Search and Destroy: Amanda Chicago Lewis on how SEO “ruined” the internet
Why your Google results are a garbage fire. Plus, the longform void Jezebel’s shuttering leaves behind.
Amanda Chicago Lewis explains why you still haven’t found what you’re Googling for
When freelance reporter Amanda Chicago Lewis booked her flight to South Florida earlier this year to cover the search engine optimization (SEO) industry, she had a very specific goal in mind.
“I wanted to understand: what kind of human spends their days exploiting our dumbest impulses for traffic and profit?” she writes in her recent feature for The Verge. She is referring to SEOs — yes, those three initials are shorthand for the work itself and the people who do it — who game Google Search and the like to increase a webpage’s visibility. “Who the hell are these people making money off of everyone else’s misery?”
Also, Lewis wanted to see a supposedly 10-foot-long alligator that promoters of a Fort Lauderdale SEO event used to draw attendees. She opens the piece with the reptile, which turns out to be about half the advertised size. “I thought the alligator was a very funny metaphor,” Lewis tells Depth Perception. “It gets your attention in the same way that everything about SEO is grabbing people’s attention. I was more amused about the alligator than anyone else, consistently, for a very long time. And I will say, there were more alligator jokes in earlier drafts.”
The Verge itself employed some attention-grabbing techniques of its own for Lewis’ story, which is titled “The people who ruined the internet.”
“The headline was meant to be intentionally provocative,” Lewis says, “to get you to think at the beginning that we were talking about SEOs but by the end to wonder if we were actually talking about Google.” Google Search, as you may have experienced personally, has become far less useful in recent years, all too often providing poor-quality and even AI-generated sources in response to user queries.
”I was more amused about the alligator than anyone else, consistently, for a very long time. And I will say, there were more alligator jokes in earlier drafts.”
It is to Lewis’ credit that an 8,000-word story on SEO is far from dry. The writing, like the headline, is provocative, employing what Lewis calls “exaggerated anger” to reflect all the recent talk of the internet’s recent “ruin.” “So who ends up with a career in SEO?” she writes. “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.”
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But Lewis found almost everyone she met at the SEO party in Florida to be “sympathetic.” By the end, modern-day SEO experts come across as decent people. “Ultimately, the problem when you’re in a traffic jam is not the car that is next to you, but the person who designed the highway,” Lewis says, “or the person who built a highway instead of a train.”
In other words: Blame Google and what its algorithm prioritizes. Many people have done this already, including blogger Dmitri Brereton, whose post “Google Search Is Dying” went viral in 2022. “If you’ve tried to search for a recipe or product review recently, I don’t need to tell you that Google search results have gone to shit,” Brereton writes. “You would have already noticed that the first few non-ad results are SEO optimized sites filled with affiliate links and ads.”
Author Cory Doctorow earlier this year wrote that Google’s own ranking system had been weakened “to the point where a link’s presence among the top results for a Google search is correlated with scamminess, not relevance.”
Whoever is to blame, the piece did cause an outcry in the SEO world, which Business Insider’s Katie Notopoulos calls a “spicy drama.” Take the response to the article in the popular SEO business site Search Engine Land, titled “Bitter, cynical Verge article blames SEOs for ruining the internet.” In that piece, Danny Goodwin writes, “So much of this article is all such a dated, fringey view of SEO — the Wild West porn, pills and gambling days. Much of the focus here is on days gone by… Some big personalities brag and reminisce about the past.”
Lewis argues the piece acts in large part as a history, so it needs to include the more sordid aspects of the industry. “If I were to describe something happening in the past and pretend it was happening now, that would be messed up,” she says.
“That’s the rule of the internet,” Lewis says. “The loudest voice is not necessarily representing what most people think.”
Meanwhile, Danny Sullivan, Google’s Public Liaison for Search, was interviewed for the piece and published a lengthy rebuttal on his personal blog, in which he objects to being described as “mad” and “pissed.”
Lewis, for her part, says that she knew that Sullivan was “already seemingly pretty upset” about recent Verge coverage of Google. “I think he came into this conversation with me mad about another piece,” she says. “And he sort of put that on me, even though I had nothing to do with that other thing.”
All the controversy doesn’t seem to have bothered Lewis. “Some of the criticism, if you read it, it’s talking about a piece that is not the piece that I wrote,” she says. “It’s referring to the first two paragraphs and not acknowledging the elements of the piece or me talk about people saying, ‘Oh, these are these just regular people working hard to make things.’”
This isn’t the first of Lewis’s stories to anger people, she says, but this time, the outcry has been louder. “The difference this time is these are people who are professionally on the internet and using the internet, so their anger perhaps travels farther by definition.”
Lewis stresses that she got plenty of positive feedback on the feature from those in the SEO world. “That’s the rule of the internet,” Lewis says. “The loudest voice is not necessarily representing what most people think.” —Mark Yarm
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Last week, G/O Media announced the shuttering of Jezebel, bringing an unceremonious end to the 16-year-old feminist news and culture publication that began as an offshoot of Gawker. Parker Molloy shares her favorite longform from the now-defunct outlet.
Though I never had the opportunity to write anything for Jezebel, I read it religiously. It no doubt positively influenced my own writing career.
This week, I’m highlighting seven of my favorite Jezebel long reads. As the number of spaces for progressive feminist writing on the internet dwindles, it’s important to acknowledge what we lose with this newly formed, Jezebel-sized hole in our reading diets. We lose fearless commentary, quirky culture stories you wouldn’t find anywhere else, and a media springboard for countless female writers.
