Between 1998 and 2003, searching for something on Google was magical. I remember inputting a vague notion like "oil mother's milk," and being directed to an interview with Thomas Gold, an astrophysicist who postulated that hydrocarbon deposits refilled themselves because of geological pressure.
Today, if you're looking for something that is technical, specific, academic or generally non-commercial, good frigging luck. The world's best information retrieval system has devolved into something reminiscent of 2006-era Digg: A popularity index that's controlled by a small number of commercially motivated players. They call themselves "SEOs."
Technical search-engine optimization specialists get a pass: They generally make the web faster, safer and more accessible. "Black hat" SEOs are obvious villains. They boost their own web rankings by breaking the law (e.g. hacking into a website to add links back to their own). But, black hats are the petty criminals of the SEO world. It's the "white hat" SEOs, the supposed good guys, who are the wolves in sheep's clothing.
These web marketers have a simple strategy: to squelch competition by concentrating authority. They march behind a banner of legitimacy and self righteousness, and like a totalitarian regime, they believe their end justifies their means. Here are some of the tactics they use:
If you've ever re-read an article and sworn that the headline, hyperlinks and headings were modified, you're not imagining it. SEO specialists "optimize" old articles to make them more marketable (and to drive visitors into newer, more commercial content). When I look back at articles that I wrote a decade ago, they've been updated with text that I didn't write, carrying meanings that I didn't mean.
Erasing the past
"Content pruning" is an effective SEO tactic on large, established websites. Rather that archiving old content with historical significance, many websites will delete it from their servers and return a 410 status code. Gone. The goal is to optimize "crawl budget," keeping Google focused on the content that matters now. The result is a web without institutional memory or accountability.
Directing the narrative
Show me a modern newsroom and I'll show you a content strategist whom writers are expected to consult. But, when journalists feel pressured to write about topics they are not comfortable with, or, when they are compelled to phrase things in a specific way, "SEO best practices" start to look like propaganda. This is the cable news effect, where a behind-the-scenes strategist is editing the script and pushing every trend as "Breaking News!"
Providing the illusion of choice
A handful of publishing companies own hundreds media websites that collectively receive billions of search engine visits each year. Search for "best smartphone" and you may see results from websites like TechRadar, Android Central, T3, Tom's Guide, Anandtech, iMore or Top Ten Reviews. It doesn't matter which site you vote for with your click, the ballot is stacked: All of those websites are owned by a single company.
Links are the currency of the web. Without them, search engines couldn't judge the relative worth of one page versus another. Unfortunately, many large websites hoard their link equity by refusing to link to external websites, or, by using a rel="nofollow" attribute on every external link (i.e. telling search engines to ignore those links). This makes the entire web poorer as a result.
SEO is a zero-sum game that has a loser for every winner. But, we all lose when SEO promotes gaslighting, link rot, conformity, monopoly and subversion. I remember when it was easy to find logic, facts, and reason on the web. Then, someone optimized it.