The Digital Arms Race: Search Engine Optimisation is perfect bullshit. Ink blotch Ink blotch

Oct 2015

The Digital Arms Race: Search Engine Optimisation is perfect bullshit.

Tags: News, Web Design, SEO

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO),  is a zero-sum game. Every time one company goes up a spot on Google, another company goes down. The more one company spends on SEO, the more competing companies have to spend on SEO to stay competitive. It's a classic arms race. If the entire SEO industry were to just disappear, we would see no ill effects whatsoever. In fact, leaving Google's results un-gamed would be an improvement for the rest of society.

Hang on there, Rare Form is partly an SEO company. Do I feel bad about this? Well, yes, a bit.  But don’t hate the player, hate the game.  

Let me back up a bit and  put this in perspective.  My background is in Artificial Intelligence and I've been a programmer for a long time. The entire purpose of my profession is to save people time and make them more efficient. Or to put it another way: I've spent my life making people redundant. I’ve written programs that have saved companies hundreds of thousands a year by replacing humans with efficient software.  

Robot Overlords...coming to a city near you.  

 

It’s not new news, automation has been causing concern for a while.  It’s our science fiction dreams/nightmares coming true.  We have 3D printers building bridges and cars, driverless cars, and Oculus Rift virtual reality.  (That means less bridge builders, cab drivers and probably more people playing video games.)  Stephen Hawking recently weighed in the topic stating, ‘Don’t be afraid of automation, be afraid of capitalism.’ 

And we agree with Stephen.  Most traditional jobs have been automated to the extent that the work can be done by a tiny fraction of the numbers previously required. Yet, we still work our 40 hour + a week because society has decided that without a full time job, you don't deserve a decent life. 

So for fun, it’s thought experiment time.

 

Imagine if 50% of all current jobs were suddenly no longer needed because they were replaced by robots.

Now, let’s look at two scenarios.  

Scenario A : 

The people whose jobs were no longer necessary continue to receive exactly the same amount of money as before. They just no longer have to go to work. Many of them (most we would guess) would try and find additional work to increase their income to better their lives. We think it's unlikely many would choose to work nearly as many hours as they currently do. Quite a lot would spend more time with their families, getting around to tidying the garden, DIY projects,  playing video games, or watching Netflix etc. Some might pursue their dreams to start a band, become an artist or go to university. It's pretty clear that for these people, lives would improve and the overall effect on society would be positive. Certain jobs would greatly suffer in this scenario, such as nursing homes, childcare, dog walkers, gardeners, domestic cleaners, etc. as these people would be doing a lot of the work for themselves. In this scenario we would see definite benefits from automation.

Scenario B: 
Again, 50% of current jobs were replaced by robots. But this time, the former employees are cut off and no longer paid.  The immediate benefit would come to companies as they would have far lower wage bills. The owners of the companies where those people worked would receive huge additional profits (for a while at least). But then we see a turn, the people put out of work would became destitute, and unable to purchase basic things, let alone luxury goods.  When times get tough, you can’t even buy a Big Mac made by a robot.  This then, in turn puts the original companies out of business.  The outcome is desperate people wanting to work, but unable to find any, and companies going out of business because they are unable to sell their goods.   

Few people could argue that Scenario B would have a preferable outcome to Scenario A. Instead of a happier, wealthier, more leisurely population, we have misery and a desperate necessity to find new ways of keeping people in work. 

Well, here's the fly in the proverbial ointment - Scenario B is actually happening, right now, and has been for decades.

In Scenario B, whenever someone is made redundant by automation, that person has to desperately scramble around and find or invent some new job. 

It doesn't matter if these displaced people can't find work that's actually useful, they just have to find work that they can get paid for. It doesn't matter how many people are made redundant by clever new machinery or software, we'll neither be much better off or less busy. Without societal adjustments, the main thing increased automation does for us is increase inequality. 

Our capacity to invent pointless jobs has no limit because of zero-sum jobs. SEO is a perfect example of this, but by no means unique. It's just a clear cut example of a self-perpetuating industry. Let’s look at some other real life arms race examples:

 

1. Google AdWords v. SEO

 

Google is in direct competition with the SEO companies as from Google’s perspective, every penny spent on SEO is a penny not spent on Google AdWords. Google has employees whose job it is to modify their algorithms in order to penalise poor SEO practices and make the results more relevant for users. Sounds good, right?  Ah, but these tweaks have a side effect.  There are a lot of SEO cowboys running around.  With each new Google algorithm update, these unscrupulous, black hat SEO companies will use these tweaks to gain rankings by deliberately triggering penalisation on their competitors.  Yes, we have had companies come to us after they have been link spammed by an unknown competitor.  (We can tell you first hand, it is a huge mess to clean up.)   

