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.”
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 first thing that went wrong at the alligator party was the alligator was only five and a half feet long, not 10 feet, as advertised. Classic clickbait!
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.
Take Missy Ward, a blonde in an orange bandage dress so tight she told me she couldn’t take full steps. She laughed as she explained that she’d ordered the dress on Amazon and hadn’t tried it on until the day of the alligator party. Ward had a feisty, wry energy that made me want to root for her. When she started doing SEO in 1998, she said, it was “five girls and all dudes.” She eventually sold her company for $40 million. Somehow, in the moment, I was psyched to hear this. She was being so patient, explaining the history of SEO and suggesting other people for me to reach out to. I should really go talk with that guy across the room, who had a long-running podcast about SEO, she said, the one in the sky blue polo.
His name was Daron Babin, and I quickly learned he was just the kind of “modern-day pirate shit” guy I’d been warned about: thrilled at the opportunity to recount the brilliant trickery that had allowed him to line his pockets. His SEO career got going in 1994, before Google even existed. “The air of manipulation was insane,” Babin told me. “We had this weird community of geeks and nerds, and we all talked to each other about how we were beating the algorithms up,” he said. “People were trying to outrank other people just for bragging rights.”
We were chatting on a patio overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, between the buffet and the band, when the host of the alligator party, Darren Blatt, came up to say how glad he was that I’d found Daron Babin.
“It was like I won the lottery, and I didn’t know how long it would last.”
Darren and Daron (pronounced the same way) have been friends for decades, since the era when Darren “D-Money” Blatt would throw rap star-studded internet marketing shindigs during the Adult Video News Awards in Vegas, back when sex sites were among the most advanced in technology, and Daron Babin was using SEO to promote offshore casinos and Viagra (“We were outranking Pfizer!”). Together, Darren and Daron managed to milk all three of the early online cash cows: porn, pills, and gambling.
As the internet became more regulated and mainstream, around the turn of the century, Darren noticed Daron’s SEO skills were increasingly in demand. “I told him that he was missing the boat, that he needed to be a consultant and charge a few grand,” Darren said.
Daron took the advice, asking for $2,000 a day, and watched his career explode. “I would wake up in a city and not know what time zone I was in,” he recalled. To slow the pace, he upped it to $5,000 a day, but “it seemed the more I raised my rates, the more gigs I was getting.”
Nowadays, he mostly invests in cannabis and psychedelics. SEO just got to be too complicated for not enough money, he told me. Ward had told me the same thing, that she had stopped focusing on SEO years ago.
I was considering how it was possible that so many people have been complaining recently about SEO ruining the internet if these people were telling me the SEO business is in decline when I met Jairo Bastilla. He was the kind of tall, charming man who described himself multiple times as “a nerd,” and he pointed out that even though working directly with search engine rankings is “no longer monetizing at the highest payout,” the same “core knowledge of SEO” remains relevant for everything from native advertising to social media.
Translation? SEO is now baked into everything. Bastilla, for example, specializes in email campaigns, which he called “deliverability.”
As a person who militantly unsubscribes to any and all marketing emails, I suddenly felt claustrophobic, surrounded by people who annoy the rest of us for a living. Why does it always seem to surprise me, even after all these years, that the way we behave on the internet is often quite different from how we act in real life?
I wandered off to wait in line for a drink, where I noticed several people nonchalantly making space in a corner, as if to move out of the way for a bartender carrying empty glasses. There, squirming along the ground, was the alligator himself, wagging his tail, snout held shut by a thin strip of electrical tape. His handler was nowhere in sight. It was an unsettling vision, a predator pretending to be just another party guest.
“They should untape the mouth!” someone shouted. “I’m not even scared.”
As sunset turned to dusk, I found Daron Babin again, and he started telling me about one of his signature moves, back in the ’90s, involving fake domain names: “I could make it look like it was somebody else, but it actually redirected to me!” What he and his competitors did was legal but well beyond what the dominant search engine allowed. He never faced any consequences, but in the end, internet users at large felt the effects: “It muddied up Yahoo, ultimately,” he said, “but while it worked, we banked.”
The situation sounded familiar. But I liked Babin. He was funny and smart, a keen observer of the SEO world. “We’re entering a very weird time, technologically, with AI, from an optimization standpoint,” he told me. Anyone who thought the internet was already saturated with SEO-oriented content should buckle up.
