Thursday, April 15, 2010

Why It's OK To Manipulate Google

A lot of people hate SEO. Any attempt to influence the search engines looks like underhanded manipulation to them. You can say they overreact, but here's the truth: it would be fine even if they weren't overreacting. It's OK to manipulate Google. Here's why.

Say I don't want to use Twitter on the Web. Say I google for a Twitter client. What does Google give me?

Say you feel Tweetie is the best Twitter client. (Twitter did.) Google gives me useless noise before Tweetie: any combination of the word "Twitter" and "client", with none of Google's usual concern for relevance. Why does it do this? Because this useless noise happens to be on Twitter.

Google engineers buy into the Imperial Californian Ideology. One core tenet of this ideology is that integrating Twitter into your product and/or service matters much, much more than finding any valid reason to integrate Twitter into your product and/or service. Harmless enough, this time. This isn't enough to justify anything. But there's more.

As a geek and blogger who's discovered internet marketing, I see a lot of internet marketing content that says you need to create a blog, because Google will push your content higher up in the search results if it's on a blog. So start a blog, if you want to game Google. But say you don't want to game Google. Say your goal is to get valid search results from your search engine. You'll fail without knowing it, because Google will overestimate the value of arbitrary content if it appears on a blog.

Google doesn't just buy into the Imperial Californian Ideology; it also presents that ideology as fact.

Google is an author.

Imagine a news anchor who claims an election's over before it really is. The supporters of the "loser" get discouraged and go home. The supporters of the "winner" rally and cheer, and vote anyway because it's fun. The premature declaration of victory becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Google plays this role. Google's self-assured sense of righteousness and goal of "don't be evil" often combine with what appears to be either a desire for omniscience, or a presumption of omniscience. It's like some Google engineers think they're building God, and all the other ones think they already have. But the results they present as objective represent a particular opinion about the Web.

As an aside, the theocratic arrogance is not so surprising, because on a fundamental level, Google is doing what the Roman Catholic Church did. When the Roman Empire fell, its gigantic nervous system stayed intact and transformed into a religious organization. The aristocracy who controlled the Empire, and enjoyed a powerful transnational network for amassing and transferring wealth, dropped their military and their government but kept amassing and transferring wealth. They got so good at rhetoric that they threw away their swords. You don't have to threaten somebody with soldiers and tax collectors if they already think your invisible friend can magic them into a lake of fire for an indefinite period.

Today, the Catholic Church harbors pedophiles from justice; in the Middle Ages, there were Popes who died in the beds of married women. But the Catholic Church also built all the orphanages, schools, hospitals, and libraries of Europe, and continues that tradition today with missionary work all over the world. When people get very wealthy, they often become philanthropic and charitable, or hedonistic and even depraved. The same is true for networks of people. The history of the Catholic Church is filled with philanthropy, charity, depravity, and hedonism because it's been very wealthy for a very long time. It was very wealthy when it was called the beauraucracy of the Roman Empire, it's very wealthy today, and it was very wealthy in between.

You might wonder what this has to do with Google. I'll explain. Many dialects of English exist; depending where you live, the dialect considered correct is the variant spoken by the President of the United States or the variant spoken by the Queen of England. On the internet, no matter where you live, the dialect considered correct is the variant spoken by Google. Today, the rulers of Western society use Google to exert linguistic dominance. The rulers of Western society used to exert linguistic dominance with journalists and professors. Before that, they used Catholic priests. Before that, they used Roman soldiers.

I have to admit, I don't know what else this has to do with Google. It's always interesting to read your own unfinished blog posts and wonder where the hell you were going with something. If I had to guess, I'd say it's about that girl ten years ago who made me think she was going to dump her boyfriend for me but then didn't. Her boyfriend worked for Google. That bitch!

Anyway, I don't know how I was going to pin the Roman Empire on her, but I'm sure it's her fault somehow. Point is, Google pretends to objectivity but insteads presents an opinion about the Web, and that bothers me for some reason. First because it's dishonest to call opinion fact, second because of the Roman Empire somehow, and third because I don't agree with the particular opinion. For instance, in my opinion, Google should only show me results from Twitter when they're useful.

What if that's not the only way I disagree with Google's opinion of the Web?

Google’s algorithm gives preferential treatment to big brand websites.

Say you run a mom-and-pop business selling exercise bikes on the Internet. Say you're having a clearance sale, and it gets on Digg because it's such an amazing clearance sale, and then you go on TV because Larry King wants to interview you about your amazing clearance sale. Good for you! I'm proud. But Google isn't proud of you. If you go on Google, this is what you find: the number one search result on Google for "exercise bike clearance" is an error page on which says "We could not find any matches for exercise bike."

Error pages on carry more weight than valid pages on a mom-and-pop site.

I'm not even going to go into how this provides an obvious counter-example to the crazy authoritarians who claim affecting search results is so evil that even wanting search results to be different makes you a bad person. It's a waste of time; you can always take a flamethrower to a straw man. It demonstrates a more important point.

It's OK to game Google, because Google is gaming you. Google is a pimp, and we are its hoes. They're not building God in Mountain View. They're building (among several other things) a machine for turning the Web into a narrative. The narrative favors entrenched corporations at the expense of independent business, which is a terrible thing. It also favors Palo Alto fashion over practical utility, which is merely annoying. If you think there's something evil about trying to change that narrative, you're nuts. That narrative needs to change; where it's unfair, it needs to become fair, and where it's irritating, it needs to become fun.

By the way, if you're puzzled by the cynicism about religion, I think it's because I just read a great book with a very cynical take on religion: To Reign In Hell, by Steven Brust. I think it's the best Satanist book ever written, but I could be wrong.