Current Affairs

How SEO Is Gentrifying the Internet

Discover the one weird trick that’s ruining everything you love about being online.

All I wanted to know was if blueberries are bad for cats. My five-year old tabby was smacking one around the floor, and while this wasn’t her first encounter with the fruit, I’d just learned that its scientific name is cyanoccous. That sounded a little too similar to the infamous poison to my overprotective cat dad ears. So I did what any lazy layperson would do: pulled out my phone and googled “can cats eat blueberries.” What ensued was an absurd adventure into the SEO-poisoned world of the modern internet.

The acronym SEO stands for “search engine optimization,” which translates into the vernacular as “tricks marketers use to make certain articles appear at the top of Google’s search results.” Other search engines like Bing and Yahoo do exist, technically speaking, but since 88 percent of the world’s internet searches are made on Google, few marketers waste their time trying to optimize articles for anything else. We’ll take a look at how they go about this in a bit. For now though, all you need to know is that SEO is making the internet much, much worse.

Back to the blueberries and their potential poisonousness to cats. The answer was no, according to my search’s “featured snippet” (i.e., the small box of text at the top of the page, which is typically excerpted from the first search result). However, that snippet came from Purina—the Nestlé pet food subsidiary whose shitty products get recalled on an almost annual basis. I’d trust Hunter Biden with my cocaine sooner than I’d trust Purina with my cat’s health. So I decided to check the second search result, which came from a company without such a well-established reputation for poisoning animals.

Here are some things I learned in the first five paragraphs of “Can Cats Eat Blueberries?”

  • Blueberries are considered a superfood.
  • You can eat blueberries with yogurt.
  • Blueberries have lots of antioxidants.
  • Some foods that are good for humans are not so good for cats.
  • Antioxidants help fight aging and cancer. 

Here is what I did not learn:

  • Whether cats can eat blueberries.

In fact, even after reading the entire article I was still unsure whether eating a blueberry or two would cause my cuddly little furball to experience explosive diarrhea or catastrophic organ failure. The article said my cat “likely won’t be too excited by a sweet treat of any type, much less blueberries” (wrong) and advised against “[feeding] cats blueberries in large quantities, especially as a meal replacement.” (Who would ever do this?) Yet for all the information contained in the nearly 850 word explainer, the key question itself went unanswered.

Or at least it went unanswered from a human’s perspective. From the perspective of Google’s “search crawlers”—think of them like the squid robots from the Matrix, swimming through the murky depths of the internet as they conduct endless inspections while reporting their findings back to headquarters—the article had all the signs of an ideal information source. It was published by a well-known website, Rover.com. The title was a perfect match for my search. There was a helpful section break within the article that promised a direct answer to whether cats can eat blueberries. A real veterinarian was quoted at length, though oddly he was never asked whether blueberries are safe for cats. The article even answered other related questions like “can cats eat fruit” and recommended “alternative healthy snacks.” What more could a curious reader possibly want, aside from an answer to their actual question?

“Can Cats Eat Blueberries?” was a masterpiece by SEO writing standards and an absolute turd by regular writing standards. A reader might spend five minutes reading the article and still have no idea if it’s OK to roll one (1) blueberry across the floor for their floofy pouncemonster to chase. However, as long as the reader spends those five minutes looking at the page—and more importantly, the ads that are placed on it—then mission accomplished. This is where the SEOification of the internet has brought us, and it fucking sucks.

Pet care guides aren’t the only online content that have undergone SEO bloat in recent years. Whether you’re trying to find information on how to kill termites, move to Spain, or clear up your acne, chances are good you’ve come across curiously verbose articles that promise one thing but deliver several others. Food recipes might be the prime example of this. Cooking blogs have long been criticized for their Dostoevskian length, which led to a predictable backlash from those who deemed the criticism entitled and/or misogynist. However, as the novelist Kathleen Luck discovered on her own quest to discover why recipe blog posts are so damn long, the unnecessary length isn’t the only reason why these overstuffed articles rub us the wrong way: we can sense we’re being manipulated, even if we don’t know exactly how.

SEO. SEO is how.

