Ethical Implications of SEO

It is hard to imagine a digital world without SEO, or Search Engine Optimization. If SEO failed tomorrow, the vast majority of functioning Internet users would suddenly become completely inept. The Optimization tool used by Google and other search engines is what decides which websites or articles come up first when you search a page.

bomb screen shot

This photo to the left, showing what came up in my Google search of the word “bomb”, can display the power and ability of SEO. Right now on the Internet, I am sure there are billions of sites and articles containing that word, but a definition of a bomb is far from the first page of the search. SEO gave me no results on “bomb” but rather pages of information on the Boston marathon bombing because it knows that most people searching that word are looking for that information.

Not surprisingly, the first three news articles that Google directed me to are from major, mainstream news organizations, CNN, The Guardian, and New York Times. All three headlines contain the words “Boston,” “Bomb” and “Suspect”. Obviously words like these are bound to be used generously in covering the week’s events, but are there any strategic reasons they are being used in the headlines? Most likely.

In their definition of SEO, TechTerms.com gives “webmasters” advice for making their content appear in the top few listings of a search engine. The simple definition sheds light on the vast strategic planning that goes into choosing how to phrase things in order to achieve a high search engine ranking; discussing technological tricks regarding HTML adjustments and META Tags but stressing the title as the most important consideration, saying, “First, the title of the page must include relevant information about the page… The title is the most important part of SEO, since it tells the search engine exactly what the page is about.”

Undeniably, Search Engine Optimization has made all of our lives immeasurably easier. However, with good there always comes bad, and in discussing SEO we must analyze some of the ethical implications of this tool. While most of us would categorize Google’s ability to show us exactly what we want as soon as we hit search as a godsend, it is easy to see that journalists have become somewhat controlled by this.

The power SEO has to make or break the web traffic that a news outlet receives is a blatant ethical conflict.

This article by Poynter. discusses the role that SEO played in the “Ground-Zero Mosque” conflict, and how it was relatively impossible for journalists to debunk the myths surrounding the controversy, largely in part to SEO. The article blames Google and the SEO it employs for perpetuating falsehoods even while information was emerging that would clarify the rumors that a mosque being built at ground-zero, and show that there was in fact no plans for a “ground zero mosque” but rather an Islamic center in the general area.

According to Kelly McBride, “That’s because accurate or not, people are searching for the term ‘ground zero mosque.’ So if you want to reach people who are looking for information, you have to use that term.”

Here in lies the catch-22 journalists are facing when it comes to SEO. Pretty much, what this article proves is that if you want to get out real, accurate information, you have to frame your headline in a certain way that is bound to perpetuate false information.

The AP was concrete in its value to avoid using the phrase and make sure they reported the truth, that the center is “near” ground zero, being two blocks away. However, because they did this, their stories, “…don’t show up on the first page of a Google search or even on the first page of the more refined Google News search.”

This sad fact begs the question, does a news outlet need to bend its words and compromise its morals to fit to an SEO? Is Google dictating headlines? Will a good article go unread if it has a headline that is factually correct and relevant, but not commonly searched? We also have to ask if this is really the Search Engine’s fault. People decide what to search, so is it in the hands of the people to make better searches to find better journalism?

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