You may not have heard of search engine optimisation (SEO), but it will certainly have impacted your life. If you’ve ever searched for something on Google, you’ve probably already been affected by SEO – it’s the process of “gaming” Google’s algorithms to change what results will appear closer to the top in a search. On the whole, Google tries to use its algorithms to make sure only the best, most relevant websites make it to the top, but with the right knowledge of the system it’s possible to artificially improve your rankings on Google. There have even been recent, sinister stories of especially nefarious groups using this for their own ends – a neo-Nazi group at the end of last year had managed to get their page on Holocaust denial to the top spot if you searched for “did the Holocaust happen”. We at Tej Kohli Ventures are genuinely concerned about the worrying implications of this sort of practice – our founder, Tej Kohli himself, has always spoken out about the importance of a free, fair internet for our cultural discourse. Of course, SEO is usually carried out on behalf of businesses or high net worth individuals, not neo-Nazis – but is there still something ominous behind it?
What’s the problem with SEO?
The main problem with SEO, though, isn’t one isolated case of neo-Nazis using it to spread Holocaust denial, as bad as that is. It actually has a much more insidious and widespread effect, influencing a wide range of searches. SEO means that whoever is prepared to spend the most on SEO can almost guarantee themselves top spot on searches – which means that effectively, the conversation is dominated by big companies, who can afford to pay for vast SEO efforts, to the exclusion of everyone else. On the other hand, that worry may be overstated – as we’ve seen from the above example, it is still possible for minority, marginalised groups to punch above that weight, and that’s to be celebrated. So just how far big companies are able to dominate the discourse, then, seems to be open to debate – it is still possible for small businesses to make a disproportionate impact.
SEO’s reputation has also suffered from bad practices in its early days, when Google’s algorithms rewarded posting lots of poor, irrelevant content, instead of a small amount of high-quality and pertinent writing. But nowadays, as Google’s algorithms have improved, the way to improve your search rankings through SEO is generally to put out good, relevant and informative content. That’s hardly a recipe for a lower level of debate on the internet – on the contrary, it encourages businesses and individuals to post quality content regularly if they want to get ahead.
Why punishing SEO isn’t the way forward
In fact, when Google has been overzealous in punishing perceived SEO manipulation it’s led to companies practicing “negative SEO”. This involves creating thousands of links to a rival’s website, which is picked up by Google as an attempt by that rival to improve their search rankings unfairly (since how high you rank is influenced by how many people are linking to you). Google then punishes the rival – even though they’ve done nothing wrong and were only the victim of another company. So even if we were to crack down on SEO, there’s no guarantee that something much worse wouldn’t pop up in its place.
SEO sounds like it can’t be good for the health of the internet – after all, it seems to be inherently manipulating what you get to see when you make a search, all at the behest of wealthy companies and individuals. But in fact it gives smaller businesses the chance to compete with their bigger cousins in the industry, and forces everyone to write high quality copy if they want to maintain solid search rankings. So next time you here a negative scare story about SEO, be cautious – it may just be a lot of hot air.