Since the 1990s, SEO marketing has been a lucrative pursuit for the world’s most scruple-free douchebags. The premise has always been simple: get your page to the top of the search results by following certain tips and tricks. In the early days these were relatively simple. For example, if an SEO marketer wanted to promote a page selling anal beads from Company X, they would repeat the keyword “anal beads” again and again all over the page:

Buy Anal Beads NOW!!!

Are you interested in anal beads? Well, we have the best anal beads in town! Do you want big anal beads? Small anal beads? Glass anal beads? Metal anal beads? Dishwasher-safe anal beads? Then you’re in the right place, because we have all the anal beads, and we offer the lowest prices on anal beads in [your town]. Order your anal beads today and save, save, save! 

Google’s feeble-minded search crawlers would see the frequency of “anal beads” and conclude that an article which talked so extensively about the keyword must be an excellent resource for the anal bead-curious consumer. Formatting quirks—like putting the keyword in larger sizes or bold fonts—also helped draw the crawlers’ attention. Then SEO marketers could pay some random bloggers a few dollars to include links on their sites that directed to Company X’s anal beads, and success would soon follow.

These annoying yet mostly harmless tricks were known as “white hat SEO,” but there was also a darker side. “Black hat SEO” practitioners could improve their clients’ search rankings by plagiarizing competitors’ top-performing content, filing false spam reports against them, using misleading hyperlinks (imagine your expectations when clicking on glass beads), or any number of other shady tactics.

Google and its search crawlers eventually wised up, of course, and cracked down on both types of SEO gimmicks. Today “keyword stuffing” as shown in the example above will hurt a page’s ranking rather than help it. Link farms—websites that exist for no other purpose than to provide links to other websites, for a fee—have also been banished from Google’s search rankings. Other favorite tricks of early SEO marketers, such as filling the margins of websites with keywords in tiny fonts and camouflaged colors, are now verboten as well. 

But the SEO marketers kept pace with the changes. There’s a lot of money at stake, and anyone who can deliver higher search rankings will find an eager market for their services. Neil Patel is perhaps the foremost example of this—featured in a 2007 Wall Street Journal story called “The Wizards of Buzz,” he’s amassed a client list over the years that features behemoth corporations like Amazon, CNN, and Microsoft. In 2016, his book Hustle: The Power to Change Your Life with Money, Meaning, and Momentum made the bestseller lists of major newspapers like the New York Times and USA Today. Patel’s rise from quirky computer nerd to well-established powerhouse mirrored the evolution of SEO marketing as a whole. 

Just because SEO marketing went mainstream didn’t mean its practitioners cleaned up their acts, though. In lieu of the crude tactics favored during the internet’s infancy, Patel and other marketers turned to more sophisticated forms of, well, not outright deception, but certainly something close. Patel’s own bio is a prime example of this. While he claims that he “was recognized as a top 100 entrepreneur under the age of 30 by President Obama,” that’s not quite the case. The honor was actually bestowed on Patel by an organization called Empact whose event was hosted at the White House in 2011. This is like claiming you taught at Harvard because you once showed some freshmen how to play ultimate frisbee on the quad. It’s technically not a lie, but it’s misleading if we’re being generous and pathetically so if we’re not.

With thousands upon thousands of guys like Patel working night and day to develop new ways of tricking the search crawlers into lavishing their sites with attention, Google began to play an endless game of whack-a-mole. By the mid 2010s, it wasn’t just keyword stuffing or link farming that would put an SEO marketer on the search engine’s shitlist—posting unoriginal or clickbait content would also come with heavy penalties. If you wanted your page “to rank” (i.e., show up in the first handful of results), you had to say something fresh, interesting, and useful.

The hammer really dropped in 2018/2019 when Google trained its search crawlers to put extreme scrutiny on the so-called “Your Money or Your Life” websites. The term refers to sites whose content could potentially affect people’s health, happiness, safety, or financial well-being. Needless to say that’s a massive umbrella, covering everything from deep-pocketed lifestyle sites like Gwenyth Paltrow’s Goop to the personal blog of a small town tax attorney. Google’s update to the search crawlers’ algorithm gave a new weight to credentials and citations. In other words, if you search “best remedies for arthritis,” the top link is now much more likely to come from the Mayo Clinic than a mommy blog. 