“All the assholes that are out there paying shitty link-building companies to build shitty articles,” he said, “now they can go and use the free version of GPT.” Soon, he said, Google results would be even worse, dominated entirely by AI-generated crap designed to please the algorithms, produced and published at volumes far beyond anything humans could create, far beyond anything we’d ever seen before.
“They’re not gonna be able to stop the onslaught of it,” he said. Then he laughed and laughed, thinking about how puny and irrelevant Google seemed in comparison to the next generation of automated SEO. “You can’t stop it!”
Once I was safe at home, my alligator attack bluster having deflated into an irrepressible affection for clever scoundrels, mixed with fear about the future promised by said scoundrels, I decided to seek a broader range of the people who do SEO for a living. Perhaps the ones who live in Florida were simply too, well, Florida, and the ones who live elsewhere might be more principled? An old contact heard I was writing about SEO and suggested I find a man he called Legendary Lars: “He was an absolute god in that space.”
I tracked down Lars Mapstead in Northern California, where he was preparing to run for president in 2024 as a Libertarian. Mapstead spent the first two years of his life in a Volkswagen van traveling the Pacific coast before his hippie parents settled on a Big Sur property with goats, chickens, and no electricity. He became a tinkerer and an autodidact, the guy who reads the instruction manual and fixes everything himself. When he first heard about the World Wide Web, it was 1993, and he was working for a company selling computer motherboards.
“It’s like the freedom of information!” he remembered thinking. “It’s all just about collaborating and bettering mankind!”
He learned how to build a website and then how to submit a site to be listed in early search directories like AltaVista, WebCrawler, Infoseek, and Lycos. He learned how to create chat rooms, attracting people spread across the globe, all alone in their homes but together online. It was beautiful. It was exciting. Mapstead saw himself as an explorer in a small but finite kingdom. “I had surfed the entire internet. There wasn’t a page I hadn’t seen.”
And then, one day, a company in New York offered to pay him $2,000 a month to put banner ads on one of his websites, and everything changed. More clicks meant more ad dollars. Higher search engine rankings meant more clicks. So whatever it took to get a higher ranking, he learned how to do. He bought photographs of women in bikinis and made a 60-page slideshow with banner ads on each page. He realized that most search engines were just listing websites in order of how many times a search term appeared on the site and in its tags, so he focused on stuffing his sites with keywords, resubmitting his URL to the search engines, and waiting for the results to change.
Mapstead started pulling in $25,000–$30,000 a month, working 12- to 14-hour days. “It was how long could I stay awake and how little life could I have because this was more money than I could have ever imagined in my lifetime,” he told me. “It was like I won the lottery, and I didn’t know how long it would last.”
Around this time, in 1997, an Italian professor published a journal article about what he called Search Engines Persuasion. “Finding the right information on the World Wide Web is becoming a fundamental problem,” he wrote. “A vast number of new companies was born just to make customer Web pages as visible as possible,” which “has led to a bad performance degradation of search engines.”
Enter Google. The company revolutionized search by evaluating websites based on links from other websites, seeing each link as a vote of relevance and trustworthiness. The founders pledged to be a neutral navigation system with no ads: just a clean white screen with a search box that would bring people off of the Google landing page and out to a helpful website as seamlessly as possible. Users quickly decided this link-based sorting methodology was superior to the existing search engines, and by the end of 1999, Google was handling the majority of online queries.
“I was basically just spamming Facebook with cars and articles about cars and sending traffic to banner ads, and that turned into $120,000 a month.”
Mapstead, like many of the early practitioners of SEO, figured out how to adapt. Almost as soon as Google took over, a secondary market emerged for links. For a few hundred bucks, a firm in India or the Philippines could provide thousands of links from blog networks built entirely for that purpose. It was easy: buy links that led to your site and watch your ranking in Google’s results rise.
I came to understand that, since the dawn of the internet, there have been people attempting to manipulate search and then people decrying those manipulations as the end of search’s ability to be useful. It works in cycles. People doing SEO find loopholes in the algorithm; critics complain about search results; search engines innovate and close the loopholes. Rinse, repeat.
Before our current moment of widespread disillusionment with online information, the rise of SEO had reached a breaking point multiple times. In 2003, as Google approached the deadline to disclose pertinent business information leading up to its IPO, the company quietly released an update cracking down. By 2011, SEO was once again oppressively pervasive. TechCrunch published a story called “Why We Desperately Need a New (and Better) Google,” which argued that “Google has become a jungle: a tropical paradise for spammers and marketers.” In the next year, Google made two major changes to the algorithm, which came to be called Panda and Penguin.
