Hi, I’m Ruining The Internet!

A picture of me, a white man with short light brown hair crouching down in a giant metal coffee cup that has "Kauai Coffee" written on the side and a logo of a women in a hula skirt.

It’s Me, Hi

I’m the problem

It’s me

-Taylor Swift “Anti-Hero”

When I came up with the idea for this blog, I had a list of things I wanted to write about. I even detailed the themes in the previous post, and in my “About Me” page. But what I also did was try and think of a few eye-catching “controversial” takes to write about on a platform I owned, my favorite still being the (still planned) “Keywords are trash.”

But nestled among those content ideas was something that I’m sure everyone in this industry has asked themselves at some point, “Are we the baddies?”

Looks like The Verge beat me to it.

On Alligator Parties And Deliberate POV

If you didn’t read it, the author wrote about her adventures trying to learn about “The People Who Ruined The Internet,” also known as my current career: SEO.

I have criticisms of the piece. I think it leaned a bit too far into the wacky and zany for the sake of making a hook and the author tried too hard to paint just how negatively she thought of my peers initially. As a result, the piece was pretty off-putting for people in the industry, as you can tell by the many angry responses to it.

I think that she really missed an obvious opportunity to compare the incentives that drive people doing SEO into spammy tactics with the pressure editors have to think of clickbait headlines or how authors have to watch the traffic their post generates in the hopes its high enough to get another gig.

She briefly touched on some of the conflict that The Verge had between their desire to make a “site for users” and the impact it might have on SEO, but there’s a lot more room to cover there. I think the most obvious one was their “Best Printer 2023” piece making fun of the fact that ML content could rank easily just by using the right words… and then it did. I would LOVE to read more about that story.

But she had a specific focus she wanted to go with, and while I don’t agree with it, the fact that over 200 people have provided back links to the article (201+ including me) in a bit over 24 hours is testament to the fact that her decision paid off.

I’ve never been to a party where a live alligator was the main draw. But I have seen Neil Patel, arguably one of the most visible “experts” in our industry write about how effective hiring beautiful women in revealing clothes to ask “who is Neil Patel” on Instagram was in generating traffic. I never built a PBN, but I am a member of an affiliate-focused Facebook group where people brag about them constantly.

I bet some of them have been to an alligator party. I bet all of us know people who would.

I think that criticisms of how she framed the piece, or how she wasted the opportunity she had to talk to some of the biggest names in our industry (Matt Cutts! Lily Ray!) are completely valid. But what I draw issue to is the knee jerk reaction from so many peers who missed the point of the article: that the incentives created by the modern web are actively contributing to making it worse.

This Is Not The First SEO Article The Verge Wrote This Year

I think an important piece of context that a lot of people miss with the piece is that it didn’t happen in a vacuum. This year is the 25th anniversary of Google and because of this, The Verge has an entire series of articles covering this from a bunch of different angles.

The most recent one was a cool bit about “Thai Restaurant Near Me” and the weird naming schemes local business make. One of my favorites was a piece on people managing their Shopify webstore and how they felt they were running a site to please Google and hoping they could get a few customers out of the deal.

In them, the common theme is that Google seems to be losing their way, and in that context, this piece fits in nicely, though it’s obviously the one that grabbed everyone’s attention because one thing you will NOT say about out industry is that we’re, on balance, a humble bunch. So when people talk about us, we have opinions. Like this blog.

Search Is Better And Worse Than It’s Ever Been

Another common response I see to the article is that “search is better than it ever has been!”

This is unquestionably true. Between rich answers, personalized results, and millions of other updates, I have a wealth of information at my finger tips in a way I didn’t even think was possible. I remember having to use boolean syntax regularly. Now, for a lot of searches I don’t.

E-E-A-T (Experience, Expertise, Authority, Trust) is starting to de-prioritize some of the worst misinformation out there and while SGE is (still) largely a trashfire, the future it promises is frankly incredible.

But when the article posits that search is now worse than it once was, this is also unquestionably true. Content spinning (past) and Generative AI mean that millions of pages flood Google’s index. As Lily Ray put in the article, these sites are often discovered and removed but they earn their owners hundreds of thousands of dollars in the short time they spend in the index.

A screenshot of Google's search results for "Best mattress for side sleepers" showing that one of the suggested modifiers is "unbiased"  which is highlighted in red by a pen.
Even Google knows people want “unbiased” reviews

Anything vaguely commercial is saturated with millions of websites trying to convince you that the company paying them money to post an affiliate link is really the best solution for your question. The novella we all scroll through to look up a recipe is practically a standing joke that even my non-tech-savvy friends laugh at. (yes, I know why they actually do it, that kinda reinforces the point)

Screenshot of Google's "Search Generative Experience" (SGE) for the question "Why are recipe posts so long". The highlighted answer is that it can allow them to copyright the work, but the top two suggestions are that it helps SEO and it helps them sell more ad space.
Google’s SGE Even Has The Answer To This

Heck, even Google realizes this is a problem, which is why they showed off their new “perspectives” feature meant to surface user generated content for “authentic” voices.

I use Google successfully dozens of times a day. I might have a terrible experience with them a handful of times a week. I remember the bad experiences. I bet you do too.

The internet is better than it was even three years ago, but in a lot of ways it’s also worse. It’s human nature to recall the negative easier than it is to remember how much it’s outweighed by the positive.

But more importantly, those negative impressions are what will drive future behavior. We all know this. We’ve all had clients that took their sites and made them actively worse for users in some way. It doesn’t matter if those users had years of excellent experience. Once you give them something super negative like that, many will leave and not come back.

That turning point is what this, and most of the pieces written at The Verge about Google are talking about. Google’s had 25 years of market dominance, but there’s a lot of criticisms of the platform and questions about the ability search has to handle generative AI spam that are valid. It’s a discussion worth having.

Because even if 90% of the searches someone has on Google are useful, it’s that 10% that will drive them way and they might not all come back. It’s a problem that Google needs to solve, which is why they’re actively trying to find a solution. As an industry that’s still mostly has our fate entwined with them, it’s not the worst thing if we try and tackle the problem too.

Missing The Mark But Finding A Target

Thousands of words have been written by SEO’s far more experienced and famous than I am about this piece. They’ve highlighted some historical inaccuracies (such as how long Danny Sullivan wrote about SEO before joining Google) and generally offered valid critiques of the opportunities the author missed because of the frame they chose.

This is not intended to invalidate those criticisms because I think they’re important.

But where I think we’re missing the mark is when we go beyond this and insist that the world she described doesn’t exist or is only a very small part of our industry, because both of those responses are a lie.

Is there a difference between a black-hat affiliate marketer and someone who helps a company improve their technical SEO? Of course. But that doesn’t mean that we’re in two different industries. Even if you’ve never engaged in black hat tactics yourself, if you’ve been in this industry long enough, you’ve had clients that worked with “Alligator Party” SEOs either before or after they worked with you.

We can’t “No True Scotsman” ourselves out of association, even if those black-hats do the job in a totally different way, they’re still doing the job. Some of the best writing I’ve read about this industry is by people taking a critical eye to the darker corners of it and I think we need to do more of that.

It’s ok to be proud of the work you do and you lose nothing by admitting that our industry is full of flaws. Now if you’ll excuse me, I apparently have to speak to an Alligator about the company they keep.