This seems quite reasonable at first glance. Who wouldn’t rather take advice about strange symptoms from a doctor as opposed to an internet rando? Who’d trust the opinion of an anonymous “money whiz” over that of a certified public accountant? Given the massive amount of flagrantly erroneous bullshit floating around online, Google’s latest strike against the SEO marketers seemed like something to celebrate. All the weeping and gnashing of teeth over lost site traffic came with a certain amount of schadenfreude. As the SEO marketers rent their garments and bemoaned the future of their income streams, it was easy to feel like they’d finally gotten their comeuppance for decades of subjecting internet users to tedious, poorly written pablum. 

Alas, such rejoicing was premature. Instead of delivering us a more useful and trustworthy internet, all the “Your Money or Your Life” update did was homogenize the internet even further—and drive many of its most precarious workers into even more dire financial straits. Once-popular sites like Livestrong, whose articles were mainly written by generalist staff writers and freelancers, had to dramatically cull their lineups. A simple story about how to get rid of blackheads—the kind of quick piece that every low level content jockey has written a dozen times—now must bear the name of a Real Live Doctor to have any chance of ranking. That doctor has to have a Googleable work history, preferably an extensive one. Once the article is done, it has to be updated on a regular basis, regardless of whether there’s been a massive breakthrough in anti-blackhead technology. Above all, the article has to be “great content,” in the words of Google. What they mean by this is not exactly clear, though the company has provided 175 pages’ worth of vague hints.

For the average internet user, this SEO arms race has made the internet both less interesting and less usable. When we want to discover whether blueberries are poisonous for cats, we have to sort through hundreds of words answering irrelevant questions like “what are the health benefits of blueberries” and “can cats eat vegetables.” When we get frustrated and try the next result down, we’re greeted by a story that looks and reads much the same as the one we just abandoned (the standard formula now is LARGE HEADER – a few paragraphs of text and a bulleted list – LARGE HEADER – a few paragraphs of text and a numbered list, ad infinitum). Here’s a quote from a doctor that feels like it was cut-and-pasted from a different interview; there are some citations from scientific studies presented largely bereft of context. Hooray for the illusion of clarity. Hooray for the death of creativity. 

The gentrification of Google’s search results might seem like a minor annoyance, but it has grave implications for the future of an open internet. Censorship by big tech has drawn outrage from both the right and the left. However, these complaints usually focus on big, obvious curtailments of information—preventing certain posts from being shared, blacklisting certain accounts on a given platform, and so on. Changes to Google’s algorithm tend to get much less attention. People are aware that an algorithm exists, but that’s about the extent of their knowledge. Official updates couched in jargon and frenzied blog posts on niche marketing websites don’t evoke the same popular passions as seeing a CEO hauled in front of Congress. The results aren’t even that noticeable unless you’re paying close attention. Yesterday there were a bunch of articles about cats and blueberries, and today there are a bunch of articles about cats and blueberries. They seem slightly shittier than before, but so does everything else in this world. 

SEO’s creeping spread will only worsen in the years to come. Google is basically the liege lord of the internet. It can dictate terms to its tenants (even the large and wealthy ones) as it sees fit. The Justice Department recently filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google that could theoretically break up the company, though the government’s previous track record of forcing tech giants to behave is not promising. Some have suggested that the lack of Google alumni on the transition team of president-elect Joe Biden, a noted sex pest, might bode well for a crackdown, though the presence of veterans from other tech giants like Amazon and Uber suggests otherwise (say what you will about tech execs’ morals, but they do have a strong sense of class solidarity). 

Still, Google is not omnipotent and SEO gentrification is not an inevitability like death or taxes. The European Union has levied multi-billion dollar fines against Google on multiple occasions. In 2014, the E.U. Parliament even passed a symbolic vote to break up the company, though heavy lobbying by Google has since led to a much softer stance by regulators. It’s delusional to suggest we’re on the verge of breaking Google’s hold over the internet, but it’s equally absurd to say that we never can.

For now, the best we can do is put pressure on our elected officials to curtail the power of Google and its SEO-fueled homogenization of the internet. Those who fight the good fight should be praised and supported. Those who put cowardly self-interest first should be jeered and humiliated each time they set foot in public. That’s the least they deserve for letting the World Wide Web turn into a glum, soulless suburb—and making us read a thousand words to learn whether cats can have blueberries.

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