The SEO Arms Race

Anil Dash has a solid post called Underscores, Optimization & Arms Races, discussing the early days of search engine optimization, and Google’s role in our tuning content and even how the internet functions to appease it. He’s coming from a background of helping create some of the early CMS and blogging tools of the time, so it’s definitely an “in the trenches” sort of perspective, which I appreciate.

Eventually, people wanted to have the whole title of their article show up in the web address. Part of this was just because it looked cool, but some folks had started to suspect that having those words in the address might help a blog post rank higher on Google. (Google was still a smaller player in the overall web search market at the time, but it was already by far the most popular search engine amongst internet geeks.)

They weren’t wrong – it improved how parseable an article was for readers, and also seemed to help with page ranking on Google. But you have to break up those words somehow, so were you going to do it with dashes, underscores, or some other character?

There was a feel of Kremlinology to the way his minor public utterances would be parsed for any hints that outsiders could glean about Google’s inner workings. But just as often, Cutts would make clear pronouncements of What To Do, and these were received by the SEO community almost as religious edicts.

Cutts recommended dashes (not for any particular technical reason as far as I can tell), and so that’s what was adopted en masse. There was never a reason underscores couldn’t have worked just as well. Now, it’s a pretty minor quibble, and realistically, one option tends to become a de facto standard eventually anyway. So why does it matter? Because the more we constrain ourselves to fit what large corporations want, the more we constrain and limit what might be possible with the internet.

Now, the challenge is to reform these systems so that we can hold the big platforms accountable for the impacts of their algorithms. We’ve got to encourage today’s newer creative communities in media and tech and culture to not constrain what they’re doing to conform to the dictates of an opaque, unknowable algorithm. We have to talk about the choices we made in those early days, even at risk of embarrassing ourselves by showing how naive we were about the influence these algorithms would have over culture.

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