You may have seen this acronym floating around the web — SEO. For those who know, SEO is an important tool used to make sure that people see your content online. For those who don’t, is there a point to knowing?

It turns out that SEO is more important than you might think.

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. SEO allows content makers like journalists get the content in front of their target audience. So if someone writes an article about SEO, for example, they can use tagged keywords, change the title and all kinds of other, more complicated tricks that makes sure that whoever is looking for articles on SEO can find it! In other words, I’m going to have to use SEO to make sure that people looking for information on SEO can see my column on SEO. Meta, I know.

So why should you care?

A couple of weeks ago, I came across this tweet from WSJ reporter Christopher Mims:

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To fully appreciate the value of Mims’ tweet, it is important to understand what he means when he says things like “de-indexing” and “paywall.”

When Mims refers to Google “de-indexing” WSJ articles, what he means is that Google is pushing WSJ content further down the list of its search results. So if you search for something like “iPhone 8 Review,” you will be presented with posts from The Verge, CNET, Wired, and CNBC before you see WSJ content. Google says this is due to the WSJ’s paywall, which refers to the fact that the WSJ only allows paying subscribers access to their content. Imagine that, being asked to pay for access to high-quality content produced by professionals. Honestly, the nerve of the Journal.

Do you see the problem? Simply because of the WSJ’s business model, Google is pushing their content further down in the search results, which will inevitably lead to fewer page views and subsequently, a decrease in revenue. Is it fair for Google to be making judgements about a publication’s content based on their underlying business model? Should that matter? Or is Google simply maintaining a focus on a better User Experience, where you can reliably view the content that you click on in the first page of Search results?

I can understand arguments on either side of the aisle on this one, but on balance, I’m not sure if it’s fair that Google, given it’s immense market power in web search (Google’s market share in search, for both mobile and desktop, sits around 80% worldwide), should be allowed to exert this kind of economic influence over the press. In de-indexing the Journal, Google is effectively incentivizing digital news outlets to stick to ad-based revenue models, rather than subscription-based ones.

For those familiar with Google’s main revenue stream, you know exactly where I’m going next. For those who don’t, consider this: who dominates online ad revenue? Who runs the largest digital ad business in the world?

US Search Ad Revenues, courtest of ReCode.com

That’s right, it’s Google. The folks from Mountain View control over 75% of Search Ad revenue in the US. That seems like a damn good incentive to pressure companies into adopting ad-supported revenue models.

So if you’re the default search engine, then you clearly set the rules, with respect to SEO. If you want to get your content seen online, you have to play by Google’s rules. There’s a whole other angle to this that involves Facebook’s equally dominant platform, but I’ll save that for my column next week, so keep an eye out for that.

For now, just know that the content you find online is a result of decisions made about values that you may or may not align with. And when it comes to the press and the media, any kind of decision is an inherently controversial one. Happy Googling!




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