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.