Restoring the Balance of Democracy in SEO

We need more democratic SEOsMy fellow webizens: As millions gather today and cast their votes for the next President of the United States, we are reminded of America’s fundamental commitment to democracy these last 237 years — from the throwing off of monarchy and oppression in 1775, to the continuous and peaceful transition of power within the world’s most diverse society. Yet somehow on the Internet, we now find ourselves in a struggle against tyranny in its most pervasive form.

The Age of Revolution was arguably the crowning achievement of democracy in human history, which saw the founding of the United States and the French Republic, the restructuring of tyrannical societies, and the kindling of self-determination. The world was reawakened to Greek political ideals, brought forth through the writings of philosophers like John Locke and Rousseau, who wrote that the human spirit always longs for democracy.

I propose that today we are in the midst of a Second Age of Revolution, this time farther reaching than any revolution before. And yes, I’m serious. It began, peacefully, in the spring of 1996, when Google quietly went online. Larry Page and Sergey Brin envisioned a world where computer algorithms, not biased content owners, disseminated knowledge and web content freely based on merit, rather than power. Their machine crawled the web automatically and ranked sites by the quantity of their inbound links, rather than by any one editor’s opinion (Yahoo). Google’s great insight was that its search engine favored the wisdom of crowds, basing relevance and popularity on the web’s collective estimation, rather than a single individual’s — that is, democratically rather than autocratically.

The method proved to be revolutionary, and within a few years Google became the world’s largest and most trusted search engine. The web, which itself offers a voice for the world’s underrepresented, now had an apparatus for getting those voices heard; the best content, according to popular opinion, would be accessible for all.

SEO has always had a fundamental conflict of interest with the open democracy of Google. Almost from the very introduction of Google’s algorithm, people found a way to manipulate the search engine. We must concede that search engine optimization is, in an essential way, an attempt to alter the natural, organic democratic order of search rankings, influencing the way those results are shared with the world. SEOs have, since 1996 no doubt, prided themselves in this counter-revolution, as they have seized power from Google, and therefore from the crowds. SEOs have reaped the benefits of search engine manipulation, redirecting traffic to self-appointed websites, to enormous gain. They are clothed in an immense power, to quote Spielberg’s Lincoln, and they don’t want to lose it.

Google of course has fought back, with algorithm updates, over-optimization penalties, manual quality reviews, etc. Each time, some SEOs countered with more techniques, many of which Google “outlawed”, to mixed success. The back and forth has been an intriguing drama that sometimes resembles guerilla warfare.

But when Google comes down hard on destructive SEO practices, as it does over and over again, it is careful never to dismiss the entire industry. SEO has a very productive, important place in this democratic online society. Good SEO can ensure that a website is indexed appropriately by Google’s crawlers, so that the best content can reach the right audience. Google actually encourages proper SEO best-practices — as do screen-readers, mobile device manufacturers, and millions of people throughout the industry. As Google’s Webspam leader, Matt Cutts, has reiterated time and time again, good SEO is not spam.

It comes down to this: Good SEO is inherently democratic. Bad SEO is inherently autocratic. Think about it. If you are out there encouraging people to visit high-quality websites, obtaining relevant links in helpful places, making webpages precisely on-topic, and generally adding value to people’s lives by introducing them to good-fit websites, you are aiding in democracy. Competitively this is actually the best type of SEO to engage in, because you will encourage the crowds to build their own natural, relevant links to your website — and that is exactly what Google’s democratically-minded algorithms are looking for.

But if you are out there flooding the web with nonsense links, buying links from spammy directories, encouraging clicks in a dishonest way or generally manipulating your users’ experience for your own gain, you are contributing nothing of value to the Internet. You are nothing more than a greedy despot, frantically clinging onto power before the mob rushes the gates. The people will find you, and democracy will prevail.

Today I ask you what sort of SEO you want to be. Do you believe in the principle of democratically-elected websites, chosen by the people and for the people? Or do you think that might makes right, and that a content owner with the most aggressive black-hat strategies deserves to take the top spot in Google?

Educate the world, encourage relevance and share greatness: this is democratically-inspired SEO, and it is far more effective than any tyranny.

Now get out there and vote!