While the public might have experienced each of these updates as a relief, Mapstead and his SEO compatriots saw them as devastating. “They change the rules instantly overnight, and then you’re out of business,” he told me. “Here you’re trying to rely on this business model to feed yourself and your family, and they’re pulling the rug from underneath you, and you’ve gotta scramble to pay rent.”
But don’t worry about Mapstead. This is a guy seemingly blessed with a never-ending mental stream of schemes. He helped start a handful of companies, including the once-ubiquitous hookup site AdultFriendFinder, which sold in 2007 for $500 million. He tried to retire after that but got bored and started a couple of Facebook pages devoted to his passion for hot rods and custom cars. This was during the peak years for social media, and just as Bastilla had described back at the alligator party, Mapstead’s “core knowledge of SEO” came in handy. Before long, his pages had 25 million followers. “I was basically just spamming Facebook with cars and articles about cars and sending traffic to banner ads, and that turned into $120,000 a month,” he told me. “And that was supposed to be my hobby!”
As I spoke with more SEO professionals around the country, I began to think that the reason I found them endearing and not evil was that while many had made quite a bit of money, almost none had amassed significant power. Unlike the Elon Musks and Jeff Bezoses of the world, who went from geeky teenagers to masters of the universe, the dorks who grew up to do SEO have stayed the butt of the joke, beholden to the fluctuations of the algorithm, frantically pulling levers behind the scenes but ultimately somewhat hapless.
I mean, have I even mentioned that they call themselves “SEOs”? Really. They say things like, “As the SEO, my job is to get more traffic.” This title feels thirsty to be seen as similar to a CEO, to be taken seriously. And compared to the rest of the tech world, SEO has always lacked a certain glamor or a certain messiah complex. Case in point: while many of the tech CEOs claiming to save the world these days live in Miami, the alligator party was an hour up the coast in Fort Lauderdale.
“The SEO people are just trying to make money,” said Peter Kent, the author of several dozen explanatory tech books, including SEO for Dummies and Bitcoin for Dummies. “The cryptocurrency people are trying to make money, but they’re also trying to overthrow, you know, the existing system.”
Kent has done his fair share of SEO jobs but also has something of an outsider’s perspective. For years, he’s been telling people that part of the SEO industry’s reputation problem is that 80 percent of SEOs are scammers.
“A lot of companies and individuals out there selling their services as SEO gurus don’t know what they’re doing or don’t really give a damn,” he explained. As a consultant, he’s often had businesses ask him to vet the work of other SEOs. “I would take a look at their site and determine the firm had done next to nothing and had been charging thousands a month for years on end.”
When I ran this 80 percent scam figure by other SEOs, most agreed it sounded accurate, though people were divided about what to ascribe to greed and what was just stupidity.
“It isn’t because they have a scammer’s heart,” said Bruce Clay. “It’s because they don’t have the real expertise.” Clay is an avuncular man with a mustache who is often credited with coining the phrase “search engine optimization” and is therefore called “the father of SEO.” He told me his agency never hires an SEO with less than a decade of experience.
“I don’t know if you can trust anything you read online.”
Though Google publishes guidelines explaining how to do better in search (“Make your site interesting and useful”), the exact formula for how and why one website gets placed over another is top secret, meaning that SEO involves a lot of reverse engineering and guesswork. With no clear chain of cause and effect around why a site’s ranking has changed, a less talented practitioner can take on the mien of a premodern farmer, struggling to figure out how to make it rain. Should he do that dance he did last year the night before it poured? Or maybe sacrifice his firstborn?
The algorithm is just too opaque, too complicated, and too dynamic, making it easy for scammy SEOs to pretend they know what they’re doing and difficult for outsiders to sort the good SEOs from the bad. To make things even more confusing for, say, a small business looking to hire someone to improve their Google ranking, even a talented SEO might need a year of work to make a difference, perhaps implying a good SEO was a scammer when in fact, the client was just being impatient or refusing to implement essential advice. “There’s a great deal of effort that’s required to do things to move the needle, and a lot of companies aren’t willing to put out the money for that, even though it may be worthwhile in the long run,” said John Heard, a longtime SEO based in Kansas.
