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Aaron Wall recently reported on a Google employee who left comments on Hacker News to the effect that SEO is bad for the internet. 

The Google employee, Googley Jon Rockway, said that "SEO isn't good for users or the internet at large".

It's a surprising statement for a Google employee to make, and I've been asking some SEO experts about their views on the issue, and whether this reflects the search giant's real views. 

Here's Rockway's quote in more detail: 

Instead of being able to SEO the entire Internet, businesses can now only affect the search results for a tiny percentage of users. That's a good thing because SEO can't scale, and SEO isn't good for users or the Internet at large.

If you look at the Google experience from the standpoint of customers, it's pretty good. Users get relevant search results and ads. Advertisers get their content on top of everything else. It's a good compromise between advertising and usability, and it works really well. It's a bug that you could rank highly in Google without buying ads, and Google is trying to fix the bug.

Manipulating Google results shouldn't be something you feel entitled to be able to do. If you want to rank highly in Google, be relevant for the user currently searching. Engage him in social media or email, provide relevant information about what you're selling, and, generally, be a "good match" for what the user wants.

What is the thinking behind this statement? 

Search consultant Rishi Lakhani feels that Rockway has "gaffed by revealing what could be a very much internal sentiment by Google on their stance on free traffic".

It kind of reminds me of an old SEO joke: What is the Meaning of SPAM? Search Positions Above Mine. However in Google’s “possible” view, SPAM could mean Search Positions Avoid Moneymaking.

Essentially what is Google’s money making model? Selling Ads. Every bit of free traffic that a site receives from organic search is a loss in revenue to Google. So are you surprised at this stance? I am not.

How is SEO bad for internet users? 

Andrew Girdwood, Bigmouthmedia

I have a lot of sympathy for Rockway’s comment. SEO that attempts to manipulate Google’s (or Bing’s) search results so that less relevant results are returned above more relevant results is not good for users or the internet.

I don’t believe there is a single “SEO” any more. Some of the SEO throwbacks and perhaps some of the new strands do fall into the “not helpful” category. Spam, for example, is not helpful.

The benefits of SEO for web users

Yes, there are plenty of spammers out there, but good SEO has benefits for businesses and web users. Here are just a few of those. 

It has encouraged greater usability

As Site Visibility's Kelvin Newman points out, many improvements to website usability have been made in order to optimise for search engines: 

There’s lots of annoying aspects of websites that SEO has had a role killing off, I think the good Karma for SEO ending the trend of splash pages is enough to see the industry through a decade of bad behaviour!

Elizabeth Ayers from iCrossing echoes this sentiment: 

If large quality brands did not optimise their sites for search then it is likely that the web would be a poorer place. The web and social would not be as advanced as it is today if SEO hadn’t been such a key revenue driver for brands to take advantage of and participate in, creating quality content and participating on social platforms.  ‘

It encourages business to create better content

Content is key to great SEO, and cheap tactics like keyword stuffing just don't cut it any more. Instead, creating content that people want to read and share is what works best. 

Andrew Girdwood:

Modern SEO is helpful. It is less an advertising tactic and more a marketing strategy. Modern SEO involves creating and working with engaging content; content so good that users want to share and discuss it. This is a boon for users and the net as it creates an upwards pressure on quality.

It makes businesses more relevant to users

Rishi Lakhani:

Competitive SEO actually helps make businesses even more relevant to searchers. Because we know who links naturally, and why.

A page full of carburettors for sale may not get links, what is the motivation? But a page that shows how to clean your carburettor will. The difference between intent and motivation differs, and it’s the SEO community that is hard at work encouraging such content.

SEO is not bad for the user, but for Google’s pockets.

SEO can help small businesses to punch above their weight

There are businesses spending big bucks on SEO and paid search, but by using solid SEO techniques, creating a usable site and filling it with great content, small businesses can rank higher than bigger rivals.

