Before we start, I have a very important question for all of you folks: does anyone actually play the mirror courses in Mario Kart after beating all the circuits? I don’t think I’ve gone back to those in any Mario Kart game. I recently played 7 for the first time and I’m already over the mirror tracks.
This video is an extra-special guest post. It’s all about the impact of SEO on internet publishing and content creation. Due to some professional restrictions, the author behind this one has asked to remain anonymous, and we said yeah, this is the perfect channel for anonymity. YouTube doesn’t even know we’re out here.
I’ll be reading the piece as well, so just pretend I’m a different person for that part. I’ll even signal the change in the edit. We’ll go from *this* to *this*. it’s gonna be great.
We’re also just proud of this video, which only happens sometimes, so it might be worth sticking around just for that.
Alright, just give me a minute here to adjust.
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Personal Intro to SEO
Hi, my name is [omitted] and I’m a writer, which actually means that I sometimes get paid to write things and spend the rest of my time working jobs unrelated to my skillset.
A few years back, it was pretty rare for me to do any professional writing. Every so often I would write a resume for someone or do some proofreading. I had a decent stretch where I edited Christian Western Historical Fiction Romance stories, which I’d love to tell you about some other time, but overall, I wasn’t getting writing jobs and this was pretty frustrating.
Like a lot of English majors, I had real lofty career ambitions coming out of college and I also just enjoyed making something and sharing it with other people.
There’s something genuinely special about reading something that’s been carefully crafted. It’s some kind of brain-magic where you spend time inside the thoughts of another person, and, depending on the person, that can be exciting or disturbing or enlightening or just plain fun.
And when you’re good at writing, it can feel like having this incredible pet dog that everyone loves. It’s this amazing dog with the shiniest coat you’ve ever seen and it greets everyone with wags and head nuzzles. All of a sudden, strangers give you compliments and want to hang out with you and they tell you stories about the dogs they’ve had in the past. The dog isn’t who you are, it’s just a part of you that has lots of benefits.
And, at least for me, sinking all my time into jobs that had nothing to do with what I was good at doing was like shutting that big beautiful fluffy dog away in the basement.
So when I finally got a shot at a consistent writing gig, I took it without hesitation.
Within a few months, I was introduced to SEO tactics and content generation, and that’s what we’re really here to talk about, not the petty inconveniences of my career.
The first time I got a good look at SEO and how it affects everyone who engages with it and with the process of creating it, I felt ill. But more importantly, it drew my attention to the much larger SEO problem.
Let’s start out with the absolute basics. I’ve edited this section over and over so that it really only communicates crucial stuff. That said, it’s still kind of boring so put your thinking caps on for just a blip.
My SEO work was to create as many articles as possible, centered around subject matter that was determined by search engine metrics.
Think of SEO as a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos. The little pellet things in the middle are views– people who are searching for a specific thing online. The hippos, then, are websites or YouTube channels or other profiles that want as many views as possible, most often because more views means more cash.
Each search time has its own spikes, which are just times when a lot of people are searching for that thing. The day a popular new video game has been released, there are gonna be lots of people wanting to learn more about it.
This means that, especially for very timely subject matter, it really is a scramble to get as many views for that search term as possible.
Not only can you monetize those views, but you also get the benefit of looking more legitimate in the eyes of Google’s algorithm, and in the future, Google will be more likely to recommend your page to more people.
This is just one reason why getting preferred access to a new game or movie or record is such a thing. Sites, especially smaller ones that don’t already have dedicated audiences, want to get their post up as quickly as possible because that means less competition, which, in theory, means more views, and the more views you get, the more likely Google is to recommend the page to other people, which translates to even more views.
It goes cyclical very quickly.
There are tons of downsides to this system, but for now, let’s talk about the divide it creates between established sites and profiles and small ones.
If you’re a major outlet, you probably already have an audience that keeps coming back. You also probably have access to special perks like that early access to media we were just talking about. You already have a lot of views and internet street cred so you’re more likely to get more.