Of course, some people bristled at the very suggestion that the industry is filled with con artists. “There are a lot of scammers in every single business. It’s just easier to call yourself an SEO than a doctor,” said Barry Schwartz. Schwartz is an unbelievably fast talker and a prolific writer who has spent the past two decades covering SEO for the trade rag Search Engine Land. Both over the phone with me and in his work, he has defended SEO as a legitimate, dignified pursuit: “The search community is filled with hard-working individuals working to help their clients’ websites succeed in Google Search. That success is not done through dark, corrupt or shady tactics but rather hard, smart and thorough work.”
Several people that I spoke to made a similar point: the best SEOs are the ones that follow Google’s rules, which essentially ask you to make amazing websites without even thinking about Google. You are not supposed to make any attempt to artificially boost a website’s ranking; you are supposed to be designing websites for human readers, not for the algorithm. And many SEOs do exactly this kind of work: rewriting copy, making a site load more quickly, etc. But the existence of good SEOs does not negate the presence of scammers and idiots and people who get ahead by violating Google’s terms of service, just as the mild-mannered teacher’s pet in a classroom does not negate the obnoxious shouting of the kids that refuse to behave. A few loud kids can easily drown everyone else out.
Even Schwartz acknowledged the effect that the rule-breaking SEOs have had on the internet experience. We get to talking about the types of small businesses that are particularly lucrative customers for SEOs, including lawyers, accountants, and contractors, because these are the professions eager for attention from all the people going online to find local recommendations. If Schwartz himself had to hire a reliable attorney, I asked, what would be the best way to do so?
“I don’t know if you can trust anything you read online,” he told me. “Maybe you ask a friend.”
After hearing so much about what it was like to be an SEO, I decided it was time to better understand what’s been going on from the perspective of the search engine. Google was slow to allow someone to talk with me, possibly because of the giant PR clusterfuck that has been the company’s past year (accused by the federal government of being a monopoly; increasingly despised by the public; losing ground to Reddit, TikTok, and large language models), so I decided to start by meeting up with a chipper, charismatic man named Duane Forrester.
Forrester was at Microsoft from 2007 until 2015, where he helped launch and manage Bing, the perpetual underdog to Google’s domination of online search. Before and after his time at Microsoft, Forrester worked as an SEO, so he sees the industry from both sides, like an aerospace engineer who spent a few years at the Department of Defense, left for the private sector, and now is much better at winning military contracts. Forrester has a holistic understanding of the delicate push and pull between the SEOs desperate for clues on how to do their jobs better and the search engine trying to keep its secret-sauce algorithm proprietary. He also knows a huge range of people in the industry. Like Schwartz, he wanted to emphasize how hard everyone works. “I’ve lost track of how many people I know who built companies and sold them and have just, like, made wealth,” he told me. “That is not a 40-hour commitment in the week. That is a 400-hour commitment.” (For the record, there are 168 hours in a week.)
These days, Forrester lives in Los Angeles, and he asked me to meet him at one of his favorite restaurants, which felt like a British pub operated by Disney World, tucked away in a desert strip mall. Inside, every inch was covered in Anglophile paraphernalia, including Union Jack flags, a mural of Big Ben, and a red phone booth. Over a full English breakfast, he told me about growing up in rural Canada, where his parents owned a motel. As a kid, he used to mess around with the pay phone outside, eventually figuring out how to finagle free long-distance phone calls. “And then it became, ‘What else can I know how to do?’”
By the ’90s, Forrester was trading tips with other SEOs in online forums. He still remembers the thrill of the very first SEO conference he went to, where he was asked to speak. “The people who got up onstage to talk were seen as somehow more knowledgeable, but I don’t know that we felt that way,” he said. “You all kind of knew you were making shit up.”
After years of being friends online, the SEOs were eager to let loose in person, giving off what Forrester described as “that vibe of a lot of young people with access to a lot of money. And it was like, no expenses spared in New York City.”
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
For Forrester, it was the start of a long career of keynote presentations and consummate schmoozing — Clay, the father of SEO, described him to me as “a cruise director” on the SS SEO. The conference circuit has treated Forrester well. He’s attended events in Napa, Hawaii, and Barbados, among many others, as well as “an infinite number of private dinners and these types of things in every city you can think of, at the most lavish restaurants,” he said. “I’ve lost track of how many Michelin-starred meals I’ve had, ’cause it’s now in the dozens, from my time in this industry. And I’m not going to say no to the dinner that everyone’s going to, that one company is sponsoring because it’s a thank you to everybody who contributed to, whatever it was, you know? And you go and everybody has a good time. You talk about the industry, and that’s it. And it becomes the stuff of legends.”
