Towards a Political Economy of Link Building
Do you remember when you thought the Internet was a magical utopia? Where your gender, race, creed, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. didn’t matter, because your art/words/videos/apps would certainly float to the surface of the search results due to the fact that they were so good and full of heart? John Perry Barlow even wrote a Declaration of Independence for this incarnation of Cyberspace, and our rhetoricians saw that it was good, and we’ve been hearing about the “democracy of the web” ever since.
Given this, I can’t be the only link builder who wondered whether my link building activities were destroying the “democracy of the web.” In my mind, it seemed undemocratic for one site to be able to buy votes from a link building company like the one I work for when other sites either couldn’t afford it or weren’t blogging to make money.
In fact, the reason I loved the internet-as-I-knew-it so much was that anyone could say or publish anything without needing to have profit be the ultimate end goal of their endeavors. Le blog pour le blog, so to speak.
And given that on my ideal internet, people were making art for the sake of art, I didn’t think of Google as a business that was out there to make money-- I thought of search more as a public good, like a librarian but better because I didn’t have to have an awkward telephone or face-to-face interaction with Google. Building links felt like bribing the librarian to recommend my resource simply because this resource had more money than another resource.
It took me awhile to realize that perhaps the Internet was never designed to be the utopia that we want to believe it is. The web isn’t democratic...but perhaps it could be. This may be difficult to see because the dominant cultural narrative suggests that the web is already a free and neutral entity unto itself. As if by default, the Internet has come to reflect what we’ve constructed in the physical, material world.
As Frank Chimero points out, we forget that “we get to choose how we aim the technology we build.” We choose to make the Internet more of a marketplace than a meeting place.
SEO may be a necessary outgrowth of the Internet’s capitalistic, hierarchical design, but link building, when done well, is one of the few digital marketing activities that could possibly transcend our current given circumstance of the Internet as a commercial marketplace.
The Web isn’t Democratic?
When I first became a link builder, I was told that a link was counted as a vote-of-confidence for that website in the eyes of Google.
This is obviously oversimplified, given that Google considers many factors when ranking websites, and the relevancy and quality of the links point to your site matter, not just the presence of a link itself. Google, back in the days that it was called Backrub at Stanford, might have counted all votes equally (I don’t know), but this led to spamming and low-quality results, and no one was happy. So necessarily, in the democracy of the business of Google, not all votes are equal.
This is more like democracy in the US than we may want to admit. Sure, everyone over 18 has the right to vote as long as you’re a citizen (analogous to a website?) and not a felon (analogous to a spammy, irrelevant site?), but really, our votes-- and what we’re voting for-- are heavily influenced by campaigns and commercials and information, all of which cost lots and lots of money. Corporations may not be able to pay a company to buy votes, but they can give large campaign donations. Lobbyists and special interests can buy the time of the legislators that pass our laws. Those with money have far more influence than those with a vote.
Democracy as we know it isn’t exactly “democracy” in an Aristotelian sense. It’s important that we differentiate between democracy-as-we-know-it and the democracy in the traditional sense-- the sense that I would call to mind when constructing my utopian vision of a democratic web.
This is a differentiation that Robert W. McChesney establishes in his book Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy. In this, he shows how due to unchecked capitalism and the myth of the free market, democracy-as-we-know-it is “a hollowed-out notion of democracy: the act of voting for politicians you know little or nothing about, who probably will ignore you to the extent that you are one of the few who has any idea what the key issues are.”
He argues that “[i]f the Internet is worth its salt...it has to be a force for raising the tide of democracy. That means it must help arrest the forces that promote inequality, monopoly, hypercommercialism, corruption, depoliticization, and stagnation.” This would mean placing the Internet “in the crosshairs of really existing capitalism.” By really existing capitalism, he means capitalism as it actually exists-- not the utopian myth of the free market, but the “mixed economy” that gave way to government subsidies that led to the development of the Internet in the first place.
But as of now, the Internet-- and Google-- embody “contradictory visions of the digital future.” This idea is most frequently articulated as The Californian Ideology, which poses that members of the “virtual class” simultaneously believe in the New Left and the New Right’s versions of an internet utopia and criticize neither.
The New Left’s utopia is more community-oriented and focused on the construction of a more Aristotelian form of democracy, “when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers.” It’s what I refer to in the introduction to this piece.
The New Right’s utopia reflects more of what McChesney refers to as “the official catechism of the United States.” This catechism is essentially the story of the mythical free market and how it is the “only democratic way to run an economy.” From this perspective, an Internet marketplace would be the highest use of the internet because according to our “catechism,” “a market is the closest thing to an infallible institution that humans have created or discovered.” Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, creators of “The Californian Ideology,” point out that the Californian Ideology and the “virtual class” that it describes are shifting to the right.
