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There’s a decent chance that if you want to find information on something, you’re likely going to Google it. The Alphabet-owned search engine is by far the most-used of its kind; one report suggests it had over a 90% market share in 2023. And for anybody who wants to publish content on the internet, writing and formatting your content so that it ranks high in Google Search results is a must.
That practice, known as search engine optimization, or SEO, has become a standard practice for websites. According to Mia Sato at The Verge, it’s changed the way that the internet looks. Does a blog post have a bunch of questions as headings? That’s SEO at work. How about a bio with a picture on the side of the post? Also SEO.
“Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal spoke to Sato about her reporting on Google Search, as well as what the future of Google Search might be with artificial intelligence moderating the results. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: SEO is not new, but it is still somehow mysterious, which we’re going to talk about a little bit. Give us the layperson’s “what SEO is” definition, would you?
Mia Sato: Sure. When we search something, there are millions, billions of results. And Google, if we’re talking about Google, has to sort them somehow. In order to do that, it reads all different kinds of things on the webpage, the words on the webpage, the photos there, to try to figure out what is on that page and is it relevant to this thing that we are searching for. So SEO is the practice of trying to optimize your content for search engines. Usually, the goal is to, you know, be one of those first results.
Ryssdal: We should say here we are talking about Google, right? I mean, they control, like, 90% of the search market.
Sato: Yes, yes.
Ryssdal: All right. So the gist of this piece is that SEO and the way it now has monopolized, and I use that word advisedly, how we design for the web is changing the internet itself, right?
Sato: Yeah. And it’s something that’s been happening for a really long time. The web is at a precipice of change. Google has said that AI will be part of the search experience, and now we’re looking back at what the last 25 years of Google dominance has brought us when everyone is making stuff to try to game Google results.
Ryssdal: And the point actually is that so much of what’s out there looks alike, because we have now fallen into this “template-ization” that Google sort of forces people into?
Sato: Yeah, you might not realize that this is like a Google thing and SEO thing, but you will know what we’re talking about. One example is if you’ve ever Googled “How to change a tire,” you click on an article, and there are five different sections. They each have a little subhead on top that says, “What is a tire?” “Why do I need to change the tire?” You know, all of these things, they’re questions that you might be searching for on Google in the first place, is to try to get Google to notice the page.
Ryssdal: All right, so look, this is a little existential, I suppose, but you’re the expert in this conversation. What does all that mean, that we’re doing all this for Google, and we’re adjusting our behavior on this enormous part of all of our lives?
Sato: One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot as I was working on the story is what happens to human creativity when there’s one company that is pretty much dictating how we find things on the internet? In the piece, I talk to humans who are trying to create work for the internet. They’re writing travel guides, they’re writing, you know, recipe blogs, and there is this tension between what we all want to do on the internet and what makes sense to, because if Google cannot see our work, there’s really no point in making it. So what really cool stuff is being made that we will never see because it’s not findable in the SEO the way that Google wants it?
Ryssdal: Yeah, no, totally. This is a little bit false romanticism, but it does kind of take this serendipity and charm out of things a little bit, right?
Sato: When you flip through a million websites that all look the same, paragraph length is the same. This is a really weird thing as a writer, was like, some SEO experts —
Ryssdal: Is that right? Paragraph length. That’s crazy.
Sato: Yeah, some SEO experts recommend paragraphs be no longer than, like, I don’t know, six sentences, or that sentences not be longer than like a certain number of words.
Ryssdal: It’s like I’m in AP Lit back in high school, and I had to write the formulaic essay. Wow.
Sato: Yeah. I did a test for this piece where I put a previous story that I had written through one of these SEO writing graders, and my robot grader did not like my prose. It failed me.
Ryssdal: So the SEO writer has failed SEO. That’s what I heard you saying, right?
Sato: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I don’t think I have a future there.
Ryssdal: Fair. So let me let me ask you to crystal ball this thing, and as you mentioned a minute ago, Google now moving to AI, and AI becoming a bigger part of our lives and experiences, especially online — what does SEO look like in an AI world?
Sato: Oh, my gosh, well, that’s the million-dollar question. Right now, if you’ve played around with Google’s search generative experience, what’s interesting to me is that the AI bot, that comes before any other links. If that stays there, why would anyone scroll down? Some SEO folks have tried to think about, “OK, well, how can we again optimize our content now for this new thing?” If that is the way we go down that path, we will just see these same problems in a few years. This goal of outsmarting the robot, it’s a fool’s errand, I think.
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