Over the years, he’s seen it all. He remembered “walking into hotel rooms and it’s two o’clock in the morning, there’s drugs and alcohol and everything everywhere, and there’s a party going on.” Forrester marveled at the audacity of his fellow SEOs. “Somebody showed up and brought her Aston Martin to a conference and parked it at the front door. Immediately got a parking ticket.” He suggested she might want to relocate the car before it got towed, but the woman told him she would just move it to the next parking spot and get another ticket. “She goes, ‘It’s cheaper for me to leave the car parked out front and use it as a way to start conversations with potential clients than it is for me to rent a suite at the hotel and get people to go to the suite to have the same conversation.’” Then, she offered to take Forrester for a joyride around Seattle. Obviously, he said yes.
Once he represented Bing, Forrester more or less stopped drinking at conferences, as had long been the case for his counterpart at Google, an engineer named Matt Cutts, who helped build and then ran the company’s web spam team before stepping back in 2014 and leaving in 2016.
Cutts was a celebrity among SEOs, constantly mobbed with questions and complaints. When we spoke on the phone, he told me that before he left, he determined that he had sent about 50,000 emails to people outside of Google during his decade and a half at the company.
Several SEOs described trying to get Cutts to drink at conferences so he would “spill secrets,” as one put it, but what generally ended up happening was that all the SEOs would get drunk instead. Meanwhile, Cutts would stay sober, jotting down the latest SEO methods on a small notepad, sitting quietly in the corner at the bar.
“My favorite question to ask an SEO,” Cutts told me, was, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” which prompted responses that felt like “a cross between showing off and a confessional.” So many SEOs were tempted to reveal the vulnerabilities they’d discovered in Google’s algorithms, even when they were talking to the one person they really shouldn’t have been talking to, the guy who was planning to go back to his office and make those vulnerabilities disappear.
As a former SEO himself, Forrester understood that the quality of Bing’s search results would be impacted by the work of SEOs, so it made sense to communicate with SEOs as much as possible. Cutts similarly tried to serve as a conduit between SEOs and Google, but Forrester felt that Google projected an attitude he described as: “We know what we’re doing, we will stop your attempts to game this, and you know what? We’ll just kind of ignore you, and when you give us feedback, eh, we don’t really care.”
Cutts, as an individual, seemed to be doing his best within an expanding corporate behemoth to remain approachable. “One thing I learned early on was that even when someone was shouting at you, there’s a kernel of something you needed to hear in the other person and listen to and respect and integrate and incorporate,” he told me. Most SEOs told me they appreciated his efforts. When Google released the 2011 Panda update that devastated a generation of SEO businesses, Cutts openly recognized the impossible task of achieving the kind of epistemological neutrality that Google’s founders had initially promised, telling Wired at the time, “[T]he only way to be neutral is either to randomize the links or to do it alphabetically.”
Still, some blamed him personally for “killing” companies that had relied on the previous iteration of the algorithm. During his time at Google, Cutts regularly received death threats and hate mail. When SEOs would send, say, a fruit plate or a brownie cake addressed to him at Google’s offices, he told me, “We’d take it down to the kitchen with a note warning: possibly poisoned.”
After Cutts left, Google replaced him with a handful of people, none of whom could quite fill his shoes: “Those personalities sometimes were standoffish,” Forrester told me. “Some of them were superior. Some of them were a bit too wallflower.”
One of the people Google brought in was Danny Sullivan, a former journalist who started Search Engine Land, the industry publication where Schwartz works, back in the 2000s. In 2009, Sullivan was described as “the closest approximation to an umpire in the search world,” so when he published “A deep look at Google’s biggest-ever search quality crisis” in 2017 and then took a job as Google’s public liaison for Search only a few months later, it felt to some SEOs as though a congressperson working on gun safety legislation had quit to become an NRA lobbyist.
“There is a thread across the industry of people who believe that Google just made Danny an offer he couldn’t say no to, and it was designed essentially to take his voice out of the conversation,” Forrester told me. “I don’t believe that’s the case,” he went on, but compared to Cutts, “I think that Danny specifically stays out of a lot of public conversations because he is in those private conversations with businesses.”
Was all that really Google’s fault? Or the SEOs? Or was this about something deeper and more human: the will to exploit something so much we destroy it.