Social CRM

Andrew Girdwood:

A strong example of how Modern SEO is great for users in general is in the emergence of social CRM. Businesses are increasing their efforts to look after customers online, using platforms like Twitter and Google+ to reach out to people who have had a bad experience with a brand or encountered some other problem.  

This is in part due to the rise of social but this is also an example of Modern SEO. Google blogged back in 2010 that being bad to your customers is bad for business.  Customers benefit whenever brands take extra effort to look after them and the convergence of search and social have given business extra incentive to do just that. 

Is SEO bad for Google?

Is this the real subtext of this statement, gaff or not? 

As Rockway says, thanks to recent changes such as 'Search Plus', the amount of Google homepage real estate which is open to influence by SEO is shrinking. So is Google seeking to minimise the role of the SEO? 

Rishi Lakhani feels strongly about this:

Of course there are bad approaches to SEO. However, this attitude that SEO=SPAM should stop. Because the biggest violators are Google themselves. It takes content from third party sites and slowly wraps it up with ads. Google gets into short term partnerships with businesses with an edge, learn their processes, use those to build up their own offering, and then terminate those relationships.

Up to a few years ago, Google used to use Yell to supply local content. Now, it’s overtaken by Google Local. For years Google has been taking money from credit card companies and comparison sites alike. Now, it has launched its own version, which it uses Adwords to push.

Graham Charlton

Published 8 February, 2012 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

Comments (20)

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Bharati Ahuja

I would like to share a post I wrote in Feb. 2011 on "How Good SEO Contributes To The Larger Objectives Of The Web Ecosystem"


A good co-incident that this kind of discussion has come up in Feb. again this year...

over 4 years ago



Great article that poses a good question! As an SEO I get this question quite often. The article really touched on some good points. One in particular in that SEO is not bad for the internet but actually is good in that it improves usability of the web.

over 4 years ago


Matt Wright

Optimisation of social based algorithms (such as Edgerank) have consequences even worse than what SEO's have added or taken away from search based algorithm optimisations.

Social networks rely on recommendation algorithms that can be gamed. The worst part of a social recommendation algorithm is the potential to create an eventual 'bubble affect' where users become hugely small-minded and less about 'doing more', 'knowing more' and ceasing to ask 'why' more.

To know more about the bubble affect watch this lecture...


over 4 years ago


Depesh Mandalia, Head of Digital Marketing at Lost My Name

This hits it on the nail for me: "Every bit of free traffic that a site receives from organic search is a loss in revenue to Google."

There seems to have been a very different stance to running Google with Larry Page as CEO which I'm not convinced will endear users to Google.

The don't be evil tool is a great example of how Google have changed as a company - as the tool states, the relevancy of results is still as good as ever, however there's a different commercial agenda at Google now - Google are entitled to run Google how they think it should be run but with any long standing 'brand' the core values are built up through trust and awareness over time. Trust is being eroded away and what was once a fairly clear set of core values seems murky.

It does sound like internal sentiment as to what Google thinks of SEO but good SEO improves the quality of what Google returns. Its a WIN:WIN for both Google and SEOs - one cannot work without the other especially since the Google 'signals' rely on proper website structure, which the majority of SEOs have helped develop over the last decade.

This article still rings true for the 2 areas where google may slip-up: quality of results and overdoing the social drive: http://www.zdnet.com/blog/btl/new-google-ceo-larry-page-here-are-your-top-two-priorities/46912

over 4 years ago


Matt Kydd, CTO at EXPANSYS plc

It certainly encourages index optimisation considerations over real-world usability - and (like cars all built using a windtunnel) results in homogeneous looking sites for any sector.

over 4 years ago


James Webb

"If you want to rank highly in Google, be relevant for the user currently searching"

Erm, that's called SEO. Granted, there are many flavours of SEO, some more oily than others, but for many organisations, SEO is an essential part of running a business online. The goals of SEO should simply be to improve editorial and technical quality, (not to mention competitiveness) which results in a better UX all round.

