We need to talk about search ethics

Published Nov. 16, 2021, 7:13 a.m. by Robert Långström

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We have discussed and scrutinised filter bubbles, fake news and algorithms that promote hate speech. It’s about time we talk about search ethics.

The part that Google plays in our lives cannot be underestimated. We make some of our most important life decisions based on those blue links that pop up under that colourful logo. Google itself illustrated it beautifully in the commercial "Parisian love" in 2010, where we can follow a budding love story via the search box.

Back then, everyone tried to hack and outsmart Google. It was a dark age for SEO. Since then, it has gotten much better. Over the years, we have discussed the importance of evaluating our information sources and rightfully criticized clickbait journalism. Today we wrestle with Facebook's algorithms that tend to boost conflicts and give trolls a digital soap box to stand on.

Maybe it's finally time to talk about search ethics.

That’s right! Can we honestly say that we take our responsibility on Google seriously? Our responsibility for quality and knowledge? For inspiration and benefit? Or are we just happy to rake in the clicks?

About 30 percent of all people who use Google, click on the first link. We are lazy that way. We need help. When it comes to search, everything we’ve learned about critiquing sources goes out the window.

It is great that Google is increasingly rewarding good content. But the search engine is still not that smart. You can still get nice numbers on your SEO-optimized site with a keyword-packed tip article in the style of "3 easy ways to reduce stress". But if the tips read:

  1. Take it easy with stress.
  2. Relax to avoid stress.
  3. Stress less.

…then you have merely added another nonsensical article to the digital dung heap, while putting your credibility at stake.

Okay, that was a heavy-handed example. But sometimes, this is how it goes in the "content world". Content that merely exists to boost Google scores is produced in droves. It is not as dark as back in 2010, but we can still do so much better.

This is not exclusive to Google, it applies to all communications. We need to live up to what we promise, give the user value for their time and that sense of "oh wow!" that great content provides.

There is no equivalent to Google in world history. It is a communicative unicorn. It should be treated with extra care for the user – not as something you tweak and manipulate to get visitors.

The value you should strive for is not the number of visits, but whether visitors leave your site as excited as when they clicked in. And that thanks to honest SEO work, you can sleep well at night, safely assured that you have contributed to… well, if not a better world, then at least a better internet.