May 6, 2021

Someday, the sun will set on SEO — and the business of news will be better for it

Someday, the sun will set on SEO — and the business of news will be better for it

There is no question that search generally, and Google (the dominant search provider) specifically, are modern miracles. But it’s worth noting that Google provides a button labeled “I’m feeling lucky” to take users to just one page in response to their search — and that a few years ago it revealed that only about one search in one hundred takes advantage of this option. Why? Presumably because users have found that the page often won’t be the one they were looking for.

Supposedly in response to this problem, search engine optimization (SEO) has grown up in the last decade as the dark art of online publishing. Sites hire SEO experts, divine new SEO practices, invest ever greater resources in SEO. SEO is composed of a number of techniques, some simple, others devilishly complex, for attracting the attention of search engines to content.

Some of these are innocent, like “tagging” content to indicate its subject. Some alter the content a bit, making it less variant and interesting, but probably not less valuable. Witty headlines are abandoned in favor of prosaic titles, returning headline practices to those of 19th-century newspapers. Sentences are shortened and standardized. But other effects are more troubling. “Content farms” grow up and harvest billion-dollar stock market capitalizations from creating content that search engines will serve up ahead of others — not, by definition, content that doesn’t already exist, but rather content that will enjoy a commercial advantage over other similar content that does exist but is less easily found. Websites profit and grow from appropriating content from other sites, and aggregating it in a way that will induce search engines to send traffic to the often superficial aggregator ahead of the more substantive original content creator.

But all of these practices and trends prove, more than anything, not that search rules the web, but rather that Larry Page was right, and that search engines remain deeply imperfect. That is because SEO, when reduced to its essence, is aimed at directing searchers not to the information they seek, but to where the publisher wants them to go; any overlap of the two is coincidental. Remember, it’s called “search engine optimization,” not “search optimization.”

Source: Richard J. Tofel, general manager at ProPublica, via Nieman Journalism Lab

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