If you’re a tiny little website, on the other hand, you will generally get very few views and have to fight for the ones you do get. It will also be difficult to grow, since your stuff isn’t being shown around the marketplace to the general public.
My SEO writing was part of this camp. The subject matter was chosen by the internet itself. I could only write about very specific things that the other hippos didn’t even want to bother with.
This is how I ended up writing articles on pretty much anything you can think of. Here are just a few of the phrases I composed around:
Best way to get temp job 2019
Favorite vacuums for hard floors
Eating [omitted] good how to
I didn’t mind the subject matter, but I also didn’t know what I was talking about. I just needed to crank out 50 or so of these every month, at $20 a piece, to make some money.
The speed with which I had to write also meant that I couldn’t let the quality of each piece take up too much thought, or time.
[title card: TWO YEARS LATER with pitch drop]
I started to lose my motivation. But the big worry came from the person who had contracted me, as I learned that apparently my pay for these articles was too high. They were looking for ways to speed up the process and reduce the need for extensive human input.
I was asked to test out a few different article spinners, which are virtual tools that take whatever text you paste and shuffle the words around so as to avoid detection of plagiarism.
This was a bit disheartening, not just because it seemed like the precursor to having my job minimized or deleted entirely, but also because it shone a light on just how bland and worthless SEO content is.
It also delegitimized my skills as a professional writer, but that was much less important.
Later still, I was asked to try out full-on AI writing tools, which, when working properly, would only need a few words of manual input in order to generate an entire article.
I spent a few afternoons with this AI. At its best, it would spit out loosely connected paragraphs that sounded quite a bit like a lot of the SEO stuff I’ve read, and a lot of the SEO stuff I wrote.
But then, other times, it would invent people, places, or facts that sounded completely plausible before devolving into utterly chaotic word-salad.
I’ll pause here to say that, even outside of my professional experiences with article spinners and composition AIs, I have some ethical hangups with these kinds of tools, and I will continue to have these hangups regardless of how effective they become and how many people end up using them in the future.
At the very, very least, I think viewers should be notified when their content wasn’t made by a human person, kind of like how sponsored content should be disclosed as such.
Twenty Termites in a Toenail
So there’s a very brief summary of how I got turned on to the inner workings of SEO and the conditions it has created.
But really, all that just got me digging deeper and learning more about SEO, and toxic conditions created by supposedly innovative tech, from a much broader perspective.
Let’s take that whole AI writing thing as an example. Even if some people decide not to use it for various reasons, a lot of other people will. Because there’s money to be made.
Forgive my cynicism here, but based on coverage I’ve seen of lots of different controversial products and services in the tech sector, including facial recognition tech, data-absorbing wearables, and self-driving cars, I think a lot of ethically questionable tech is inevitable.
Even if some huge tech company tried to take a stand and say, no, we’re not going to pursue this thing for ethical reasons, someone else would immediately pop up and take the reins. Because there’s money to be made.
SEO, specifically, is the result of search engine algorithms created by very smart people and of marketing professionals who have made it their job to game the system any way they can.
I don’t think any of these people have bad intentions. Algorithms are meant to prioritize quality content so that people looking for it can find it more easily. SEO professionals are just responding to the conditions created by those algorithms.
But, as Hannah Arendt told us so so long ago, a lot of bad stuff, maybe even the majority of bad stuff, is perpetrated by people who think they’re doing the right thing, or who at least think they’re not explicitly doing bad things.
And I think you would have a really hard time finding somebody who doesn’t see the objective downsides of the current SEO situation.
For starters, this is why we have clickbait. It’s why we had all those disgusting AI-generated YouTube videos aimed at children that prompted legal action in the United States. It’s why YouTube and all kinds of other platforms promote neo-Nazi content, flat-Earth content, and entertainment that clearly exploits the people who appear in the content.
It’s also why legitimate news outlets need to either ask for money upfront or use miserable dark-pattern ads on their sites and create SEO-driven content that’s just not very good.
