The people who ruined the internet



Amanda Chicago Lewis

The alligator got my attention. Which, of course, was the point. When you hear that a 10-foot alligator is going to be released at a rooftop bar in South Florida, at a party for the people being accused of ruining the internet, you can’t quite stop yourself from being curious. If it was a link — “WATCH: 10-foot Gator Prepares to Maul Digital Marketers” — I would have clicked. But it was an IRL opportunity to meet the professionals who specialize in this kind of gimmick, the people turning online life into what one tech writer recently called a “search-optimized hellhole.” So I booked a plane ticket to the Sunshine State. 

I wanted to understand: what kind of human spends their days exploiting our dumbest impulses for traffic and profit? Who the hell are these people making money off of everyone else’s misery? 

After all, a lot of folks are unhappy, in 2023, with their ability to find information on the internet, which, for almost everyone, means the quality of Google Search results. The links that pop up when they go looking for answers online, they say, are “absolutely unusable”; “garbage”; and “a nightmare” because “a lot of the content doesn’t feel authentic.” Some blame Google itself, asserting that an all-powerful, all-seeing, trillion-dollar corporation with a 90 percent market share for online search is corrupting our access to the truth. But others blame the people I wanted to see in Florida, the ones who engage in the mysterious art of search engine optimization, or SEO. 

Doing SEO is less straightforward than buying the advertising space labeled “Sponsored” above organic search results; it’s more like the Wizard of Oz projecting his voice to magnify his authority. The goal is to tell the algorithm whatever it needs to hear for a site to appear as high up as possible in search results, leveraging Google’s supposed objectivity to lure people in and then, usually, show them some kind of advertising. Voilà: a business model! Over time, SEO techniques have spread and become insidious, such that googling anything can now feel like looking up “sneaker” in the dictionary and finding a definition that sounds both incorrect and suspiciously as though it were written by someone promoting Nike (“footwear that allows you to just do it!”). Perhaps this is why nearly everyone hates SEO and the people who do it for a living: the practice seems to have successfully destroyed the illusion that the internet was ever about anything other than selling stuff. 

So who ends up with a career in SEO? The stereotype is that of a hustler: a content goblin willing to eschew rules, morals, and good taste in exchange for eyeballs and mountains of cash. A nihilist in it for the thrills, a prankster gleeful about getting away with something.

“This is modern-day pirate shit, as close as you can get,” explained Cade Lee, who prepared me over the phone for what to expect in Florida based on over a decade working in SEO. What Lee said he’s noticed most at SEO conferences and SEO networking events is a certain arrogance. “There’s definitely an ego among all of them,” he told me. “You succeed, and now you’re a genius. Now you’ve outdone Google.”

This year, The Verge is exploring how Google Search has reshaped the web into a place for robots — and how the emergence of AI threatens Google itself.

The more I thought about search engine optimization and how a bunch of megalomaniacal jerks were degrading our collective sense of reality because they wanted to buy Lamborghinis and prove they could vanquish the almighty algorithm — which, technically, constitutes many algorithms, but we think of as a single force — the more I looked forward to going to Florida for this alligator party. Maybe, I thought, I would get to see someone who made millions clogging the internet with bullshit get the ultimate comeuppance. Maybe an SEO professional would get attacked by a gigantic, prehistoric-looking reptile right there in front of me. Maybe I could even repackage such a tragedy into a sensationalized anecdote for a viral article about the people who do SEO for a living, strongly implying that nature was here to punish the bad guy while somehow also assuming the ethical high ground and pretending I hadn’t been hoping this exact thing would happen from the start. 

Because I, too, use Google. I, too, want reliable and relevant things to come up when I look through this vast compendium of human knowledge. And I, too, enjoy the sweet taste of revenge. 

The second thing that went wrong at the alligator party was that I found almost everyone I met to be sympathetic, or at least nice enough not to want to see them get maimed by a five-and-a-half-foot alligator. My harshest assessment of the 200 digital marketers taking shots and swaying to a dancehall reggae band was that they dressed like they lived in Florida, which almost all of them did. 

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Imagen de Tim Hill en Pixabay