Last week, my social media feeds blew up with a plethora (yes -- a plethora!) of indignant posts about a new essay that had just dropped on The Verge.
Written by Amanda Chicago Lewis, it was entitled “The People Who Ruined the Internet.”
The reason for the indignation? Those “people” included myself, and many of my past colleagues. The essay was an investigation of the industry I used to be in. One might even call me one of the original pioneers of said industry.
The intro began: “As the public begins to believe Google isn’t as useful anymore, what happens to the cottage industry of search engine optimization experts who struck content oil and smeared it all over the web? Well, they find a new way to get rich and keep the party going.”
Am I going to refute the observations of Lewis?
No, because they are not lies. They are observations. And observations happen through the lens the observer uses to observe. What struck me is the lens Lewis chose to see my former industry through, and the power of a lens in media.
Lewis is an investigative journalist. She writes exposes. If you look at the collection of her articles, you don’t have to scroll very far before you have seen the words “boondoggle,” “hustler,” “lies,” “whitewashing” and “hush money” pop up in her titles. Her journalistic style veers heavily towards being a “hammer,” which makes all that lie in her path “nails.”
This was certainly true for the SEO article. She targeted many of the more colorful characters still in the SEO biz and painted them with the same acerbic, snarky brush. Ironically, she lampoons outsized personalities without once considering that all of this is filtered through her own personality. I have never met Lewis, but I suspect she’s no shrinking violet. In the article, she admits a grudging admiration for the hustlers and “pirates” she interviewed.
Was that edginess part of the SEO industry? Absolutely. But contrary to the picture painted by Lewis, I don’t believe that defined the industry.
And I certainly don’t believe we ruined the internet. Google organic search results are better than they were 10 years ago. We all have a better understanding of how people actually search, and a good part of that research was done by those in the SEO industry (myself included). The examples of bad SEO that Lewis uses are at least two decades out of date.
I think Lewis, and perhaps others of her generation, suffers from “rosy retrospection”: a cognitive bias that automatically assumes things were better yesterday. I have been searching for the better part of three decades, and, as a sample of one, I don’t agree. I can also say with some empirical backing that the search experience is quantitatively better than it was when we did our first eye-tracking study 20 years ago. A repeat study done 10 years ago showed time to first click had decreased, and satisfaction with that click had increased.
I’m fairly certain that a similar study would show that the search experience is better today than it was a decade ago. If this is a “search optimized hellhole,” it’s much less hellish than it was back in the “good old days” of search.
One of the reasons for that improvement is that millions of websites have been optimized by SEOs (a label which, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with wanting to be mistaken for a CEO, as Lewis hypothesizes) to unlock unindexable content, fix broken code, improve usability, tighten up and categorize content -- and generally make the Internet a less confusing place. Not such an ignoble pursuit for “a bunch of megalomaniacal jerks [who] were degrading our collective sense of reality because they wanted to buy Lamborghinis and prove they could vanquish the almighty algorithm.”
Lewis did interview those who sat astride the world of search providers and the world of SEO: Danny Sullivan (“angry and defensive,” according to Lewis); Barry Schwartz (“an unbelievably fast talker”); Duane Forrester (a “consummate schmoozer”) and Matt Cutts (an “SEO celebrity”). Each tried to refute her take that things are “broken” and SEOs are to blame, but she brushed those arguments aside, intent on caricaturing SEO folks as a cast of characters from a carnival side show.
Out of the entire scathing diatribe, one scant paragraph grudgingly acknowledges that maybe not all SEO is bad. That said, Lewis immediately spins around and says that it doesn’t matter, because the bad completely negates the good.
Obviously, I don’t agree with Lewis’s take on the SEO industry. Maybe it’s because I spent the better part of 20 years in the industry and know it at a level Lewis never could. But what irritates me the most is that she made no attempt to go beyond taking the quick and easy shots. She had picked the lens through which she viewed SEO before the very first interview, and everything was colored by that lens.
Was her take untrue? Not exactly. But it was unfair. And that’s why reporters like Lewis have degraded journalism to the point where it’s just clickbait, with a few more words thrown in.
Lewis gleefully stereotypes SEOs as “content goblin(s) willing to eschew rules, morals, and good taste in exchange for eyeballs and mountains of cash.” That’s simply not true. It’s no more true than saying all investigative journalists are “screeching acid-tongued harpies who are hopelessly biased and cover their topics with all the subtlety of a flame-thrower.”
P.S. I did notice the article was optimized for search, with keywords prominently shown in the URL. Does that make The Verge and Lewis SEOs?