Social Justice and Search Rankings

Do you know how Google decides which websites show up on the front page of search results? It uses a complicated algorithm which measures a variety of factors to determine how popular, trustworthy and relevant that website is.

The internet was supposed to be this super democratic, playing-field-leveler, but the way people use it has shown that isn’t really the case. Net neutrality means that internet service providers don’t discriminate against different kinds of online data, so in theory all websites are created equally. But we all know that just putting a website online doesn’t mean anyone will look at it.

Small blog and website owners struggle to get their pages seen and often dabble in SEO, the modern day alchemy of digital marketing. SEO is the process of optimizing your website content and building links in order to climb up the search rankings for the keywords you think people will be using to search for your site. Google gives priority to websites that have loads of inbound links, but not all links are created equal. The more reputable the website that links to you, the more you will benefit from it in terms of SEO.

To be fair to Google, their algorithms are just intended to make sure you can find what you want without having to sift through the vast volumes of rubbish that comprise the majority of online content. The problem is, it favours the same news agencies that dominate offline content, and their method of discriminating between valuable and reliable content can often lead to alternative voices being drowned out.

The main way that alternative media outlets, small businesses and indie bloggers could compete with the big boys is by going all out with link building tactics. This meant shed loads of unsolicited emails being sent, pleading pathetically for links, link swaps and guest posts. The most recent trend in SEO is to denounce this tactic as “unethical”.

Google see such link building tactics as a way to “trick” their algorithm, and have been working to distinguish between “black hat SEO” techniques (naughty bad SEO) and “ethical SEO” which depends on “organic links” to “high quality content.” Their argument is that if you create decent content, then people will link to it naturally without you having to beg for links. The problem with this attitude is that it overlooks the fact that the most popular content is rarely the best content, and sometimes oppressed and marginalized voices can’t be heard online as the webmasters don’t have the economic resources to pay for ads and SEO etc.

Link building was a sneaky way for anyone to get their blog on the front page of Google. It still helps page rankings a whole lot, but they are cracking down on it and there are many who associate the practice with shady cyber sharks that plague the web with spammy crap.

Is it too much to expect of a multinational company like Google, that they might consider the little guy (or gal) when designing their next algorithm? I hope there will be some way for them to distinguish between quality content without drowning out marginalized voices.

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