How SEO's fundamental, inescapable flaws ruin smart people

How SEO's fundamental, inescapable flaws ruin smart people

My first SEO content job was in 2011 and paid $0.01/word. As a graduate instructor, I realized the stipend I received from the English department couldn't possibly cover tuition, food, and rent. So I began writing SEO keyword-stuff articles on topics like:

  • How I built a perpetual motion machine to power my own home, and you could buy the same plans for just $19.99! (Ignore the fact perpetual motion violates the fundamental laws of physics, and also I wasn't a homeowner.)
  • How taking this $39.99 course on self-defense let me, a lightweight, single-handedly fend off home intruders with the skill of a black belt. (This... did not happen.)
  • Whether was a scam or not. (The first line was, "My name is Thomas Bryant, and I’m writing this Chopper Tattoo review." Only half that is true.)

Looking through my folder of old articles, I found dozens of 1000-word "reviews". The quality was incredibly low. I'd write just enough stream-of-consciousness garbage to string together a laundry list of SEO keywords resulting in sentences like this:

Right away, the site gave me links to browse several different types of tattoos such as tribal tattoos, dragon tattoos, Celtic tattoos, Gothic tattoos, and much more. I’ve been to some tattoo sites that either don’t give their users enough selection when trying to browse a certain type of tattoo or that have too many options.

But in 2011, that kind of crap worked. The clients who bought this deeply flawed, unreadable content saw their sites rank first for target keywords.

I share this because it highlights an uncomfortable truth about SEO: it's kind of always been a scam. From the moment mainstream media reported on how you could Google "miserable failure" and see the White House biography of George W. Bush as the first result, search rankings have followed an inevitable decline in quality and usefulness.

Here's how SEO was supposed to work:

  1. Facing the endless piles of content on the web, a user turns to a search engine and types what they're trying to find
  2. The search engine uses a ranking of every page in its index to find the most relevant result. This is likely the content that has authority (measured by how frequently other sites refer to it positively), depth (measured by length and page structure), and relevance (measured by the presence of target search keywords and semantically associated keywords).
  3. Using that ranking, the search engine returns the most relevant result first, with the second-most relevant second, etc.

If you've been in marketing for any length of time, you know that writing content "for SEO", or updating content "for SEO", or adding tags "for SEO" is just what content managers do. Even the most inexperienced, unsophisticated clients working at underfunded nonprofits know there are things you're supposed to do so you get "good SEO".

That was the idea. 

However, what actually happens in SEO looks more like this:

  1. Someone figures out a flaw in the search algorithm that lets them manipulate search results (keyword stuffing, private blog networks, etc.)
  2. SEO consultants use this manipulation to increase client rankings, having decent results at first.
  3. As usage of this manipulation spreads, search results become less relevant for actual people. Users are essentially tricked into seeing the pages with the best execution of the manipulation – not the most relevant content or results. The web gets filled with content designed to promote this manipulation. This can be as simple as an article with certain keywords. Or it can be entire websites that exist with "dummy" content for the sole purpose of being seen by search engines and increasing the ranking of the "real" target site. ("If all these sites point to mine, how can it be anything but good?" is the logic, and it kinda works.)
  4. Search engines (most notably Google) adjust their algorithm to either de-rank or even penalize sites using the manipulation. "Sorry, no refunds" say the SEO consultants.
  5. SEO consultants switch to another ranking manipulation technique and continue filling the internet with new, slightly different content. This provides consultants with a great source of billable hours for their accounting. Then the old content typically stays online, filling the web with endless noise.

It's... not great. Google's response has been to steal scrape information and use AI-enhanced snippets that undermine the entire point of SEO. 

By looking back at how SEO started, we can see why it was fundamentally flawed from the beginning.

How Jefferson Starship's manager sort of invented SEO

Anecdotally, the origin story of optimizing web content for SEO begins with Jefferson Starship, whose existence I know of exclusively from a throwaway Simpsons gag.

