The most dangerous idea on the web is that it’s for search engines.
The real accomplishment of Google’s leapfrog in search technology wasn’t the results, it was the mythos it created. It was impossibly good versus the state of the art when it launched. It felt like magic. Everyone switched to it so fast it felt instantaneous. And a monopoly was born.
The idea that you would create a site prior to 2003 that was designed simply to drive traffic from a search engine was insane. There were a dozen of them, and they were seen as a utility when looking for something very specific. The web, after all, was just that: a set of links that knitted everything together naturally. You made websites for the people reading them.
Early Google’s algorithm was primarily based on that valuable notion. The original Google secret sauce, PageRank, was a system for determining the “weight” or value of a link from a particular website to determine what the best result was. It created a centralized repository designed to mirror the natural structure of the web. It crawled the web and found the info it needed to curate its results. But then the games started.
Once the monopoly solidified and grew, it was quite a firehose of traffic. Now search was a major source of business: clicks. As click-based advertising irrationally exploded, so did Google’s war chest, and so did everyone’s appetite for getting that firehose pointed at them.
A whole industry spawned, trying to divine what new criteria Google might be using this month to order its search results. Purveyors of search engine snake oil became must-read resources, regardless of whether they could prove anything they claimed. Web publishing tools conformed to what everyone thought Google was looking for, instead of what readers would prefer. Google finally announced in 2017 it had invented its own standard (AMP), which remains a concern to this day.
I’d bet you more web publishers and executives today know what AMP is than have heard of accessibility, the practice of making your site better usable to folks with disabilities. You know, humans.
Google cornered the clicks, then dolled them out as it saw fit, and my god do we love our daily allowance of clicks. They gave us Google Analytics for FREE to make sure we knew we were addicted. And if they shut off the flow, we’d have to do a bunch of work to figure out why and what we could do to ingratiate our humble little sites with the great Google again. The spice must flow.
The problem is the whole system is a fraud! You can only measure the effect of clicks indirectly and make up averages. They don’t inherently mean anything on their own. “I know if we get 20% more clicks then our revenue increases by X.” No, you don’t. You know on average that is what you expect to happen. But you outsourced every other variable in that equation to Google’s black box. Now all you can do is pray that “truth” holds. It feels like willful ignorance to work within a system where you have no power.
Google owns every link in the chain that perpetuates the myth: search, analytics, and the display ad auction to min/max it. Then it owned your news feed, RSS feed, inbox, and your very browser. All perfectly optimized for Google’s bottom line while we ate it up because of the biscuits they wrapped it in for us. Oh it’s faster! Oh it’s cleaner! And us nerds ate it up, and told everyone else how good it was and that they should follow us. And they did.
Whenever I’ve seen a friend in a bad relationship, it’s because they prioritized one shallow thing over everything else. Maybe the sex, food, or hotness is just that good. And they get addicted to keeping that one thing maximized and forget everything they traded for it, and then don’t understand why they aren’t as happy as they should be.
The web did it all for the clicks.