Search engine optimization is not something that comes up in light conversation at cocktail parties. In fact, people who work in the business often go out of their way to avoid talking too much about it.
Which is why seeing the subject of SEO so prevalent in the mainstream media these last eight weeks or so has been so disorienting. For the first time in my career, knowing a lot about the relatively obscure world of organic search results and how they're arrived at has been something of an asset socially.
Yesterday's huge story in the Sunday New YorkTimes by David Segal has to be the capper. Starting on the front page of the business section and running to two separate pages inside, it was the first major piece of enterprise reporting on SEO in a mainstream paper I've ever seen. (I still subscribe to the paper version on Sunday; otherwise I read the Times on my iPad.) Segal tossed around phrases like black hat and white hat with great authority. And the gotcha moment -- when the reporter confronted Google's Matt Cutts with the results of an investigation into a link scam by an SEO firm hired by JCPenney that effectively gamed the Google algorithm -- was riveting. Riveting!
There was even a pseudonymous source who demanded an expensive, foie-gras-heavy dinner to explain in whispered tones the ins-and-outs of the black-hat SEO game. Thrilling!
It all started when Demand Media filed for its IPO, which it completed late last month after raising $150 million or so from investors betting on its content milling operation. Dozens of elite news organizations reported on the company, its practices, and those of its counterparts at work inside AOL and Yahoo.
Then, the Huffington Post was bought by AOL for $315 million, which turned everyone's attention to how it is HuffPost came to rival the Wall Street Journal in value. After all, HuffPost existed for years on nothing more than screaming headlines and brief snippets that pointed to the news organizations that actually do reporting, together with a bevy of bold-faced names who contribute blog posts free of charge. It's only recently started to add a paid staff of investigative and opinion journalists.
In yet another New York Times piece last week, Claire Cain Miller wrote about the HuffPost strategy, which involves heavy social graph optimization together with an equally healthy dose of highly effective SEO tactics, mostly of the white-hat variety.
The notable downsides to all this SEO and social activity are two consequences. The first, according to Cain-Miller, is an abandonment of core journalistic drivers:
"Models like these could pave the route toward profitable journalism in a post-print world, some analysts say - or, others worry, drive online media to publish low-quality articles that are written to appeal to search engines instead of people."
(Tim Rutten of the Los AngelesTimeswrites movingly on this subject.)
The second downside is the consequence for search engine results and the trust people put in them. In yesterday's article exposing Penney's black-hat practices, it was pointed out that European regulators are investigating whether or not Google regularly turns a blind eye to the nefarious SEO activities of its big PPC advertisers like JC Penney.
Google's Cutts emphatically stated that there's a church/state-like separation between the PPC guys and the natural search guys at Google. And, he said, they are at work finessing the algorithm to ensure Penney-like scams are detected earlier and corrected more immediately.
Which makes one wonder if the Demand Medias of the world face numbered days in terms of their core business models. Back when I worked at Technorati and its pages of topically focused social media were regularly neck-and-neck with Wikipedia in organic search results, we were riding high from the traffic Google was driving our way. Then, Google decided our pages, which we viewed as rich mash-ups of all the best producers of social media around a given topic, were merely other pages of search results. So they demoted us, sending us to the equivalent of Siberia in their search results (which is to say, page two). It was a devastating blow at the time. (Technorati has recovered nicely by focusing on its blog ad network.)
While Demand Media's investors and founding executives did very well with their IPO (as did Arianna Huffington in her sale), it may, ultimately, come at quite a cost to its investors. Everything, it seems, depends upon what Google will do.Publicity has its downside. But there's an upside to the spotlight Demand Media shined on SEO practices: I'm suddenly popular at all the parties.