“How Celebrities Are Changing the Way We See Chronic Lyme” by Stassa Edwards (March 29, 2016)
Three years before COVID-19 caused a pandemic, chronic Lyme was a condition poorly understood by the medical community. People living with the disease frequently have to educate their own doctors — if they’re lucky enough to have a medical professional who believes chronic Lyme is real.
The story highlights the way high-profile people with chronic Lyme — including Kathleen Hanna, Avril Lavigne, Daryl Hall, and Yolanda Foster — have helped bring visibility and legitimacy to the disease. As destructive as celebrity culture can be, this piece reminds us that the power of popularity can be used for good.
Edwards writes, “Chronic Lyme is the disease du jour in a long and contentious debate over what exactly constitutes illness, and who holds the authority to determine whether or not pain is authentic.” Reading this story more than seven years later, you can see the parallels between this and the dismissal of Long Covid by authority figures and some medical professionals.
“The People Vs. Nan-Hui Jo: Domestic Violence Victim Becomes Criminal” by Alyssa Jeong Perry (June 11, 2015)
Nan-Hui Jo fled Korea, leaving an abusive relationship in the U.S. and taking her American-born daughter with her. Years later, she applied for a tourist visa to visit U.S. schools, hoping to give her daughter an American education.
The visa was approved. What Jo didn’t realize was that she was walking directly into a trap, one that would result in almost a year behind bars on child abduction charges.
This piece does a fantastic job of highlighting the impossible choices faced by immigrants in abusive relationships and the pitfalls of bureaucracy. Without Jezebel’s coverage, this is a story that wouldn’t have ever made it on my or many others’ radar.
“Kim Davis's Kentucky Is for Lovers: I Got Gay Married in Morehead” by Mark Shrayber (September 16, 2015)
Remember Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, the woman who briefly rose to fame in 2015 for defying a court order to certify same-sex marriages? Mark Shrayber and his fiancé traveled from San Francisco to Kentucky to become the first same-sex couple married in the county following the Davis fiasco. What they found was a surprisingly warm welcome from the locals.
“If Davis wanted to stop gay marriage in Rowan County, the thing to do was to start gay marriage there,” Shrayber wrote. In addition to Shrayber’s story, Jezebel published a video documenting the journey.
“Inside the Rainbow Gulag: The Technicolor Rise and Fall of Lisa Frank” by Tracie Egan Morrissey (December 12, 2013)
This story has everything: rainbows, backstabbing, abusive bosses, bright colors, unicorns, and tyrants! If there’s a Jezebel story that should become a big-budget Hollywood biopic, this is the one.
Pull up a chair and give this one a read. You’ll be glad you did!
“The Bleak Future DACA Recipients Fear After Trump” by Ashley Reese (November 24, 2020)
Donald Trump’s 2020 defeat did not put an end to the fears facing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, who were undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S.United States as children. While most opined that a Biden victory was preferable to Trump maintaining power, the immigrants interviewed for this story were, at best, (extremely) cautiously optimistic. At worst, they still felt an understandable overwhelming sense of dread.
“How are we going to come out of the Trump administration and still ignore that people are living in fear?” asked an immigrant named Manny. “How can you talk about family separation but still sort of tacitly endorsing it by ignoring [the fact that] an agency you support is doing that?”
“Interview With a Woman Who Recently Had an Abortion at 32 Weeks” by Jia Tolentino (June 15, 2016)
The 2016 election would ultimately determine the fate of the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision. Donald Trump eked out an unexpected victory over Hillary Clinton and then had the opportunity to appoint three hardline conservative justices to the court during his term.
Rhetoric around abortions that happen late in pregnancy often comes tinged with absurd hypotheticals about people who decide nine months into a perfectly healthy pregnancy that they’ve changed their minds. In this story, an interview with a woman who had just weeks earlier had an abortion after learning 31 weeks into her pregnancy that the fetus she was carrying wouldn’t be able to breathe outside the womb, serves as a powerful, gut-wrenching reality check.
Six years later, Jezebel ran a follow-up interview with the woman, who, soon after her abortion, was pregnant again and gave birth to a girl.
“When Surgeons Fail Their Trans Patients” by Katelyn Burns (August 19, 2020)
Katelyn Burns is one of my favorite trans writers, and this piece about the challenges trans people face in trying to find adequate transition-related care — and what happens when there are complications — is Burns at her most vulnerable.
Trans people’s surgical complications can often get weaponized by anti-trans activists. Most trans people would run from this story, but Burns took it on as only a trans person could, handling it with an immense amount of care, building trust with surgeons and patients alike. This is a harrowing, important read.
Media’s Declaration of Independence
Jezebel’s closing means more journalists have lost jobs. And while it’s too early to tell what some of those laid off will do, there’s a blueprint they may be inclined to follow.
Following Vice’s bankruptcy filing earlier this year, a group of four journalists for its Motherboard vertical struck out on their own to form 404 Media. Earlier this month, four former Kotaku (like Jezebel, a G/O Media brand) staffers launched Aftermath, an independent video game site.
In 2022, a handful of New York-based writers launched Hell Gate. And two years before that, there was the group of former Deadspin (yet another G/O Media brand: Are you starting to see a pattern here?) staffers who founded Defector, a sports and culture website.
Are we living in a new era of independent media rising from the ashes of corporate mismanagement? Is the subscription-based model of these companies (and all the independent writers who’ve taken up Substacks in recent years) a viable solution to diminishing ad revenue? Time will tell. In the meantime, let me recommend that people root for the underdog and check out these new and new-ish outlets. —Parker Molloy