When I finally manage to jump through the flaming rings necessary to be allowed to speak on the phone with Sullivan, albeit with a communications chaperone also on the line, I find him angry and defensive. He’s annoyed that anyone would think his era at Google has been less transparent than Cutts’ was: “We have reams of help documents!” he told me. “We have more people assigned to work with SEOs than we did when Matt worked here!”
Sullivan is mad that the public and the media don’t really understand what he considers to be basic precepts about how search works, leading him to adopt a rather scolding tone online. He’s frustrated that people want to know every last detail about Google’s algorithm because even “if we listed all one thousand of the ranking signals” and how much each was worth, he said, that wouldn’t actually help SEOs do their jobs better, anyway.
And most of all, Sullivan is pissed that people think Google results have gone downhill. Because they haven’t, he insisted. If anything, search results have gotten a lot better over time. Anyone who thought search quality was worse needed to take a hard look in the mirror.
“We have an entire generation that grew up expecting the search box to do the work for them,” he said. “We might do a better job of matching for a bulk of people, but for people who are super sensitive, when they have that fail moment, now it becomes, ‘All my searches aren’t good.’”
The problem was not Google. The problem was not SEOs. The problem was kids these days.
Of course Sullivan would say this, though. He works for Google. I felt like I began to understand why many SEOs had told me that Cutts’ departure had marked a major turning point in the history of the internet, emblematic of Google’s transition from idealistic startup to one of the most valuable and powerful companies to ever exist. Over the phone, Cutts came off as humble and thoughtful, acknowledging the nuances and challenges of the search engine business, while Sullivan sounded like an impatient corporate stooge, trying to gaslight me into believing the sky was red.
But here’s the part where I started to feel the way I’ve felt so often in recent years, like I was losing my grip on reality: Sullivan was not the only person who tried to tell me that search results have improved significantly. Out of the dozen-plus SEOs that I spoke with at length, nearly every single one insisted that search results are way better than they used to be. And except for Sullivan, these were not people with an incentive to praise Google. If anything, these were folks who lamented how much harder it had become for them to take advantage of Google. Today, they told me, search results are just objectively more accurate. More useful. More difficult to manipulate.
This was not what I had been noticing, and this was certainly not what I had been hearing from friends and journalists and friends who are journalists. Were all of us wrong? Or engulfed in some kind of Baader–Meinhof frequency bias delusion? Had I been researching a nonexistent problem? Were Google results actually amazing? Truly, I had lost the plot. Was the premise of this piece completely off? Was I the asshole who deserved to be attacked by an alligator?
I began to worry all the people who were mad about search results were upset about something that had nothing to do with metrics and everything to do with feelings and ~vibes~ and a universal, non-Google-specific resentment and rage about how the internet has made our lives so much worse in so many ways, dividing us and deceiving us and provoking us and making us sadder and lonelier. Decades of American optimism about the wonderful potential of technology, from the Moon landing to personal computers to the iPhone, had finally, in the last few years, broken down into comprehensive chagrin at the petty, pathetic, and violent world enabled by our devices. Was all that really Google’s fault? Or the SEOs? Or was this about something deeper and more human: the will to exploit something so much we destroy it. To muddy it up, as Babin had put it, but while it worked, to make as much fucking money as possible.
The person who helped me snap out of my confusion spiral was an SEO named Lily Ray. Ray is a 30-something jet-setter with black-line tattoos and an asymmetrical, dyed blonde pixie cut. I managed to catch her for lunch in Brooklyn between speaking gigs in Chicago and Berlin on a day when she was also simultaneously managing a 35-person team at her digital marketing agency, posting multiple times an hour on social media, dog-sitting for a Pomeranian whose “daddies” were at Burning Man, caring for her own mini Australian shepherd, and organizing the house party she was hosting that weekend — a party she expected to be late for because she first had to drop by a rooftop to perform a DJ set at a different party.
Ray reassured me that I was not crazy. Google results today do feel different from how they felt just five or six years ago for two major reasons. The first was Google’s response to the disinformation panic around the 2016 election, which involved questioning the notion that the most reliable information could be chosen by a form of popularity, meaning how many links a site received from other sites. As a result, the algorithm seemed to change its approach to links, especially when it came to news and sites offering legal, financial, or health advice, and instead paid more attention to what Google came to call E-E-A-T: experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness.