Homer Simpson driving a car
"Grand Funk Railroad paved the way for Jefferson Airplane which cleared the way for Jefferson Starship. The stage was now set for the Alan Parsons Project." – S07E24

In 1995, Jefferson Starship manager Bob Thompson was trying to show the band's new website to a promoter. But Thompson couldn't find it. He then realized that if he inserted the band's name over and over again onto the site, search engines would rank it first for the term "Jefferson Starship".

Just like that, a way to gamify search rankings was born.

Yes, this was dumb, blunt, and revealing. The search engine crawlers didn't have the ability to know authority, relevance, or user intent. But it's what we had at the time.

As you may notice from my previous SEO work, not everything that ranks is true. I spent a bit of time trying to verify whether this story is true. It's been repeated and told enough by "authoritative" sources that the story's being presented as truth.

But is it true? In the many, many retellings of this anecdote, I didn't even find the name of the central character of the story (the manager). If Jefferson Starship's manager did this, and the band presumably only had one manager at a time, we can figure out who that is, right?

I did a bit of looking and found that the band's manager at one time was Bob Thompson, who unfortunately passed in 2015. And since he also managed Jefferson Airplane, it's likely Starship was managed by the same guy.

I found one source that actually did some research to attempt to put this all together. It also includes some fun screenshots of the 1995-era website – go check it out.

If SEO has always been flawed, what took so long for it to be bad?

If you don't know XKCD, you should. The creator, Randall Munroe, is perhaps one of the greatest philosophers of our time. (As opposed to the kind of people typically referred to as the great modern philosophers, who end up in a Romanian prison on sex trafficking charges.)

I think about his comic on web infrastructure a lot:

Someday ImageMagick will finally break for good and we'll have a long period of scrambling as we try to reassemble civilization from the rubble.

A recent episode of Ed Zitron's Better Offline explained how the quality of Google's search was protected for over a decade by one person, Ben Gomes. Gomes was pressured by management to make search worse for the sake of goosing daily numbers. He refused, citing the negative impact on user experience.

This Reddit post summarizes what happened better than I could:

Some very interesting insights coming out as to why the SERPs are providing low-quality search results at the moment on Google, which is coming from internal issues/politics at Google:
In February 2019, Google's ads and finance teams called a "code yellow" on search, because revenue was slow and - seriously - people were not asking Google enough questions. Ben Gomes, then head of search, refused to make Google Search worse for profit— Ed Zitron (@edzitron) April 23, 2024
Gomes managed to help get Google through the code yellow - but Raghavan demanded more, saying Ben hadn't increased queries enough. Gomes sent a letter to stating he was "deeply, deeply uncomfortable" with the ways that Google wanted to grow search— Ed Zitron (@edzitron) April 23, 2024
Prabhakar Raghavan may be a computer scientist, but he joined Google in 2012 as a manager, working directly under CEO Sundar Pichai, a former McKinsey man. Raghavan is a class traitor that deliberately ran out Ben Gomes, who worked on search for 19 years.— Ed Zitron (@edzitron) April 23, 2024
Prabhakar Raghavan is a career failure, a man who has fallen upwards into the most important job in software, and since becoming head of search in 2020, Google has become an ultra-profitable and increasingly less-useful site. Raghavan is a villain. — Ed Zitron (@edzitron) April 23, 2024
Google replaced a founding member who was passionate about user experience for a guy who worked at Yahoo and caused Yahoo to make considerable losses financially, this explains perfectly why Google is a complete mess at the moment
This is a classic example of exactly what Steve Jobs said was the reason why monopolist companies die:
When you have monopoly market share, the company's not any more successful. So the people that can make the company more successful are sales and marketing people, and they end up running the companies. And the product people get driven out of the decision making forums, and the companies forget what it means to make great products. The product sensibility and the product genius that brought them to that monopolistic position gets rotted out by people running these companies that have no conception of a good product versus a bad product. They have no conception of the craftsmanship that's required to take a good idea and turn it into a good product. And they really have no feeling in their hearts, usually, about wanting to really help the customers – Steve Jobs

Why wasn't SEO worse earlier? Because someone who gave a damn stood in the way. I've long said that it only takes one person in the room to say "No" to stop a bad idea. Ben Gomes holding back the decay of the world's top search engine is proof.

But the MBAs have had their way, at least for now. And we see exactly what happens when people who forget humanity win.

