The long-term danger of a short-term effect

5 July 2009

I was going to write on the insidious effect of search-engine optimisation (SEO) on communication but Read/Write Web basically wrote the first half of it for me:

"It's happening to more and more of the blogs I read: the personality, quirkiness and unique voice that once made them so appealing to me are fading. In their place, an SEO-driven uniformity that puts keyword placement ahead of pretty much everything.

"That approach has been afflicting newspapers for some time, as clever headlines give way to the kind of blandness that only a machine could love (which is no coincidence, because machines are the target audience). And many pro bloggers who rely on AdSense for their revenue have been doing it for years.

"But now I'm starting to see it trickle into the blogging of friends and loved ones. I understand the desire to rank more highly in search engines, but as SEO goes mainstream, I can't help but feel we're losing something."

(I don't normally copy out most of a blog post, but you might want to go there anyway as there's also a cartoon.)

The long-term effect of SEO is the thing that really bothers me. The chances are that Google and other search engines will react faster than those creating the 'rules' that people think they need to obey to get better rankings. But the rules might stick around long enough to become a tradition. Worse, they might even forget why the rules were created: "Why are we doing this?"; "That's the way we do it round here."

And, let's face it, what's so great about the idea of writing for a machine? Machines can't read. It's going to be a while before they can read. All they can do, for the moment, is make a list of keywords and their relative positions from which they compute some kind of weighting matrix. All we can hope for in the short term is that the war of keyword stuffing gets so bad - and it's a war where the spammers and sploggers are better able to push keyword stuffing as far as it will go - that the search engines get better at looking for the warning signs of over-SEOd pages.

But spam has encouraged search engines to ignore the out-of-band data that writers could use to improve findability without wrecking the text itself. The meta tag? Vestigial at best and yet with better heuristics to spot spammy pages this is arguably the best home for SEO data. Far better, from the point of view of people than stuffing the SEO data in headlines and crossheads.

The effect on Google of widespread SEO has not done the search engine that much good either. It's taken a while, but the results pages for many popular topics are showing the creeping nonsense that afflicted AltaVista on its way down. The problem for Microsoft is that Bing starts off just as bad.