“E-E-A-T has had a pretty big impact on what types of results you see,” Ray told me. She’s done extensive (and fascinating) research around how certain sites have fared under these new guidelines: Urban Dictionary, down! Mayo Clinic, up! Some people consider EEAT part of what’s making results better than ever. Others see it as a form of censorship, disproportionately affecting right-wing perspectives. Not every search query takes EEAT into account; Google has described heightened concern over sites that could impact safety, happiness, and the ability to be an informed citizen. But the point that really hit me was that for certain kinds of information, Google had undone one of the fundamental elements of what had made its results so appealing from the start. Now, instead of wild-west crowdsourcing, search was often reinforcing institutional authority.
You can’t just be the most powerful observer in the world for two decades and not deeply warp what you are looking at
This felt complicated at best. When it comes to health and wellness, for example, quackery is often in the eye of the beholder. Everyone knows someone who has struggled with the limits of Western medicine. So much of the original draw of the internet was the opportunity for outlier voices to be heard alongside established experts and elites. Looking back on all that had changed around what first attracted people to Google, from the introduction of ads to the efforts to keep users within the universe of Google products, this seemed to be the last straw.
The second major reason why Google results feel different lately was, of course, SEO — specifically, the obnoxious-kid-refusing-to-behave-in-class kind of SEO.
“SEO that goes against Google’s guidelines, it’s not new,” Ray explained. A decade ago, it used to be called “black hat” SEO, in comparison to the search engine-approved “white hat” tactics. And Google has, as Sullivan and many SEOs told me, gotten better over time at catching SEOs playing tricks on the algorithm. Although many of us may have rosy memories of how magical and cool Google seemed in the early days, most SEOs consider the years between 2003 and 2011 to be the boom times, when you could still get a fake corporate website listed above the real corporate website, and you could mess with the search results for a major political figure such that something sexual or racist would come up first.
Google is harder to game now — it’s true. But the sheer volume of SEO bait being produced is so massive and so complex that Google is overwhelmed. “It’s exponentially worse,” Ray said. “People can mass auto-generate content with AI and other tools,” she went on, and “in many cases, Google’s algorithms take a minute to catch onto it.”
The future that Babin had cackled about at the alligator party was already here. We humans and our pedestrian questions were getting caught up in a war of robots fighting robots, of Google’s algorithms trying to find and stop the AI-enabled sites programmed by SEOs from infecting our internet experience.
Eventually, a site filled with computer-generated nonsense designed to maximize SEO will get removed from search results, Ray explained, but while it’s up, the creator might make as much as $50,000 or $100,000 a month. A lot of the people who did this, she said, live cheaply overseas in places like Bali and Chiang Mai. ”They make a bunch of money, that site dies, and they go do it again,” she said. “It’s like a churn and burn strategy. So if people are seeing those results, it can be very frustrating for users ‘cause it’s like, ‘This is terrible.’”
And yet, as much as she despises what this kind of SEO has done to the internet, Ray told me she hesitated to condemn the actual people doing it. “I used to do those types of tactics, so I couldn’t hate on anybody personally,” she said. “If people have a problem with Google’s results, they have to ask themselves, is it the fault of the SEOs?” she asked. “Or is this Google behaving differently than it used to?”
Sullivan had tried to convince me that Google was not behaving differently and, in fact, had not changed its search criteria in any major way for the past 20 years. Google wanted you to make good websites, and that was that. Everyone who tried to rank higher by messing with the algorithm would be blocked. Sullivan even insisted that what these rule-breakers did should not be called SEO: he deemed it all “spam.” What is spam? “Spam is stuff that search engines don’t like.”
But the line between strategies that violate Google’s terms of service and strategies that don’t has always been blurry and inconsistently enforced. “I’ve never seen this much tension in the industry in terms of, like, what Google says to do and what people are doing and getting away with,” Ray told me. “If you’re gonna tell us that this stuff doesn’t work, make it stop working!”
Ray seemed like the most reasonable person I had spoken to so far. Sure, she called herself a “thought leader,” and yes, sure, she had changed her last name to improve her personal branding by more closely associating herself with her grandmother’s uncle, the artist Man Ray. Maybe some people would say that’s the kind of absurd behavior that merits being attacked by an alligator, but I was beginning to come down on the side of the SEOs, who seemed to have a lot less agency than I’d first imagined.
