Popular vote or social engineering

You don’t have to run a blog or website to know how opaque search rankings are, or how important they can be. Neither do you have to use Facebook much to notice how some postings seem always to make it to the top, and others (usually yours) always land down in the weeds. Even tweets seem oddly partisan at times.

The reason, of course, is money.

Unless you operate a commercial site, pay to promote on Facebook, or tweet for profit, your postings and tweets are less important. After all you are getting the service free: as Facebook boasts proudly “It’s free and always will be.” So the organisations that are paying Google and other search engines, Facebook, Twitter, and other ‘free’ social media are actually paying for you.

Some may, on their better days, have the occasional flash of altruism, but generally speaking those organisations are only in it for the money that they can make by promoting their products or services. And there’s the rub: their money is not being paid for the service that you actually want. Unless you want to read incessant adverts, that is.

Not only that, but with money at stake, no holds are barred, no tricks disallowed. Ever since the first web search systems in the mid 1990s, there has been a constant battle of cat and mouse between those operating search engines, like Google (launched in 1998), and those trying to fix their results, commercial sites. From it has arisen the most bizarre industry of them all: search engine optimisation (SEO), believed to be worth over £500 million per year in the UK alone, and over $20 billion per year in North America.

Even without SEO, search ranking is about self-fulfilment. People tend to visit sites which appear high in the hits, making them more popular, thus they rate more highly to search engines, and grow ever more popular.

This has strange effects, even on non-commercial sites such as this blog. Although I continue to write about what interests me, I am naturally influenced by your responses. My most frequently visited page, Favourite Paintings 7 – Camille Pissarro, encouraged me to write more about Pissarro (something I was more than happy to do anyway). For a long time, my book review of Pollitt’s “Cambridge History of Painting in the Classical World” was almost unread, and I seriously wondered whether it had been worth the time and effort. Even the least money-motivated of us become tempted to play to the gallery, and their view statistics.

Alternatives are no better, as they would simply drive the SEO industry to new ways of subversion. Even a sophisticated semantic engine capable of measuring the ‘worth’ of each page would soon be abused into bringing the commercial flotsam to the surface. Hand-crafted human-edited directories like DMOZ are reliant on the diligence of tens of thousands of editors; as a result they often languish as no more than an interesting historical record.

Meanwhile, we are caught in the middle. Type a painter’s name into any search engine, and the majority of the top hits will be from firms offering to sell you reproductions, and so on.

We just can’t miss an opportunity to make a few bucks, can we.