Alex Bosworth has an excellent post on the heavy hand of Google on the Web. The gist of the piece: search engine optimization (SEO) is evil--but don't blame the optimizers, blame the ecosystem that Google has created.
Several years ago, Dan Geer argued the costs of a monoculture based on Windows on the desktop. Bosworth is similarly arguing that a monoculture in search is destroying the Web. Here's the argument in a nutshell:
- Google's algorithm forces sites to behave in specific ways
- Conforming to Google's whims in these areas reduces your freedom
- Worse, it makes you lazy since no feature set change is going to bring as many visitors as SEO
- As a consequence, your Web site is less useful than it should be and fails to foster community
I originally designed SWiK to be a community site about open source, where people could come to help each other use and learn about using cool, useful and interesting projects. The small number of monthly visits from users interested in that idea very quickly became dwarfed by the 200,000 Google referred visits every day. That original idea morphed into two basic priorities: optimize our pages and links for Google, and make sure our incredibly overtaxed server doesn't die serving that many visits, not to mention the 1 million pages requested every day by the search bots.
Prioritizing community building features that would bring in hundreds of visits versus Google features that would bring in hundreds of thousands of visits, what choice is there? I'm not really sure, but it seems like there has to be a better way.
There's a funny site that shows how Google would change if it followed it's own rules. Google wouldn't be highly ranked by Google.
I've noticed this affect on my own blog. Probably half of my visitors everyday come from Google. Most of them don't really care about what I've written, they're just looking for a quick answer to a question or free mobile calls. What's more, since I don't advertise on my site, I don't really get much from them. Regular readers leave comments, respond in their own blog, or otherwise connect with me. Drive-by googlers don't as a rule.
Over the years, I've tried various things to convert the drive-by's to regular readers, but it's a losing proposition in general because the difference in motivation. This is just what Alex is getting at in his post. SEO doesn't lead to where you want to be if your goal is to build community--and the lure is sufficiently great, that many would-be community sites will be sucked into the short term game of using SEO to generate revenue from ads. We're all the poorer for it.