On a much more serious note, there’s been a lot written about how similar kinds of automation have contributed to the continued oppression of the poor and people of color.
And ya know what? Maybe this is a good time to mention a hilarious article I read a while back from the New Yorker of all places.
It was about the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. It’s been around for a long time and it’s actually where Don Draper ends up in the final season of the show. Spoilers.
More to the point, Esalen has become extremely popular with obscenely wealthy tech industry leaders who are considering the ethical side of their products and the importance of protecting the health of their users.
One of the most amusing aspects here is that these folks consider themselves as sitting on the cutting edge of the ways people interact with technology.
To be clear, considering the ethics of tech-based products and services is … new. Roughly 15 years after the rise of social media and smartphone apps, the people making and selling the stuff are starting to consider that it might be bad for users to spend 10 hours a day engaged with their product.
SEO is just a tiny corner of all this, but it has and will continue to play a huge role in content creation and consumption.
Any time there’s a situation that’s bad for everyone involved, I think it’s worth looking into and criticizing, even if we don’t have every possible solution already lined up.
And SEO content generation, as it stands right now, is bad for everyone involved, from the people who order the content to the people who make the content, to the people who consume the content.
A lot of SEO content is still written by human beings, at least right now in October of 2020, but a lot of those writers are gig workers making next to nothing, or literally nothing if they’re signed on as volunteers or interns.
The content itself is often pretty bad because of time constraints, lack of expertise in the subject matter, and terrible pay.
Consumers either end up engaging with bad content or they have to trudge through a bunch of useless clickbait articles and ads to find the information they’re looking for.
And from a very personal standpoint, clickbait of any caliber has always made me feel gross. Whenever I want to look at product reviews or hop onto YouTube without signing in first or when I fall on my phone and open up the Snapchat news feed, I just want to leave immediately. I want to leave the site and also maybe drive 50 miles into the mountains just for good measure.
We don’t collectively own the internet, but we inhabit it a lot of the time, and we make it function with views and clicks and the like. That means we get to request better conditions. Our shared virtual space does not need to be damp and dark and littered with garbage.
I really wish I had a better call to action here, but my only real tips are probably ones you’ve heard a million times.
If you can manage it, pay for news. Resist the urge to give clicks to trashy content. Don’t get all your recommendations for YouTube channels and movies and music from Google.
Work and Non-Work
While I was writing this, I gave a lot of thought to the idea of work. For most of my life, I think it’s just been one of those words that I’ve left alone.
Growing up, work just meant work, and it usually referred to some unpleasant task that would somehow build character or make you a better person or something.
But my time spent in SEO content generation has introduced me to a kind of non-work.
For me, work has to be some kind of creation or service. Either you make something or you perform a valuable function that benefits somebody else. It’s possible to even do both at once.
But churning out these chunks of content is … nothing. The end result is unnecessary virtual trash and I can’t imagine anyone actually benefits from them in any real way.
I compare it to the stuff I’ve written on my own time. Writing I care about, even if it’s bad or arrogant or sappy or trite, at the very least feels like something. Some part of me comes through the work. That big fluffy dog gets to run around the kitchen a couple of times.
I have a hunch that, as plenty of jobs minimize the requirement for human input in the years to come, there will be plenty of other types of non-work. This might be a bad career move, but I don’t think I can do it.
I can’t keep pretending that all these unsavory means are leading to some abstract and vaguely positive end.
But all of this long talking is only to come back around to something useful to say about the time I have already spent for a while of doing this other ‘work’ with the words for SEO for more good clicks and unique monthly impressions and that is all about all of it being for creating nothing from things found online and servicing to no one the good that they want to learn something more and to feel talked to well when looking for new good words of advice on something they will not talk to with the friends who live closeby or to the kind of round and pretty person that puts sound into the other side of the wall where they have their bad laptop computer with broken hinge around back .
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This article includes excerpts from Don’t Move to L.A.