TLDR: It’s the money. A rant about what went wrong from a middle aged digital marketing professional.
The DJ Shadow classic ‘Why Hip Hop Sucks in 96’ is only 40 seconds long, and simply says “it’s the money.” For the same reason, the internet sucks in 2019.
So why does money make the internet suck so much?
I remember being optimistic that technologies to enhance communication and create new digital communities could lead to positive change in the world. I honestly thought, at the wise old age of 16 in 1992, that if only people across the world could communicate better we’d learn to share and enjoy our beautiful planet.
Obviously, that’s not what happened. And I think the main reason is money. But why should you care what I think?
I was fortunate to grow up in a geeky family. My dad worked in telecoms from the 70s to the 90s, and my brother and I grew up with a fine range of 1980s home computers. The ZX 80, the ZX Spectrum, Amiga and then the PC were my window to the digital world, and I would muck about with art programs and adventure games while my brother wrote programmes in machine code. We loaded games from magnetic tapes into the computers memory, and coped with frequent disappointment as games crashed for no particular reason, and usually just when you were about to get a high score.
We watched Douglas Adams on Tomorrow’s world getting very excited about computers, and although the technology was basic it seemed pretty magical to me at the time.
Fast forward a few decades, and I’m less naive about how the internet and technology will help humans share and enjoy what we have.
My first title for this article was ‘why SEO sucks in 2019’ but its now about much more than that.
Search Engine Optimisation is one of the skills listed on my CV(resume) after a couple of very interesting decades working in digital businesses and online marketing.
Twenty years ago I set up an online fashion shop, which failed as a business but was a (mostly) fun learning experience. Since then I’ve been an online message board moderator for clients including Liverpool Football Club, BBC Radio 4’s The Archers, and the Hitchhikers Guide To the Galaxy. I’ve read digital newspapers for a living, I’ve worked in digital PR and online communications, and for seven lovely years I managed a lonely hearts column and online dating service for a left-leaning national newspaper…
And in all that time, I found that the digital economy and international online community that emerged has been much less positive one than I had hoped for as a youngster. I do realise that it’s hard for me to separate general middle aged malaise from genuine disappointment in the potential of the technology, but I’m still uneasy with what’s emerged compared to what might have been.
The internet is an attention economy, where outrage is more commonly shared than the moderate view. It turns out that there are idiots all over the world, and the fact that views can be expressed and shared more freely and easily than in the twentieth century may simply mean that there is more idiocy shared across the world than ever before.
I remember sincerely believing in the power of online community and thinking that sharing international friendships would improve the world.
But the way online communities are formed and how online traffic is directed has led us to be more dislocated from each other. People don’t share opinions online in an open minded way very often. In fact, just the opposite tends to occur, with studies showing that people like to live within comfortable bubbles of shared opinions.
And this is why the internet sucks in 2019. It’s the money.
Moderate messages don’t get clicks, and clicks get money.
The market place for online attention has grown rapidly in the last few decades, but only started generating serious money in the twenty first century.
Here’s my 33 point list of ways that money ruined the Internet. If that’s not a tempting listicle, then turn your attention elsewhere and see if I care… 😉
- Online business pay Google to run adverts to promote their services (almost every large company spends a big chunk of their marketing budget online, usually to Google, Facebook and Amazon)
- Since dropping it’s anti-evil commitment in 2012, Google’s procedures and policies are solely focused on maximising profit. The same profit motivation drives Facebook and Amazon.
- In truth, as a publicly listed corporation, Google’s legal obligation is to maximise shareholder value, and so the ‘anti-evil’ mission statement was never a serious commitment.
- (It’s the money)
- Over the last decade (a long time in internet years) Google has maintained market dominance.
- No business lasts for ever, but in terms of share of the digital search market, Google has market dominance for about as long as there has been an international internet search market.
- In 2010, 90% of worldwide internet searches used Google. And at the end of 2018, 90% of searches used Google.
- When you run a google search, a complex and mysterious algorithm selects and prioritises answers just for you, based on what Google knows about you.
- A rapid bidding war also takes place to put an advert right before your very eyes.
- It’s a billion dollar bidding business.
- Google generates about 5 cents for every search made online.
- So the business that funds the ‘free’ search engine service from Google is online advertising, which is also dominated by Google.
- Businesses place bids with Google, for a place in the online adverts at the top of the search results, and Google presents the searcher with a list of ‘best’ results.
- Therefore, websites optimise their content so Google sees them as the ‘best’ answer, and bid highly to get their advert shown when people search the web for relevant keywords.