Without SEOs:
- who helps raise the editorial bar (many journalists still neglect copy that they believe is invisible)?
- who ensures that slavishly produced content is optimised to the people that are looking for it most?
- who checks for damaging site errors? (very often people who should have clocked them, have not)
- who ensures pages are coded to proper standards so that they are discoverable in search?

While you could nominate other company roles to all of the above, truth is most of the time they're just cleaning up someone else's mess.

So, really, SEO done the right way is about improving the web, not ruining it.

over 4 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Graham,
I think this is a timely article. SEO is not inherently bad, diluting quality is. Some of what Rockway said is bang on the money: "if you want to rank highly in Google, be relevant for the user currently searching".
However, he positions his opinion poorly. Positive SEO is about being relevant - if you're not relevant, you'll just get poor metrics and people won't come back.
I think Rishi's last comment is quite interesting - Google taking 3rd party content and wrapping it with ads. It's all about the money to them, I don't believe anymore that the focus is on the user. The focus is on driving revenue and they have to think about the user to achieve that.
SEO is an innate thing, it can't be bad - it's the people behind it that are choosing whether or not to follow good or bad practice. So let's focus praise and criticism on the people doing, not a marketing discipline.

over 4 years ago



1stly: clever bait article guys.


SEO is not spam. Matt Cutts already said so:


3rdly: how can seo - that encourages good web practices such as having a stable and sound site architecture, encouraging good content and userbility, helping a website serve the most relevant page possible to a searcher - be a bad thing?

and lastly:
this guy has probably just revealed the most damnning evidence of what every seo knew all along - seo profiling and delberate penalization of sites that do not rely on google ads. any wonder why affiliate and ecommerce sites were the biggest sites to be hit by panda? what about the keyword (not provided) crap? cmon people!

i hope the investigitons into google's competition laws get wind of this.

over 4 years ago


Jimmy- SEO Search Labs

I feel this Googler slipped up on his choice of wording about SEO. His opinion harks back to the stigma associated with SEO of 5+ years ago… back then SEO was regarded as trying to outsmart Google by looking for loopholes. People did exploit these methods until they were closed off, but sites that were ranking falsely, genuinely didn’t add to the user experience. Many of these websites were affiliate sites or sites littered with adverts.

SEO’s should be working toward consumer centric SEO. This means only optimising websites in ways that will enhance the user’s experience. They can do using content-rich campaigns and techniques that help users find useful information easily .White hat SEO’s should be working in the best interest of everyone, the user, the site owner AND the search engines.

Google is embracing SEO regardless of what this employee says… (e.g. Google’s Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide). Developments in webmaster tools also encourage site owners to make changes to their website so that Google can crawl it more efficiently and help it understand what their site is about. SEO’s should be working to help Google in its plight for high quality, relevant search results – not fighting against it to warp the results for profit. While we disagree that SEO is bad for the internet, we do agree however, that black hat SEO is bad for the user and everyone in the long run.

A good post and interesting discussion here - thanks Graham

over 4 years ago


Emma Hands, Business & ECommerce Manager at Gift-Library.com

Google are clearly being hypocrites as they have spammed their own results with Google Plus, if you look at the reasons why G+ is so prominent it's down to SEOing to the max!

over 4 years ago


Sam Silverwood-Cope

Yes the Top Ten of Google is decreasing in actual SEO real estate. There are now Google Plus results, more social networks and (according to our research) 99% of searches have Wikipedia on page one.

Surely this encourages corporations down the paid route.

over 4 years ago


Nicholas Johnson

If there was no SEO, good sites would naturally rise to the top of the rankings because people would link to them. SEOs running link building campaigns skew this data by creating hundreds of links to content which people would otherwise not be interested in reading. Some SEOs resort to posting links on unprotected forums and comment threads.

Harm clearly is done in the name of SEO.

over 4 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Nicholas - if you have search engines, you have SEO. The two are inseparable.

The search engines have to decide a method by which sites are ranked highest, and website owners and marketers want to figure out how and improve their own rankings.