In other words, the people behind tech and the stories they spin about it aim to look as cool as their free-spirited, hippie/hacker forebearers on the surface, but have a chewy, capitalistic center. This applies to the people of search, too.
This rightward shift is reflected in Google’s design. In Astrid Mager’s “Defining Algorithmic Ideology: Using Ideology Critique to Scrutinize Corporate Search Engines,” she notes that by creating an algorithm that “mathematically measure[s] a website’s value by using the number and quality of links a website gets from other websites,” Google and other search engines “construct a content bias and run counter to the democratic potential of the web” because this algorithm favors “big, well-connected websites at the expense of smaller ones.”
As such, Google’s algorithm favors sites and companies that people already know about and trust as an authority. Though most online experiences start with a search engine, these search engines are far more likely to reaffirm what is already ubiquitous than introduce us to something new.
All the while, Google’s employees, who Richard Florida has dubbed members of the “creative class,” are dedicated to provided useful services and projecting the youthful sensibilities that seem to dominate the Silicon Valley on the surface, but have taken the privilege they’ve amassed by being Google employees to play a role in gentrifying San Francisco. Their (well, and tech-in-general’s) unchecked participation in the market has priced the economically-disadvantaged-- including real creatives and free-spirited hippies-- out of their homes.
And yet, 67% of all searches originate with Google. And we build links so that these searchers might find our clients’ websites in response to the correct query, above the noise of the “big, well-connected websites,” that attract both organic links and likely engage in SEO practices as well.
Free to be SEO
SEO exists because search engines are a key component in a competitive marketplace. If search engines were meritorious, neutral entities that were created for the public good, I can hardly imagine that there would be any ROI for optimizing your website. I mean, can you imagine an author optimizing a book for library circulation? I also know, in our given context, that the government couldn’t pay as well as Google, and as much as folks in tech want to create things for the common good, they also know they can amass privilege from it (see the entire previous section!)
We can, however, imagine an author marketing a book with the end goal of someone purchasing it. SEO, branding, marketing-- they’re all necessary when it comes to peddling a product that isn’t as necessary as food or shelter. In our current given circumstance, link building exists because SEO exists because marketing exists because as Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy said in 1964:
“The purpose of [the corporate] sales effort is no longer merely to promote the sales of commodities the function of which is to satisfy human needs prevailing at any given time. The purpose of his sales effort is to create wants which will generate the demand for the product.”
When faced with two websites, or products, that are essentially the same, you could either lower your price and damage your profits, or market your product as something different and get it to rank higher in Google. If you’re of the mind that marketing is just plain evil instead of a necessary evil, you probably shouldn’t become a link builder or get involved with marketing of any kind, really.
Nevertheless, it’s possible to imagine link building outside of a marketing context. I mean, at Page One Power, we’re encouraged to build links as though Google doesn’t exist. I’m pretty sure this maxim exists so we remember to build links on relevant, high-quality pages that make sense, but therein lies the opportunity. Link builders have this great opportunity to identify and link complementary resources. In this light, the link builder looks more like the librarian, working to help establish a web of interrelated resources (or Google’s very real knowledge graph.)
Links existed before Google, and would exist without Google. If Google existed for the public good, people would still be compelled to cite their sources and make connections. This is why Google turned to the link as an organic vote of confidence in the first place. My point is that how we build links and interact with search engines has greater implications than business visibility or spammy/not spammy, and we’d be remiss to simply look at link building as just another marketing activity within the realm of Google’s assumed “democracy.”
When websites engage in high-quality, custom link building services, they are potentially investing in a presence that would matter even if the Internet were to become more democratic and reflect “really existing capitalism” as opposed to the New Left or New Right’s utopian vision (or the effete combination of the two.) On an Internet that exists in relationship to really existing capitalism, businesses would still be present, but not at the expense of things such as non-profit, cooperative journalism, community media, or even privacy.
As link builders, it may help us to better understand what we do when we acknowledge that we benefit from and perpetuate the Californian Ideology. We get paid on behalf of businesses to increase their visibility within a marketplace, but then write articles like this while wearing hip orange loafers and mourning the uselessness of our MFAs.
This Ideology works for us. Capitalism as it stands works for us, and we vote for it with our hours. It would be the same case if we were working retail or waiting tables, only this is less mind-numbing and at least I feel more fueled to do more community organizing in the off-hours...
This is clearly not the place to encourage link building détournement, but I feel comfortable saying that in the end, we can look at our links as something that adds value to the web, however it evolves, if we aim for our links to be a high-quality connection between two relevant resources.
It’s not as simple as more money = more votes = more visibility. Links that are built thoughtfully can result in relationships and publicity-- “votes” that you can’t earn by throwing money at the problem. These “votes” have the potential to transcend the Internet now, and as I mentioned before, will stick around for the future of the Internet, whatever it holds.
Link building and working towards a more democratic internet do not have to be completely mutually exclusive, but it’s up to us to be both educated and excellent.