From web search, to the housing crisis, to the way the world's wealthiest nation doesn't even have affordable health care, the sociopathic focus on numbers over humanity is eroding society from within.

The people in charge of search engines today don't care about whether a real person finds the actual best answer; they care about making stock values go up. That's a problem. And if left unchecked, usable search will remain a thing of the past.

SEO's fundamental, inescapable flaws

The story of SEO becomes a mini case study of how fundamentally flawed SEO is in the first place. It's not about finding truth, or providing accurate information; it's about the appearance of credibility as measured by whatever artificial metric search engines use.

Authority is very difficult to measure

How do you know if a site is credible? In academic settings, there'd be a peer review process where research would be validated by qualified peers capable of producing the same work. But in search engine rankings, there isn't a viable way to scale the manual effort of assessing a page's authority. It all has to be done automatically, using quantitative methods.

To solve this, search engines will identify metrics that could be used to rank a site. But each of the known authority metrics has limits.

Quality of referring sites: If a site with high credibility links to another domain, it's likely the site being linked to shares similar credibility, right? Not necessarily.  "Colin is a successful person, so his brother Chet must also be successful." But Chet's the kind of guy who still does a Joker impression 14 years too late, and speaks in an embarrassing faux-Jamaican patois.

Proximity is not the same as shared credibility. Yet even in 2024, private blog networks – those sites that exist solely to link back and provide credibility to a target domain – still work. Humans will likely never read this content, but it's still using electricity and generating carbon emissions merely by existing.

This flaw in search rankings is sites were a massive target for link injection hacks for a while (and still are).

Optimization results in sameness

When there's a single, definitele resource with strict requirements that’s telling everyone what makes for a "good" website, and a business's revenue depends on adhering to those requirements, the result is a bunch of websites that look the same.

This excellent, engaging article from Mia Sato at The Verge shows how the internet reshaped itself around Google's search algorithms, resulting in a net where every site looks pretty much identical.

I can't explain how good that article is, please just go read it (and prepare to feel disillusioned about the modern web). You'll never feel nostalgia for crusty (but unique) Angelfire sites like you will after reading that.

Focusing on ranking means losing focus on human connection

As an MBA, I'm qualified to tell you that MBAs aren't necessarily smart. Business school teaches you to be laser-focused on whatever measurable standard determines your paycheck.

  • If your client is paying you to increase search rankings, your job is to increase rankings no matter what
  • If you're at a public company and your bosses (shareholders) want to see big returns this quarter, your job is to goose the numbers so it looks like this quarter was successful... even if that harms your business six months from now

And so on. You'll notice that these aren't, "Make a product so goodpeople want to become lifetime customers". In fact, a product that's too good is seen as "bad". Look what happened to Instant Pot: a private equity firm (MBAs) bought the company, then used the company's value to take our $500 million in debt. Instant Pot could never make enough as a company to repay that debt because, who needs more than one Instant Pot? Come on, boneheads.

Buying Instant Pot temporarily made the private equity's value go up. But now, a good business and thousands of jobs are gone because some predatory ghouls wanted a quick buck. Screw those guys.

The same problem exists in marketing, especially around SEO. The more we hyperfixate on metrics like search rankings, the less we're able to take a step back and see how viable and sustainable our activities are.

The zero-click approach advocated by the marketing geniuses at SparkToro makes the most sense in the current environment. "But we can't track it!" say the marketing directors who insist on being rewarded for any metric besides "net sales".

(Seriously, it's disheartening how often marketers try to avoid connecting their work's value to actual revenue. It's almost like most marketing activities are just glorified time fillers with no real impact on the bottom line.)

Turns out that you can pretty much use a gut feeling to gauge success.

Until we treat every marketing strategy in a way that keeps our long-term, human goals in mind, we're doomed to make the world dumber. But the data is clear: not only does optimizing for search engine rankings become less and less effective with each Google update, other marketing approaches deliver more consistent results. Zero-click marketing requires trust that what you're creating is actually worth consuming – a big ask, I know. And it's hard for garbage SEO agencies to promote their services if actual quality becomes a factor.