Search Engines, Search Engine Optimisation – and us!

Last week, Google announced that it was making SSL encryption the default on all searches for ‘signed in’ people. They announced it as a move towards better security and privacy, and some people (myself included) saw it as a small but potentially significant step in the right direction. Almost as soon as the announcement was out, however, stories saying exactly the opposite began to appear: the blogosphere was abuzz. One of the more notable – one that was tweeted around what might loosely be described as ‘privacy circles’ came in the Telegraph. “Google is selling your privacy at a price” was the scary headline.

So who was right? Was it a positive move for privacy, or another demonstration that Google doesn’t follow its own mantra about doing evil? Perhaps, when you look a little deeper, it was neither – and both Google and those who wrote stories like that in the Telegraph have another agenda. Perhaps it’s not what happened with SSL, but that agenda that we should be concerned about. The clue comes from looking a bit closer at who wrote the story in the Telegraph: Rob Jackson, who is described as ‘the MD of Elisa DBI, a digital business measurement and optimisation consultancy’. That is, he comes from the Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) industry. What’s happening here isn’t really much to do with privacy as far as either Google or the SEO industry – it’s just another episode in the cat-and-mouse story between search engines and those who want to ‘manipulate’ them, a story that’s been going on since search engines first appeared. The question is, how do we, the ordinary citizens of cyberspace, fit into that story. Do we benefit from the ongoing conflict and tension between the two, a tension which brings about developments both on both a technological and business level – or are we, as some think is true in much of what goes on in cyberspace, just being used to make money by all concerned, and our privacy and autonomy is neither here nor there?

What’s really going on?

As far as I can see, the most direct implication of the implementation of SSL encryption is that Google are preventing webmasters of sites reached through a Google search – and SEOs – from seeing the search term used to find them. Whether those webmasters – let alone the SEOs – have any kind of ‘right’ to know how they were found is an unanswered question, but for the webmasters it is an annoyance at least. For SEOs, on the other hand, it could be a major blow, as it undermines a fundamental part of the way that they work. That, it seems to me, is why they’re so incensed by the move – it makes their job far harder to do. Without having at least some knowledge of which search term produces which result, how can they help sites to be easier to find? How can they get your site higher on the search results, as they often claim to be able to do?

I have little doubt that they’ll find a way – historically they always have. With every new development of search there’s been a corresponding development by those who wish to get their sites – or more directly the sites of their clients – higher up the lists, from choosing particular words on the sites to the use of metatags right up to today’s sophisticated SEOs. Still, it’s interesting that the story that they’ve been pushing out is that Google is ‘selling your privacy for a price’. That in itself is somewhat misleading. A more honest headline might have been:

‘Google is STILL selling your privacy for a price, but now they’re trying to stop us selling it too!’

Google has, in many ways, always been selling your private information – that’s how their business model works, using the terms you use to search in order to target their advertising – but with the SSL move they’ve made it harder for others to use that information too. They themselves will still know the search terms, and seems to still be ‘selling’ the terms to those using their AdWords system – but that’s what they’ve pretty much always done, even if many people have remained blissfully unaware that this was what was happening.

There’s another key difference between Google and the SEOs – from Google, we do at least get an excellent service in exchange for letting them use our search terms to make money. Anyone who remembers the way we used to navigate the web before Google should acknowledge that what they do makes our online lives much faster and easier. There’s an exchange going on, an exchange that is at least to an extent mutually beneficial. It’s part of the symbiotic relationship between the people using the internet and the businesses who run the fundamental services of the internet that is described in my theory of The Symbiotic Web. With SEOs, the question is whether we – particularly in our capacity as searchers – are actually benefiting at all.

The business of Search Engine Optimisation

Who DOES benefit from the work of SEOs? Their claims are bold. As Rob Jackson puts it in the Telegraph article:

“One leading SEO professional told me that Google is essentially reverse-engineered by the the SEO professionals around the world. If they were all to stop at once, Google wouldn’t be able to find its nose.”

It’s a bold claim, but I suspect that people within Google would be amused rather than alarmed by the idea. Do we, as users, benefit from the operations of SEOs? On the face of it, it appears unlikely: searchers want to find the sites most relevant and useful to them, not the sites whose webmasters have employed the best SEOs to optimise their sites. Excellent and relevant sites and services get pushed down the search list by less good and less helpful sites who have used the most advanced and effective SEO techniques. And it’s our information, our search terms, that are being used by the SEOs.

