by Amanda Chicago Lewis
The alligator got my attention. Which, of course, was the point. When you hear that a 10-foot alligator is going to be released at a rooftop bar in South Florida, at a party for the people being accused of ruining the internet, you can’t quite stop yourself from being curious. If it was a link — “WATCH: 10-foot Gator Prepares to Maul Digital Marketers” — I would have clicked. But it was an IRL opportunity to meet the professionals who specialize in this kind of gimmick, the people turning online life into what one tech writer recently called a “search-optimized hellhole.” So I booked a plane ticket to the Sunshine State.
I wanted to understand: what kind of human spends their days exploiting our dumbest impulses for traffic and profit? Who the hell are these people making money off of everyone else’s misery?
After all, a lot of folks are unhappy, in 2023, with their ability to find information on the internet, which, for almost everyone, means the quality of Google Search results. The links that pop up when they go looking for answers online, they say, are “absolutely unusable”; “garbage”; and “a nightmare” because “a lot of the content doesn’t feel authentic.” Some blame Google itself, asserting that an all-powerful, all-seeing, trillion-dollar corporation with a 90 percent market share for online search is corrupting our access to the truth. But others blame the people I wanted to see in Florida, the ones who engage in the mysterious art of search engine optimization, or SEO.
Doing SEO is less straightforward than buying the advertising space labeled “Sponsored” above organic search results; it’s more like the Wizard of Oz projecting his voice to magnify his authority. The goal is to tell the algorithm whatever it needs to hear for a site to appear as high up as possible in search results, leveraging Google’s supposed objectivity to lure people in and then, usually, show them some kind of advertising. Voilà: a business model! Over time, SEO techniques have spread and become insidious, such that googling anything can now feel like looking up “sneaker” in the dictionary and finding a definition that sounds both incorrect and suspiciously as though it were written by someone promoting Nike (“footwear that allows you to just do it!”). Perhaps this is why nearly everyone hates SEO and the people who do it for a living: the practice seems to have successfully destroyed the illusion that the internet was ever about anything other than selling stuff.
So who ends up with a career in SEO?…