SEO is eating my breakfast

I’ve been trying to limit computer time during the pandemic, so once the essentials (work, admin) and the occasional Reddit/HackerNews binges are done, it doesn’t leave much time for this blog. But I have an enormous backlog of crap I want to share with the world, and, since I only have like two Twitter followers, this audience-less megaphone seems preferable to that audience-less megaphone. So admin be damned, I’m writing some blogs.

First up: SEO is eating my breakfast.

# aka, Oatly is probably fine.

About once a year I try to stop eating dairy. Sustainability, cows’ rights, and my allergies all variously play into it. Each time, my gut protests the lack of Lactobacillus and I give up.

The most recent time, I decided to look into whether eating consuming a ton of Oatly would pose any health problems. The top search result for “Oatly health”, then and now, on Google (a bit further down on DDG) is a blog post by someone called Jeff Nobbs:

A similar article made its way to the HN front page with over 400 comments.

Oh shit I thought, I’m going to kill myself if I consume too much Oatly.

The claim is extreme: “Oatly has about the same blood sugar impact as Coke”. But also had a strong whiff of implausibility. So I dug in, read the original article, read Oatly’s response, and got into the literature on Glycemic Index/Load. And the bloggers are wrong. Unambiguously, stubbornly, repeatedly wrong.

I commented on Jeff’s article, but didn’t hear back. But I did get 4 upvotes! …possibly just me re-congratulating myself every couple of months, but I don’t think so. (My link is now broken, but you can find another GL source here.)

EDIT: He replied! But he’s still wrong unfortunately.

# It’s not just Oatly

It’s possible Jeff just made a series of mistakes. It’s possible he’s a nefarious milk-lobbyist or something. But most likely, he’s a savvy marketer with a keen sense for SEO. The headline “Oatly is kinda sugary but probably fine” just doesn’t have the same zing as “Oatly: The New Coke” (from the other article).

A similar example of very subtley useless information: Outside Online’s Wes Siler published an article about his custom Land Cruiser, in which he claimed that it was more efficient for him to drive than to fly to Mexico. In any normal car that would easily be true, but not in a truck. I pointed this out to him on Twitter, and he clarified that he’d based his estimate on a business class seat. Whatever, fine. But not useful to the average reader, who averagely assumes people are talking about economy seats. Now there are a bunch of people out there who think their trucks are more efficient and will be smugging around being annoying and slightly wrong.

# This is the point

Savvy marketers, hand-wavers of truth and, more importantly, SEO, are making large parts of the internet (certainly the front page of Google) much less useful.

Searching for anything, trying to figure out anything, has become so much harder, because every search leads you to blogspam SEO’d bullshit trying to sell stuff in one way or another. Want to know which power banks will still be working in a few years?[1] Sorry, have pages and pages of presumably bot-generated affiliate links. Want to know if Oatly is healthy? Sorry, here’s something I wrote to drive traffic somewhere. Want to learn about SEO? Sorry, you landed up on a shit blog talking about Oatly. (This last one is unlikely.)

And tread carefully the moment you’re outside your field of expertise lest Gell-Mann amnesia strike: I have a passing interest in nutrition and a career in climate change, so the bullshit above jumped out. But how much other click-baited, SEO’d and half-true bullshit do I gobble up on a daily basis?

# Solutions, maybe

Google used to have a mode to search “discussions” only, but killed it around 2014. I haven’t a way to recreate this (even with DuckDuckGo), but motiveless forumites maintain a much higher signal-to-noise ratio than the rest of the internet. Even upvotes haven’t ruined this: I often add to only get Reddit discussions. I miss out on all the niche climbing and cycling and power bank communities that exist out there, but at least I don’t get “Best power banks for 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021” times 100.

Million Short is interesting. It lets you remove the top 100, 1000 … 1 million sites from your search results. In theory getting you closer to the web of yore. To be honest I don’t think a million is enough. I’d almost say exclude anything with affiliate links and Open Graph <meta> tags in the HTML, and have a web of only poorly designed, never-updated blogs and abandoned phpBB forums… But that would exclude me and my <meta> tags, and I’d probably try an affiliate link if I had any shopping recommendations worth making.

For now, I just get better and craftier at DDG’ing and Googling (but I think many don’t) and keep a growing list of blogs and RSS feeds to pay attention to.

# Full disclosure

This blog is at least partly here to buff up my internet presence and keep me employable, so I’m also to blame.

[1] go back My Anker power bank just broke, suggestions welcome.