A mistake in a nudist camp

I have actually met people who believe that the importance of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is overstated. Someone emailed me, arguing that SEO is a media crock “just like the Y2K bug, push technology, stickiness and other dead concepts.” The following quote from the legendary Pink Panther may serve to illustrate the basis on which SEO denialists got it wrong:

Chief Inspector Dreyfus: What about the maid?
Inspector Clouseau: The maid?
Chief Inspector Dreyfus: Was he jealous of her, too? He strangled her.
Inspector Clouseau: It’s possible that his intended victim was a man and he made a mistake.
Chief Inspector Dreyfus: A mistake? In a nudist camp?
Inspector Clouseau: Nobody’s perfect.

The point is that ‘crocks’ are, sometimes, even often, inflated and then deflated by the media, but no one in his right mind would suggest that successful technologies are nothing more than inflated media bubbles. Blaming the media – or giving it credit – for the way technology is adopted or rejected flies in the face of thousands of years of cultural development.

2Yk was a crock, but push technology and the principle of stickiness are very much in existence today, albeit with much less hype, in a largely changed shape and with a totally different agenda. Consider the fact that SMS is classic “push“, as it infiltrates mobile devices uninvited, RSS provides us with updated information – but with our permission, so maybe it’s more of a “pull” than a “push.” “Stickiness” is ever-present in a host of so-called Web 2.0 applications that encourage and foster repeat visits (blogs, wikis and socio-electronic joints.) We’re all wondering in a massive, constantly morphing Clouseauesque nudist camp, where all identities and functionalities are up for grabs and bound for change, which brings me back to SEO, the un-crock of them all.

The position – and actual existence – of content online is often detectable only through search engines. If Google, Yahoo, Technorati and the rest of them cannot find you online — you’re nonexistent. A story from Publishers Berrett-Koehler’s Communiqué newsletter serves to illustrate the issue. In the movie version of the TV hit Sex and the City the lead character reads a book named “Love Letters of Great Men.” While this, in fact, is a fictitious book, written into the film by the scriptwriter, thousands of viewers felt an irresistible urge to read it. They searched online and found a book named “Great Love Letters of Men and Women: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day” – a totally unrelated book, apparently written in the 1920s.

And so, masses flooded unsuspecting (yet, understandably appreciative) Amazon.com, demanding their pound of literature! Amazon.com delivered, diligently, on demand (currently even offering the book in special promotion with the movie’s soundtrack!)

Far from being an anecdotal, shit-to-Cinderella party story (btw, this is a premeditated hyperbole), the sudden rise to fame of ‘Great Love Letters’ demonstrates the power exerted by groups of people who set out to define the meaning and importance of information they seek and consume.

As thousands of people used search engines, like Google and Yahoo!, to find a book named “Love Letters of Great Men”, they followed a similar procedure: first they entered a word (“letters”) or a phrase (“Love Letters of Great Men”) and selected a link from a list of possible results displayed by the engine in response to their query. With an increasing number of people opting for “Great Love Letters of Men and Women: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day” as the accepted – even preferred – result to the query “Love Letters of Great Men,” they signalled to the engines learning mechanism that “Love Letters of Great Men” is the very same as “Great Love Letters of Men and Women: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day.”

The engines, for their part, used the selection as a referral. To put it simply, the engines deducted that searches voted that “Love Letters of Great Men” and “Great Love Letters of Men and Women: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day”, refer to the same book or, in other words, that they mean the same thing. This is a clear case of “meaning by association” – it is so because thousands of people say it is so.

Wise generators and suppliers of content (such as amazon.com,) can use this dynamic, search engine based, allocation of meaning to do business. Organizations can use it to kick-start awareness campaigns and governments can use it to spin policies. Like Prometheus’ gift of fire to humans, we need to live with both blessings and curses of this divine endowment.

On the way, we will win – and lose- a few battles, but then, to quote Inspector Clouseau, Nobody’s perfect.

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