Peering through the lens of search engine optimization (SEO), over at the Nieman Journalism Lab, Richard J. Tofel looks into the future of the World Wide Web and reaches this conclusion, or so it seems: the media business model will reset around the value that binds a reader to content. Call that value loyalty and intent.
Tofel is tipped-off by two events. First is the widely discussed action that Google has taken to shore-up the quality of its search results against the tide of search engine manipulators, optimizers, content mills, etc., that has been building for years. Second, is the sale of The Huffington Post, a reputed master of SEO, to AOL for $315 million. In these things, Tofel sees the signs of backlash and correction. He writes:
"...SEO itself is an inefficiency, a transaction cost rather than a value-creator -- it is a technique designed entirely to compensate for the failure of the search engine to correctly analyze site content, searcher desire, or both. Over time, economics teaches us, inefficiencies tend to be wrung out, and transaction costs reduced."
And then, later, referring to the Huff Post/AOL deal:
"But if it is true that most entrepreneurs sell out near the top, and it is, then perhaps we have just been sent a signal by one of its masters that the dark arts of SEO have peaked and that the century's second decade will see them fade, perhaps into near nothingness by the third decade. In other words, it seems increasingly likely that, when the history of this era is written, SEO will turn out to have been a transitional phenomenon."
Transitional from what to what? If I may, the short answer is from big to small. But that's not a complete answer. Richard Tofel would probably say transitional from an advertiser-centered media business to a reader-centered media business, with the difference being that readers will substantially subsidize the cost (if not the profits) of the media through their wallets, or their loyalty.
"...a focus on readers rather than advertisers as the heart of business model will, inevitably, create a more segmented dynamic, as the strongest appeals to readers tend to be in niches, and as, to venture an impolite reminder, some readers are a great deal more valuable than others. This is not only because some readers have more money to spend on content (as they do, admittedly, on the goods and services offered by advertisers), although that is true. But it is also, and ultimately more importantly true, that some readers are willing to spend more time, to develop greater loyalty to particular content, to value it more highly."
As a media consumer I can say unreservedly that this is what the internet has meant to me from the beginning: the value of particular content. I can also say unreservedly that search engines have never been especially good at connecting me with that value. The process has always been awkward and imperfect and time consuming. It has always been inefficient, just as Tofel observes.
The search engine business model, however, and its exploitation by publishers, with both good and bad intentions, mimics our experience - what we have known - with traditional media. Long ago media started playing an audience game, which mostly continues today. Richard Tofel is describing the results of SEO, but he could be just as easily describing the results of media business behavior the past 30 years when he observes:
"SEO has been, more than anything, about growing pageviews and unique visitors -- any pageviews, and any unique visitors, the more the merrier. It is a force, therefore, for lowest-common-denominator publishing. And after a decade of SEO, a lot of lowest common denominator is what we have."
How about after three decades? The Real Housewives of New Jersey, anyone?
I suspect Tofel is rooting for a backlash against lowest common denominators. I'm with him. Advertisers, if they could be persuaded to stop chasing sticks around the yard, would do well to root for a backlash, too. A more "segmented dynamic" media world exists to give them what they need for their "segmented dynamic" brand world. And it is not more audience. It is loyalty and intent.