- Advertising tactics that could seem unfair (such as showing different prices to different users) are not prohibited.
- Advertising targeting tactics that are legally dubious are said to be commonplace (such as directing night-time search traffic from women on mobile phones to dodgy or expensive locksmiths. The marketing tactic is to bid highly for that ‘moment of truth’ when people are really, really motivated to buy.)
- Recent studies suggest up to two thirds of searchers can’t tell if Google search results are paid adverts or not. https://www.marketingtechnews.net/news/2018/sep/06/two-thirds-people-dont-know-difference-between-google-paid-and-organic-search-results/
- My mum can’t always spot the ads.
- I can’t always spot the ads and I’ve worked in online advertising for years.
- I don’t think #ad is always enough to disclose that a message has been paid for.
- As internet searches on mobiles don’t have space for more than one answer, the battle for the top spot of the search results is set to intensify.
- Alexa will tell you what her algorithm estimates would be most profitable for Amazon to tell you, which will not always be what’s most useful for you to know.
- Google will change how it organises the world’s information, and the ambiguity between ‘natural’ results and adverts is likely to increase.
- And Google doesn’t tell anyone how its search engine works exactly…
- So an entire ecosystem of ‘partners’ and service providers have emerged, including marketing professionals (like myself) who can help businesses structure their website to meet Google’s commercial requirements to win the top spot on the search results.
- Search Engine Optimisation sucks in 2019 because of the money. Because it’s really about Paid Per Click, and ‘it’s the money’ that drives the online attention economy. Google’s requirements for online adverts and ‘natural search’ overlap. Imagine if a newspaper presented each individual reader with a personalised headline on behalf of the highest paying bidder, only this happens over and over each time you check your phone.
- Google is a behemoth. Small business who have a problem due to a Google, Amazon or Facebook will find it hard to reach them and even large organisations with million pound advertising budgets can find it hard to resolve issues.
- Advertising fraud is a problem, with estimates of 30% or more clicks thought to be fake, or automated, or otherwise fraudulent. Efforts to address this serious issue have been ongoing in the industry for over a decade and as far as I can see nothing has changed.
- In fact, programmes to to implement technical solutions to advertising fraud have been comically sluggish. Each time an issue emerges the big players say they are #shocked, and reform is promised, and nothing actually happens. As wikipedia notes, when Google and Yahoo operate as both search engines, publishers and advertisers, “complex relationship may create a conflict of interest.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Click_fraud
- Google rewards websites that meet their criteria. So websites structure data according to Google requirements, have Google tracking in place, and reports high ‘conversion rates’ to ‘Google goals.’ These sites must also bid the highest for the particular keywords that people might search for. This elaborate digital management and marketing operation is entirely devoted to meeting Google’s needs, and provides valuable data on the business value of certain keywords. Keywords related to legal matters were the most expensive in the US, in 2018, with the cost per click for legal keyword searches at $6.75. That’s a lot of cash to Google for sending search traffic to legal businesses. https://www.wordstream.com/blog/ws/2016/02/29/google-adwords-industry-benchmarks
- If I’m going to diss the internet, I can’t omit Facebook. Business put money into Facebook ads when they want to reach consumers (which can be targeted by almost ANY interest and demographic).The online targeting details offered by Facebook allow marketers to reach groups such as all the parents in within 40 miles of a city who have high incomes and an interest in diabetes. People freely give this level of detailed information to Facebook, ‘ because they’re dumb f*cks’ as Mr Zuckerberg famously said. Facebook’s business is selling the attention of the dumb. https://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/05/14/facebook_trust_dumb/
- For online shopping business, just a few companies (Amazon, eBay, AliBaba) dominate the market place. Again, there’s a secondary ecosystem of marketing experts who can help your business reach the top spot. The only reason I won’t rant about Amazon in depth is that it’s not my speciality.
- But in essence, when business and financial interests drive the attention economy, the outcomes are not always the best result for the consumer.
It’s the money…
Whilst checking the lyrics to DJ Shadow’s classic hit, I ran an internet search, and discovered that the Google answer was a page containing the wrong lyrics for this classic song. This amused me, given that there are only three words in the entire song, but the comments thread shows that others were less amused by this error.
PPS: When publishing this article Medium asked me if I wanted it to be eligible to make money. Given the subject matter, I think it best that this rant is free to be shared and enjoyed.
PPPS: There are also plenty of reasons that the Internet is great is 2019. I just need more time and more tea to complete that list.
PPPPS: Thanks for reading.