There is, however, another side to the business, and one that’s growing in significance all the time. The idea that we are just ‘searchers’ looking round the web for information and interesting things is outdated, at least for a fair number of us. We also blog, we have our own private sites – and often our own ‘business’ sites. And we want our blogs to be read, our sites to be found – and how can this happen unless there is a way for them to be found.

SEOs might say that this is where they come in, this is where they can help us – and this might well be true to an extent. I for one, however, would like my sites to be judged on their merits, read because they’re worth reading and not just because I’ve employed a bit of a wizard to do the optimisation. I’d like search to be fair – I don’t want my services to be at a disadvantage either to those who have a commercial tie-in with Google or to those who are paying a better SEO than mine. I want a right to be found – when I want to be found.

Do I have a right like that? Should I have a right like that? Cases like the Foundem case have asked that, but I don’t think we yet have an answer, or at least what answers we have have been inconclusive and hardly heard. Perhaps we should be asking it a bit more loudly.

The business of rights…

Today sees the second reading in the House of Commons of the Digital Economy Bill, something I’ve mentioned in my blog more than once before. It is a bill that has been much discussed by privacy advocates and in the media, but that to the frustration (or even fury) of many is likely to get very little discussion time in the House of Commons, but rather be rushed through in the run up to the coming General Election. Even so, it is a very hot topic, and is very much in the news – and in the newspapers. Today, in advance of that second reading in the house, both ‘sides’ of the debate have taken out full page advertisements in the UK’s national press. The trade union-led Creative Coalition Campaign (CCC) has come out in support of the bill, with their full page advertisement in the Guardian talking of job losses if the bill isn’t passed, while the Open Rights Group and digital campaigners 38 Degrees have taken out their own ads, funded by donation, in both the Guardian and the Times, in opposition to the bill. A big fight – with the industry taking the canny approach of using the ‘jobs’ and leaving it to the unions rather than being seen so directly as the big, bad, business wolf, the pantomime villains of the piece, the enemies of ‘rights’.

It does seem that all too often the positions become polarised, and what should be negotiation for mutual benefit ends up in conflict. The story surrounding music is a prime example – the digital revolution should (and does) represent a vast opportunity for both the music industry and for individual consumers and creators of music, and yet what we have is a series of law suits and a big and often very antagonistic conflict. What’s happening with music is echoed almost everywhere else – with privacy advocates in conflict with the big boys of the internet world like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo over their data gathering and retention practices as another clear example. Does it have to be that way? Of course a certain degree of tension is inevitable – and indeed in many ways beneficial – does business really have to be ‘an enemy’ of individual rights? Sometimes it seems that way. I recently attended a lecture given by an  expert practitioner in the field of Data Protection – he was talking to students about the realities of a career as a data protection lawyer. He was in most ways a very good and very positive person – and yet to listen to him it was clear that from the perspective of both businesses and the lawyers who work for business that data protection was seen as a barrier to be overcome (or even sidestepped or avoided) rather than in any sense a set of positive principles that could (or should) be for the benefit of the individual data subjects or indeed for society as a whole. From his perspective, rights weren’t a beneficial thing so much as something that gets in the way of an enterprise’s opportunity to make a profit.

From the other point of view, privacy advocates sometimes seem to take an equally antagonistic approach – and if you view someone as an enemy, they may find it all to easy to slip into that role. Attack someone and they are quite likely to defend themselves. It may seem necessary – indeed in the short term and in specific situations it may BE necessary – but in the long term, surely both sides would be better off looking at it from a more cooperative and positive perspective. Advocates might find it a better way to get what they want – and industries might find themselves new, better and more sustainable ways to build their businesses.

How to do this is the big question – we seem to know very well how NOT to do it, but not have much of a clue of the reverse. The starting point, however, has to be more talking. The idea of rushing through the Digital Economy Bill is the exact opposite of that. The government is effectively saying that enough discussion happened in the House of Lords, and so we don’t need to talk more about it in the Commons. That can’t be right, can it? We have two Houses for a reason – and the Commons is supposed to be the place where the people are represented. If the music industry wants these proposals to work, it ultimately needs to get the people on its side – and if it wants that, it needs to be willing to talk about it, and to see things a little more from the people’s point of view. That, at the very least, would be a start.