October 20, 2006

Search Engine Optimization And The Commodification of Social Relationships

Many media A-list bloggers have been in an uproar over a service that pays bloggers for posting about products. More than just payola, Doc Searls also brought up the connection to "SEO":

Somebody said to me recently that PayPerPost and others like it are just "the latest SEO moves". SEO is "Search Engine Optimization", or the practice of doing things to raise your PageRank and get more Google advertising money, basically.

There are two approaches to SEO. One is to raise your PageRank with tricks. The other is to write useful and interesting posts about subjects you know and care about. Show me a blog with a lot of Google juice and I'll show you a blog that didn't need SEO tricks.

As all students of Search Engine Optimization know, link buying and selling is a big issue. In theory, PageRank is supposed to be developed from social relationship ("organic links"), representing the true value of human interaction. It is not supposed to be a commercial relationship, to the highest bidder.

But this is interacting really badly with commercializing social relationships. There's deep problems, especially when new variations arise in commoditizing connections between people.

Are you allowed to hire people to write useful and interesting posts? That's got to be permitted, right? I haven't seen the blogs which are basically commercial magazines online, being kicked out of the warm-'n-fuzzy backscratching A-list club for having paid staff.

Are you allowed to parcel out the hiring in little bits of cheap labor on other people's sites? Why not? You know what the blog evangelists would say if they were in favor of this, hailing it as a marvelous disintermediation of the old monolithic priesthood of the high barrier to entry media payoffs, compared to the hip new democratized PEOPLE-POWERED PAYOLA.

There's an old joke which runs:

Billionaire to woman: "Would you have sex with me for a million dollars?"
Woman: "Well ... yes"
Billionaire to woman: "Would you have sex with me for ten dollars?"
Woman: "What kind of a girl do you think I am?"
Billionaire: "We've already determined that. Now we're just arguing over the price."

There's two aspects here: Commercial, and amount. The obvious aspect of the joke is that there's two categories of interactions, commercial and social, and there's never supposed to be any overlap between them, whatever the amount. A less often remarked aspect is that there is indeed a "class" division between high-priced commercial and low-priced commercial.

I think we're seeing a real life version of that joke, roughly:

Company to blogger: "Would you write about me for advisory board membership?
Blogger: "Well ... yes"
Company to blogger: "Would you write about me for ten dollars?"
Blogger: "What kind of a flack do you think I am?"
Company: "We've already determined that. Now we're just arguing over the price."

Is a few bucks just the same as an advisory board membership? No - there's a class division, in that an advisory board membership is high-class and expensive, while a few bucks is tawdry and cheap. But there's something a bit methinks-the-lady-doth-protest-too-much when we have the equivalent of executive "escorts" venomously criticizing street prostitutes for being so crude as to be selling it.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather , google | on October 20, 2006 04:29 PM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

Subscribe with Bloglines      Subscribe in NewsGator Online  Google Reader or Homepage


There's an intriguing value inversion going on there. Sometimes (maybe even quite often) the ten bucks are worth more than advisory board membership.

Posted by: Chris Edwards at October 21, 2006 04:08 AM

Chris may be on to something ;)

Posted by: dustnashes at October 21, 2006 08:52 PM

all men are born equal i.e. they're all for sale at the right price buah ha ha ha ha.

the real trouble is, of course, when you try to sell yourself but can't find a buyer.

Posted by: hugh amcleod at October 22, 2006 04:25 PM

So, how does this differ from the press tickets reviewers get?

I wrote a bit of a ramble on this over on my blog, but I don't have any firm conclusions....

Posted by: Lis Riba at October 28, 2006 09:34 AM

Lis: I think there's a tiny bit of difference in terms of review freebies are generally not worth converting into cash - but that's a difference in degree, not a difference in kind. Moreover, review freebies are more culturally accepted because they go to pundit "insiders", rather than cheap-labor "outsiders". In the joke above, it's the difference between "Would you have sex with me for dinner and a show?" versus "Would you have sex with me for $100?"

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at October 29, 2006 10:52 PM

I'm a whore. I'll admit it. :)

Good post, Seth. I especially like the use of the joke to prove your point. I'm adding you to my rss reader.

Posted by: engtech at November 10, 2006 04:21 PM

This is a really really interesting summary of this emerging bit of marketing and money making.

As a poor recent graduate, I'm often REALLY TEMPTED to try and get into paid blogging because 1.) I'm a decent writer (which necessarily leads to...item no. 2) 2.) I'm good at making it sound like I'm excited about stuff (aka "I can also write fiction!"), and 3.) I really REALLY could use the money.

But ethics do and SHOULD play a bigger role in anyone's decision to do this.

In an ideal world, the theory of reflecting actual social value of the internet through organic linking and search engine algorithms valuing that organic linking is AWESOME.

In reality, there are always going to be poor kids like me, and/or companies looking for more exposure so that they can make a little more dough so they can afford to hire more people and support their own products (which may actually be great products too btw!) as well.

I hope that some kind of balance or widely accepted "best practices" convention could emerge from this that could keep us all ethical AND able to pay back our financial aid bills.

Posted by: Emily Nashif at November 10, 2006 11:12 PM

This is a really really interesting summary of this emerging bit of marketing and money making.

Posted by: seotch at November 10, 2006 11:48 PM