With 'modern SEO' as Andrew Girdwood calls it, you have more user friendly websites which have to create content that is interesting and relevant to the searcher. This benefits the internet.

over 4 years ago

dan barker

dan barker, E-Business Consultant at Dan Barker

I think this is a bit of a red herring.

In general SEO has always benefited Google - they've simply tried to blacken the areas that risked devaluing their algorithm.

At the moment, they're in the middle of tweaking the rules considerably so that SEO benefits them even further. As one example, they're dangling the carrot of 'more traffic' for website owners to buy into the Google+/SPYW stuff. In doing so, they hope this will help to drag the mainstream across. And, of course, if that all works out they win twice: once for the 'social network' element of Google+, once for embedding themselves as a large downstream recipient from natural search.


over 4 years ago

Dale Cooper

Dale Cooper, Visit Wales

This is a curious debate/thread although I agree with Rishi's reasoning. Google, Apple, Microsoft are run by shareholders and accountants. Data is a valuable resource and to expect a private company to actively support ventures that threaten income streams may be a little short sighted.

Facebook (backed by Goldman Sachs) is floating soon, is it any wonder that Google is looking at giving less away and developing and tightening up its core business (restrictions of keyword data, normalisation of personal records across accounts google+)

In a few years time its possible that people will look back at this period and be amazed that you could get free traffic, free data and build successful businesses without investing all that heavily.

over 4 years ago


SEO Surrey

Yeah Google thinks it's bad cause they don't earn money from good, natural SEO... A search engine without natural results is probably their ideal. I imagine the Yellow Pages came up with an idea pre internet to charge consumers for their directories as well as businesses!

over 4 years ago

Gus Ferguson

Gus Ferguson, Co-Founder and Director at Quad London

This is ridiculous. For someone to say that Optimising a website for a Search Engine is bad for the internet would logically imply that there's something wrong with the search engine itself.

over 4 years ago


Ed Lamb

I presume he's referring to old-style SEO where links are bought or other shady practices are used to push rankings artificially high. That is bad for users.

But Authentic Search where quality content is provided on site to match what users are looking for, and promoted off site through quality free editorial, is clearly very good for users.

over 4 years ago

Nick Craig

Nick Craig, Managing Director at Mackerel Media

How about this for discussion:

Realistically, we should in the long term consider any traffic received from Google for free as a gift and plan for what is no doubt coming down the line: if you make money from Google traffic, expect them to take a cut, unless you have done something remarkable to earn it.

Were we talking about physical property, the discussion would be very different.

Were Google a shopping centre with a 90% share of footfall we'd laugh at the idea of letting traders set up stalls and sell for free whilst at the same time charging other tenants for their space.

We'd think it hilarious that we could use sometimes dubious techniques to corral shoppers to our stand....perhaps we'd put up barriers and PVC banners outside a paying tenant's shop diverting people. Can you imagine..."Looking for a Cheap Mobile Phone? Come to our cheap mobile phone stand for cheap mobile deals..." etc etc.

We'd be bent over double at the entreaties from retailers who consider themselves ethical and who claim to provide what customers are looking for, yet want to make a profit for themselves without paying rent to the shopping centre, regardless of the information they provide to users at the stand or the special free guides ("Getting the most from your organic eggs", naturally written by an 'organic egg guru') they give away to everyone willing to hand over their mobile phone number or email address.

Yet, this is the freedom we all expect from Google. Fair?

over 4 years ago


Toni Atkinson, Director at Loudlaunch.com

Thanks for this post that puts it into perspective. Enough with the stereotypes. These comments are fabulous too... what is bad for the internet is unethical "old-Style" SEO. Love the comparison to "physical property". Aren't we just helping the siteowners be accessible to everyone. Users are not dumb. We regularly find good traffic throughout the pages and users know to research and bypass what does not look authentic and that these are the people SEO is for. Let's keep showing great SEO!

over 4 years ago

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