they’re doing to conform to the dictates of an opaque, unknowable algorithm.
Is that doable, or have we gone too far toward appeasing the Internet behemoths to turn back?