Let’s move onto AdWords. It’s a platform to get your advert next to your competition easily.   But again, people find ways to outwit their competition.  A client came to us, they were spending £50k/month on AdWords, and were not even coming close to a return on investment on it.  The inquiries were just not there.  Why?  It turns out that their competition had been employing people *just* to sit at a desk, and click on their AdWord links eating up thousands in their advertising budget. And worse, some of it was automated by ‘click bots’   Exchange Wire reported, ‘The issue of click fraud is endemic in the online advertising business, with estimates over the scale of the problem varying wildly, with some parties claiming that up to 50% of all billed-for ads are generated by non-human traffic.’

 

2.  Advertising, Sales & Marketing v. Themselves.  

 

Advertising, sales, and marketing are activities that companies that have to do in order to compete with other companies. If all of the advertising and marketing companies today stood up and said, ‘we’re done, we’re not doing this anymore’, it would have very little effect.  People will still buy what they needed, and wanted, but would not have the added ‘snake oil spin’ of glossy packaging and *new and improved* formulas.  As Tyler Durden deftly stated in Fight Club "Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate, so we can buy shit we don't need."

 

3.  Fund Managers v. Dumb Ass Luck.

 

The majority of the financial services industry is fundamentally pointless. It has been proved that over a long time period, fund managers do not out-perform the market. Some beat if for a few years but the performance of fund managers on average is no better than a random number generator.  There is no evidence that the fund managers who have out-performed it owe it to anything other than luck.

 

4.  Lawyers v. Lawyers.

 

Lawyers are worse than most other professions in this respect. When a lawyer comes after you or your company, it’s not even optional, you need another lawyer to defend yourself. Lawyers have an almost magical capacity to make work for themselves through ambulance chasing of one sort or another. Certainly lawyers are essential for society to function, but when there are too many qualified lawyers to handle the legal work that arises naturally, they make a nuisance of themselves. In the US in 1950, 1 person in 683 was a lawyer. By 1970 it was 1 in 593, and now it’s 1 in 246 . The excess of lawyers is destroying the country in all sorts of interesting ways 

 

5.  Health Care v. Health Insurance.

 

The United States of America.  Land of the free and the home of people without healthcare.  Not having health insurance is the number one reason for bankruptcy in the USA, if you don’t have health insurance, you have to pay, and it won’t be cheap.  It's wrong to think of medical insurance as part of the healthcare industry; more accurately, medical insurance is the healthcare denial industry. Insurance companies constantly strive for greater profits, and the best way to do that is to find ways to deny their clients healthcare.  Financial Web stated that, ‘When you pay your premium for health insurance coverage, you expect to be covered for health insurance costs. However, many times your claim will be denied.’ They then cover a list of deniable reasons for coverage, from Pre-existing conditions to Prior Authorisation.  Countries less enthralled by free market fundamentalism have better, cheaper healthcare as they get by without the healthcare denial industry.  

 

6.  Our Military v. Your Military

 

The best example of an arms race is the actual arms race. If nobody had a military, nobody would need a military. I'm not saying it is possible to live in world without military forces, I'm just saying it's not a productive use of resources. Large militaries are justified by the opposition having militaries. An ISIS terrorist and a US drone operator may be deadly enemies, but from an employment perspective, they’re symbiotic (please note: moral equivalence not implied).

 

Bullshit is the bottom line. 

 

The free market has no mechanism to prevent this kind of pointless activity. If it did, SEO would not exist. The decision to employ someone to do SEO is completely rational and profitable from each individual company's perspective. The inventiveness and desperation of those needing work is sufficient to cause endless new zero-sum jobs to be found, each with some short-sighted but perfectly valid ROI justification.

If the wealth was spread and people were paid for doing nothing (through a basic income), then the incentives to invent bullshit jobs would shrink and the amount of bullshit would go down. It's not going to happen anytime soon though. The idea that work is virtuous and necessary, is too ingrained.  And the forces opposing this level of wealth redistribution are too powerful to allow sanity to prevail. We're endlessly told (mostly by politicians who were born rich), that giving people something for nothing leads to moral decay, and who could know better than those born with silver spoons.

If society comes to it's senses then SEO may go away, but I'm not going to hold my breath. Until then, long will bullshit reign.

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