I haven’t been in the SEO industry for very long, but one thing has become clear to me in the last few months: SEO is a lot like organized monotheism. By that, I mean it’s an insular community built around the vague and open-ended doctrine of an incorporeal entity that communicates its will through a system of reward and punishment.
If an extraterrestrial were to accidentally wander into the offices of Page One Power, I have absolutely no doubt that he/she/it would probably assume that we’re all religious fanatics, and that Google is simply our name for god.
No, seriously—think about it. People study the mysteries of Google’s ranking algorithm with all the scrutiny (and guesswork) of church scholars attempting to interpret religious texts. They make pilgrimages to Las Vegas and San Francisco to hear Google’s prophets—SEO geniuses and innovators like Matt Cutts and Rand Fishkin—interpret Google’s will in ways that we common folk can understand.
We’ve even gone so far as to divide the SEO community into sinners and saints.
You’ve got the “black hat” SEO’s who’ve taken shortcuts and rebelled against Google’s will. We all know that their day of judgment is coming. Google will cast them down to the bottom of the page rankings, where they’ll burn in the fires of obscurity until the end of time itself.
Then you’ve got your “white hat” SEO’s, who strive to obey Google’s will. If they’re loyal to Google’s sacred (and unknowable) algorithm, they’ll ascend through the page rankings and take their coveted place directly below Google’s logo.
Now, before you pull out your torches and pitchforks and start calling me a heretic, allow me to clarify my position. Am I saying that Google is god? No. Am I trying to attack people’s faith in god, or indict organized religion? Absolutely not. I’m simply saying that Google has a lot of the same characteristics that monotheistic religions have traditionally associated with their deity of choice.
God, for example, is omnipresent. So is Google. God is something people often turn to when they’re struggling with life’s difficult questions. So is Google. God’s mind is a repository that contains everything within the scope of human understanding; all the knowledge and information ever gathered by our species. Oh, what a coincidence—so is Google.
Now, this could be another instance of my repressed Catholic guilt ruining my career, but it seems like there’s an obvious connection between good SEO and the writings of 17th century religious philosopher Blaise Pascal.
For those of you who don’t have time to Wikipedia his name, Blaise Pascal was a French theologian who framed humanity’s faith in God as a sort of ontological wager. Pascal argued that people “bet” their lives (and their souls) on the likelihood of God’s existence, deciding how to act by comparing the probability of eternal punishment to the benefits of immediate gratification.
For Pascal, betting on the non-existence of God was a no-win situation, since the reward for being right is finite and fleeting (as opposed to the punishment for being wrong, which is painful and eternal). In short, Pascal believed that it was better for a person to act as if god exists, even when they believe that god does not.
Now, I don’t think very much of Pascal as a theologian. That said, he does provide us with an interesting opportunity to examine the intersection between monotheism and search engine optimization—in that, when it comes to SEO, we have to collectively reject Pascal’s wager. We have to act as if Google does not exist, even when we know it does.
So much of SEO seems to be about what Google “wants”—Google looks for this, Google punishes that. Google likes content that is relevant, informative and interesting. It’s almost like everybody who doesn’t work at Bing got together and decided to put Google in charge of running the internet. Doesn’t this strike anybody else as strange? When did the internet become about what Google wants?
See, as far as I’m concerned, Google doesn’t exist. When I write an article, I write it for my client, for my intended audience and for the people who will (hopefully) post the article when I’m finished with it. If Google decides it “likes” my content, well, whoop-dee-freaking-do. I don’t write articles for Google. I don’t even think about Google when I’m writing articles. When I write articles, I’m thinking about how to elicit and emotional and/or intellectual response from my readers, because I’d rather write in a way that is interesting to me than churn out generic, useless content.
You know the type of content I’m talking about. Anyone with a few weeks of SEO experience under their belt can usually recognize a guest post that has been written for the sole purpose of acquiring a link. These posts are rarely ever original. In fact, they’re usually a re-articulation of information that is already available on the internet. These articles often take the form of lists (“Five Ways to Improve Your _________” or “Ten Ways to Save Money on _________”) and most of them don’t do anything (besides pollute the internet).
If you want to build good links by writing articles that attract traffic and get reblogged, you have to be willing to reject Pascal’s wager and act as if Google doesn’t exist. Tailoring your content to what you think Google’s ranking algorithm is looking for won’t get you anywhere. If Google wanted people to change how and what they write to fit their ranking algorithm, they wouldn’t bother keeping that algorithm secret.
Now, for those of you who aren’t interested in rejecting Pascal’s wager or ignoring the existence of Google, I’ve taken the liberty of preparing a poem for you. I’m sure that if you recite it every morning when you wake up and every night before you go to bed, Google is sure to bless your link-building. Good luck!
Prayer to Google
Our Google, who art practically the whole internet,
Hallowed be thy ranking algorithm
Thy search results come,
Thy will be done
On the super cool smartphones our moms bought us.
Give us this day, our daily links,
And forgive us when we spam
As we forgive those who sometimes spam us
Lead us not unto temptation
And deliver us from paid link exchanges.