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Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Search Engines, Search Engine Optimisation - and us!


Last week, Google announced that it was making SSL encryption the default on all searches for ‘signed in’ people. They announced it as a move towards better security and privacy, and some people (myself included) saw it as a small but potentially significant step in the right direction. Almost as soon as the announcement was out, however, stories saying exactly the opposite began to appear: the blogosphere was abuzz. One of the more notable – one that was tweeted around what might loosely be described as ‘privacy circles’ came in the Telegraph. “Google is selling your privacy at a price” was the scary headline.

So who was right? Was it a positive move for privacy, or another demonstration that Google doesn’t follow its own mantra about doing evil? Perhaps, when you look a little deeper, it was neither – and both Google and those who wrote stories like that in the Telegraph have another agenda. Perhaps it’s not what happened with SSL, but that agenda that we should be concerned about. The clue comes from looking a bit closer at who wrote the story in the Telegraph: Rob Jackson, who is described as ‘the MD of Elisa DBI, a digital business measurement and optimisation consultancy’. That is, he comes from the Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) industry. What’s happening here isn’t really much to do with privacy as far as either Google or the SEO industry – it’s just another episode in the cat-and-mouse story between search engines and those who want to ‘manipulate’ them, a story that’s been going on since search engines first appeared. The question is, how do we, the ordinary citizens of cyberspace, fit into that story. Do we benefit from the ongoing conflict and tension between the two, a tension which brings about developments both on both a technological and business level – or are we, as some think is true in much of what goes on in cyberspace, just being used to make money by all concerned, and our privacy and autonomy is neither here nor there?

What’s really going on?

As far as I can see, the most direct implication of the implementation of SSL encryption is that Google are preventing webmasters of sites reached through a Google search – and SEOs – from seeing the search term used to find them. Whether those webmasters – let alone the SEOs – have any kind of ‘right’ to know how they were found is an unanswered question, but for the webmasters it is an annoyance at least. For SEOs, on the other hand, it could be a major blow, as it undermines a fundamental part of the way that they work. That, it seems to me, is why they’re so incensed by the move – it makes their job far harder to do. Without having at least some knowledge of which search term produces which result, how can they help sites to be easier to find? How can they get your site higher on the search results, as they often claim to be able to do?

I have little doubt that they’ll find a way – historically they always have. With every new development of search there’s been a corresponding development by those who wish to get their sites – or more directly the sites of their clients – higher up the lists, from choosing particular words on the sites to the use of metatags right up to today’s sophisticated SEOs. Still, it’s interesting that the story that they’ve been pushing out is that Google is ‘selling your privacy for a price’. That in itself is somewhat misleading. A more honest headline might have been:

‘Google is STILL selling your privacy for a price, but now they’re trying to stop us selling it too!’

Google has, in many ways, always been selling your private information – that’s how their business model works, using the terms you use to search in order to target their advertising – but with the SSL move they’ve made it harder for others to use that information too. They themselves will still know the search terms, and seems to still be ‘selling’ the terms to those using their AdWords system – but that’s what they’ve pretty much always done, even if many people have remained blissfully unaware that this was what was happening.

There’s another key difference between Google and the SEOs – from Google, we do at least get an excellent service in exchange for letting them use our search terms to make money. Anyone who remembers the way we used to navigate the web before Google should acknowledge that what they do makes our online lives much faster and easier. There’s an exchange going on, an exchange that is at least to an extent mutually beneficial. It's part of the symbiotic relationship between the people using the internet and the businesses who run the fundamental services of the internet that is described in my theory of The Symbiotic Web. With SEOs, the question is whether we – particularly in our capacity as searchers – are actually benefiting at all.

The business of Search Engine Optimisation

Who DOES benefit from the work of SEOs? Their claims are bold. As Rob Jackson puts it in the Telegraph article:

“One leading SEO professional told me that Google is essentially reverse-engineered by the the SEO professionals around the world. If they were all to stop at once, Google wouldn't be able to find its nose.”

It’s a bold claim, but I suspect that people within Google would be amused rather than alarmed by the idea. Do we, as users, benefit from the operations of SEOs? On the face of it, it appears unlikely: searchers want to find the sites most relevant and useful to them, not the sites whose webmasters have employed the best SEOs to optimise their sites. Excellent and relevant sites and services get pushed down the search list by less good and less helpful sites who have used the most advanced and effective SEO techniques. And it’s our information, our search terms, that are being used by the SEOs.

There is, however, another side to the business, and one that’s growing in significance all the time. The idea that we are just ‘searchers’ looking round the web for information and interesting things is outdated, at least for a fair number of us. We also blog, we have our own private sites – and often our own ‘business’ sites. And we want our blogs to be read, our sites to be found – and how can this happen unless there is a way for them to be found.

SEOs might say that this is where they come in, this is where they can help us – and this might well be true to an extent. I for one, however, would like my sites to be judged on their merits, read because they’re worth reading and not just because I’ve employed a bit of a wizard to do the optimisation. I’d like search to be fair – I don’t want my services to be at a disadvantage either to those who have a commercial tie-in with Google or to those who are paying a better SEO than mine. I want a right to be found – when I want to be found.

Do I have a right like that? Should I have a right like that? Cases like the Foundem case have asked that, but I don’t think we yet have an answer, or at least what answers we have have been inconclusive and hardly heard. Perhaps we should be asking it a bit more loudly.

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