SEO and the marketplace

What does the existence of “SEO-optimization” tell us about the phase of our civilization? How do we read it? Is it building up to something much more invasive and radical, or is it the harbinger of inevitable decline or collapse? First, is this occupation structurally new? Haven’t people always tried to make themselves and their peers more visible if that visibility could benefit them? And a SEO-optimizer does precisely that: using the right set of keywords, meta-tags, titles, headers, resource identifiers, links, and so on, to make it more likely that people find it when they look for something similar. This is the digital equivalent of a crowded marketplace, with everybody shouting at their loudest to promote only their products. The equivalence seems fitting, except that in the digital realm, the organizing principle is far inferior to the real marketplace. In the real world, space (location) offers a perfect way of organizing the market in such a way that it becomes efficient for both customers and salespeople. Vegetable stands will naturally attract each other, and corners for dairy products, meat, and fish will emerge. The loudest merchant can only reach the proximity of its market stand, and his advertising won’t help him much if he can’t back it up with good value-for-money. The marketplace, with its organizing principle of location, develops an efficiency that has no equivalent in the virtual marketplace.

The virtual marketplace is an overkill of possibilities. The customer enters through a “search engine” where she enters what she thinks she is looking for, relying on the software to provide adequate results. She’ll probably look at the first few search results and then decide to buy or use the services offered, and that is why it is so important for businesses to hire these SEO-specialists. If they succeed, they have a 100% advantage over the other businesses: visible vs. invisible. Because there is no organizing principle on the virtual marketplace, a lot of (and as I like to argue unsustainably much) energy will have to go into advertising, promoting, customer-acquisition. Indeed, in a broader sense, free-market capitalism often rapes the very metaphor that gave it its name. There is no market of people browsing and making household-decisions as they purchase certain goods; there is a many-tier inherently complex structure of backdoor deals that manipulate consumers and always work in favor of the possessing class. But one thing at the time. We want to say something about SEO optimization.

There are too many people whose job it is to “optimize” a company’s stance in search engine results, its global visibility on the Internet. I think this is not a beautiful culture. Global competition, except perhaps when done by infinitely intelligent machines, will lead to mass starvation and an unjustifiable gaping gap between the rich and the poor. It is at its best a blatant overrating of human collective intelligence, and at its worst greed writ large. What’s my argument? If the current trend continues, corporations will not only buy their place in people’s heads, as they’ve always done with advertising, they will effectively obfuscate any competitor that is not part of the global elite. It will be almost impossible to create a different sneaker or soft drink because the “visibility capital” is in the hands of the elite players. They will of course hold on to their power and what will emerge is an elite of brands and providers large enough to fill anyone’s imagination but too small to provide enough jobs for the world.

Eventually, the unfettered virtual competition over visibility will result in massive unemployment. The SEO-specialists will be laid off last, but they too, will go. The virtual marketplace will have evolved into something very undesirable (as this culture is not ready to replace the concept of “work” with something more sensible). I call the mechanism at work the “curse of efficiency” and will write more about that next time.

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Kamiel Choi

Dutch philosopher and poet, sometimes sharing thoughts on the internet.

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