Google had started with a noble cause: trying to make the internet easier to navigate at scale. The company did accomplish that goal, but in doing so, it inadvertently and profoundly changed how the internet looked. The problem lay in Google trying to be an objective and neutral arbiter of an information landscape that was meant to pretend it did not exist. You cannot design a free, automated system to help people find information without some people trying to game that system. You can’t just be the most powerful observer in the world for two decades and not deeply warp what you are looking at.
For the past 25 years, the internet as we know it has been almost entirely defined and controlled by Google. What the SEOs do matters for all of us on a daily basis, distorting how we perceive the world in ways we can hardly begin to imagine or understand. Yet any money that any SEO has made is a fraction of a crumb compared to Google’s 10-layer cake. The company brings in hundreds of billions of dollars a year, profits that skew Google’s choices and priorities. As Google’s founders wrote back in 1997: “we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.”
At the end of the day, it’s Google’s world, and the SEOs are only living in it
There’s a reason why most countries around the world have libraries that are public institutions: information that is controlled by a private business will always be subject to that business’s bottom line. In the beginning, the internet was seen as an improvement on the spirit of the public library. Here was an opportunity to transcend the gatekeepers controlling who could publish a book, allowing mankind to fully connect and share knowledge. Instead, we have ended up in a situation arguably worse than before, where nearly all online information runs through a single company, which assumes a veneer of civic utility, of impassive authority, when it is very much not a neutral entity.
“There were so many true believers at Google in the early days,” Cutts told me. “As companies get big, it gets harder to get things done. Inevitably, people start to think about profit or quarterly numbers.” He claimed that, at least while he was there, search quality always came before financial goals, but he believes that the public underestimates how Google is shaping what they see, saying, “I deeply, deeply, deeply believe search engines are newspaper-like entities, making editorial decisions.” He speculated that the company didn’t want the public to think too hard about how search works because that awareness “encourages regulators and makes people realize, ‘Oh, there’s a lot of money here.’”
There has always been advertising and polemics from cranks, scammers, and liars. But now we see this stuff surfacing alongside truth, and we can’t tell the difference. We move through our lives with a greater sense of distrust and fear and insecurity. At the end of the day, it’s Google’s world, and the SEOs are only living in it.
And as much as I might hate the way the SEOs who don’t follow Google’s rules have altered my online experience, the reality is that most people running a company will break whatever rules they are able to get away with breaking. While Ray herself said she has left behind the guideline-violating tactics of her past, choosing instead to do as Google asks and make high-quality websites that will “make the internet a better place,” as she put it, that kind of moral standard can be a lot to ask of someone running a business.
“They want this wholesome thing, and I can understand that. That’d be neat,” said an SEO named Cade Lee. “But that’s maybe in a world where we don’t have money and greed and things, you know?”
Lee was the person I spoke with on the phone before going to the alligator party, the guy who warned me that SEO was “modern-day pirate shit.” He is among the SEOs who have spoken publicly, on panels, about violating Google’s guidelines. He’s also an ex-con who used to trade penny stocks and served time for securities fraud. His entire body is covered in tattoos, from his scalp to his legs to his fingers. When we met up for beers in Denver at a bar outside an escape room, he told me that his probation officer in the economic crime offenders unit has never tried to stop him from violating Google’s terms of service.
“I was transparent about it, and they approved it,” he said. They even approved “some pretty questionable things, like in regards to adult sites,” he told me, specifically involving what he’d thought were ads for consensual sex workers. Later, an activist reached out and showed him how certain websites he had built were supporting human trafficking. Horrified, he shut the whole thing down, even then helping the activist with her website.
These days, Lee runs a construction company. His probation officer hates when he phrases it like this, but he thinks any way you make money is essentially a con or a scam of some kind. “The good con is like, you actually delivered, and you came through and made a profit.” For example: “We’re gonna take that old lady’s money to build her a brand new patio. There’s that scam, and then there’s, ‘Hey, let’s take her deposit and run.’” Lee is the kind of guy who has spent a lot of time thinking about his place in the world: what matters, what doesn’t, and how his actions affect other people. He was in the Marines, he sold mortgages in the lead-up to the 2008 crash, he went to prison, he’s done SEO. He understands that he needs to make money to survive, but he’d like to do so in a way that is minimally harmful. So he prefers the good kind of con.
“That’s what happened with SEO for me — it was becoming bullshit,” he says. “I was not feeling good about customer meetings and about what I was saying, and I was like, ‘I shouldn’t be doing this.’”
Correction: An earlier version of the piece misstated when Search Engine Land was founded. It was in the 2000s, not the ‘90s. We regret the error.