One of the things you can count on in the hyper-charged world of the new media is that people will take a good -- or at least innocuous -- idea and utterly beat it to death.
That's pretty much what has happened with Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
Now understand, I have nothing against SEO per se. What I object to is the blind attempt to substitute tricks for serious content. The belief that if you're just clever enough in messing with Google, or Yahoo, or whatever, you will be successful whether or not you've got anything to say that people want to hear.
The business of getting a high placement in Google has become a growth industry on the web. There are dozens of consultants, books, articles and even videos out there purporting to show you how to move up in the rankings so you appear earlier when someone searches a particular word or phrase.
Some of the methods SEO companies employ are ethically -- interesting, to say the very least. For example some of them have noticed that getting mentioned in blogs increases your page ranking, so they began offering pay per mention deals where they'd pay bloggers to mention their clients in their blogs. A couple of months ago Google changed its algorithm, as it does when these kinds of schemes get too obnoxious, and started removing the page ranks of the paid-off bloggers. Needless to say there was much fluttering in the dovecotes of the companies promoting these schemes.
So what, you may ask, is wrong with that? After all higher rankings mean more business. So why not try to get the highest ranking you possibly can?
There are two things wrong with this. I find this particular scheme personally offensive because it violates old-school journalistic ethics which say you should clearly and unequivocally separate advertising from content.
Perhaps that's just me and a few old newspaper dinosaurs. But the second problem is both more general and much worse.
What's wrong with it is that essentially SEO of any sort is an attempt to game the system. It tries to use the characteristics of Google's search algorithms to increase ranking instead of concentrating on what those rankings are supposed to reflect.
And that, simply put, is content. Ultimately content is what draws viewers. Relevant content presented in an interesting way will bring in people and what's more it will provide you with the strongest possible kind of advertising -- word of mouth.
If these optimized sites were offering real value it wouldn't much matter how Google did its math. They'd still come out well. And in fact the sites that combine SEO with real, useful content do pretty well consistently. They may use SEO to help sell the sizzle, but there's steak there too.
Selling the sizzle not the steak is fine. But it presupposes that there is in fact a steak under all the sizzle. SEO quickly becomes a matter of being all sizzle and no steak. It is the equivalent of a sideshow barker making outrageous claims to lure people into the tent, where the "eighth wonder of the world" turns out to be a completely disappointing experience. And that, far too often, is what you get from highly 'optimized' sites.
This isn't new, of course. Advertising has had this problem in cycles for years. Advertisers have squandered hundreds of millions of dollars on ads that got noticed but ultimately didn't sell the product. Since I minored in advertising in college I've seen the cycle repeat in television and print probably three or four times.
The problem is exacerbated in web advertising because the main measurement of success is page views. Advertisers want page views and click through and that's what web sites try to deliver, no matter how.
Of course the problem with this approach is that neither page views nor click throughs make a dime for the advertiser. It takes sales to do that and these measures do not necessarily translate into sales. In fact if the reader finds that high-ranking page doesn't reflect his or her actual interest, you can pretty much guarantee it won't result in a sale. Such pages, no matter how expertly optimized for ranking, are wasted money for advertisers and ultimately the people who put them up.
One of the reasons SEO has grown to the bloated proportions it has is that search engine rank represents an easy, cheap metric. Ten years ago when no one in the web business had any money, you could justify taking the easy way out and using search rank as the way to decide where to put the pittance you had to spend on advertising.
Of course that's no longer true and the entire web advertising industry is realizing they need better metrics.
What is going to happen, and indeed it is already beginning to happen, is that advertisers are going to get wise to what actually sells products online. When that happens SEO will diminish to its proper proportions.