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The SEO arms race has left Google and the web drowning in garbage text, with customers and businesses flailing to find each other.
Jennifer Dziura has two blogs: one for humans and one for robots.
Originally on her personal site Get Bullish, Dziura shared career advice, discussed being a female business owner, and answered questions about dealing with difficult co-workers and racist family members. The posts were written in her voice, about topics she cares about, and were meant to be read by her audience. But making money as a writer has always been a tricky enterprise. Around 2014, Dziura launched the first set of products and merch for her business. Before long, the e-commerce side of Get Bullish became the main part of Dziura’s job.
Today, GetBullish.com has gifts for every occasion and for nearly every conceivable hobby or interest: For a newly promoted co-worker, perhaps a fuchsia pink “GIRL BOSS” award ribbon. A cousin that you only text on holidays might appreciate socks reading “Awesome cousin” with an upward arrow. There is surely someone out there who’d enjoy a birthday card wishing for legal weed or a motel-style keychain emblazoned with “Big Clit Energy.” Dziura handles designing and merchandising, and a small team ships orders out of a warehouse in Brooklyn.
Get Bullish stocks all of these items and thousands more kitschy, snarky, and quirky gifts. The problem is that few people are searching for these specific things — someone has to help them find them.
Dziura still updates her personal blog — these are words for people.
The shop blog, meanwhile, is the opposite. Packed with SEO keywords and phrases and generated using artificial intelligence tools, the Get Bullish store blog posts act as a funnel for consumers coming from Google Search, looking for things like Mother’s Day gifts, items with swear words, or gnome decor. On one hand, shoppers can peruse a list of products for sale — traffic picks up especially around holidays — but the words on the page, Dziura says, are not being read by people. These blogs are for Google Search.
Get Bullish is just one of the countless small businesses struggling with the ins, outs, and absurdities of Google. Whether they’re selling feminist keychains, serving artisanal coffee, or running a bar, Google is indispensable — and as long that’s the case, they’re left with a mandatory chore of writing for robots.
The original vision for Get Bullish was not an online store for keychains and pens. It was, first and foremost, a publication, and Dziura took her writing seriously — on both the blog and other outlets that she wrote for. She was writing about career and business topics through a feminist lens before Lean In had been published and before “girl boss” had entered the lexicon, first as aspiration and later as pejorative.
“I was basically writing about what I wanted to write about, what I thought was important, and people responded to it,” she says. “It was a very human experience.” Around 2012, she was, for the first time, asked by an editor to insert celebrity names into the title of an article so it would be more easily findable on Google — the omnipresent search engine optimization strategy, or SEO.
In the years following, tweaking her writing for Google would only become more relevant to Dziura, as it is for small business owners across the country and spanning industries. Google’s monopoly on how internet users find products, restaurants, bars, stores, and other information means that you cannot simply run your company — it must be discoverable, and Google’s search algorithm needs to be able to pick it up.
Dziura has a laundry list of tasks she needs to do for Get Bullish — only “about 5 percent” of her time is dedicated strictly to optimizing the site for Google Search, she says. It’s a small sliver of the total amount of work she puts into Get Bullish, but it’s a nonnegotiable chore — without doing SEO, her store might never be seen at all.
It’s a universal experience for small business owners who’ve come to rely on Google as a major source of traffic and customers. But it’s also led to the degradation of Google’s biggest product, Search, over time. The problem is poised to only continue to spiral as business owners, publishers, and other search-reliant businesses increasingly use artificial intelligence tools to do the search-related busywork. It’s already happening in digital media — outlets like CNET and Men’s Journal have begun using generative AI tools to produce SEO-bait articles en masse. Now, online shoppers will increasingly encounter computer-generated text and images, likely without any indication of AI tools.
In April, e-commerce company Shopify — which is used by millions of businesses, including toymaker Mattel and Kim Kardashian’s brand, Skims — launched an AI tool that allows businesses to generate product descriptions using keywords. Other AI companies offer tools that generate entire websites using automation tools, filling sites with business names, fake customer testimonials, and images for less than the price of lunch.
The result is SEO chum produced at scale, faster and cheaper than ever before. The internet looks the way it does largely to feed an ever-changing, opaque Google Search algorithm. Now, as the company itself builds AI search bots, the business as it stands is poised to eat itself.
The Google-friendly posts on Dziura’s shop blog are somewhere between BuzzFeed listicles and Pinterest mood boards and are stuffed with search-friendly keywords. A recent Mother’s Day blog featuring a smattering of gift ideas, for example, begins with a Trevor Noah quote, answers the ever-searchable question “When is Mother’s Day in 2023?” and includes blocks of text between links to shop items. No human is reading all of that.
“If I made a blog post that was just what you would want as a person — ‘Here are 25 gift items under $25,’ [added] a picture of each one, a price, and a link — Google would not like it. Google would hate that list,” she says. “So here we are with all this text that is written only for a search engine.”
Optimizing content for Google is one of the first places she’d begun automating work. The blogs are produced by Dziura’s assistant based in the Philippines, who uses an AI writing tool called Copymatic to generate the text between the links — the stuff that people scroll past. The assistant then runs it through a subscription tool that analyzes the text and gives it an SEO score. Dziura looks over the copy before publishing it on the blog.
The writing Dziura does for Google Search couldn’t be farther from the writing she’s passionate about. For one thing, the former is partly outsourced and automated; for another thing, it is calculated, prescriptive, and synthetic, meant to hit keyword metrics and scoop up traffic so Get Bullish can float up search results for people looking for something to buy. Like other people who make money via Search, Dziura has little choice but to pay attention to SEO and adjust her business accordingly.
The fingerprints of Google’s search algorithm preferences are all over the Get Bullish site elsewhere. A section for new products includes an 80-word subheading listing a slew of keywords that shoppers might be searching for. Product names tend to run long — “Welcome To Adulthood You Have A Favorite Spatula Now Dish Cloth Towel / Novelty Silly Tea Towels / Cute Hilarious Kitchen Hand Towel,” for example. Image file titles should contain keywords, too, and broken links should be corrected.
“Getting people to come in from Search is sort of ‘free,’ except for all of the time that you spend trying this and that, without a lot of ability to gauge how well any of it is working,” Dziura says.
One area she realized wasn’t working well was product descriptions. On the Get Bullish site, they come from a mix of sources — some are provided by the manufacturer, and some are written by Dziura or her team. She realized that Google “did not like” short product descriptions, and shoppers were landing on the page but leaving without purchasing anything. Dziura’s solution was to add more photos and more text.
To do this, Dziura is turning to AI tools and has started experimenting with the built-in text generator within Shopify, which she runs Get Bullish on. Using the AI writing feature has a two-fold effect — it bulks up the description on the page and gives Dziura new, unique text to use that is distinct from other retailers that carry the same products. Google checks for duplicate content across the web and uses it to evaluate the quality of websites.
Not all of the SEO tricks are visible on the website — image alt text is inserted for accessibility purposes, and keyword stuffing is discouraged by Google — but on-page changes don’t necessarily improve the customer experience. Some shoppers might like to know that the owner of a shop selling pro-choice decor also believes in the right to abortion, and customized or in-depth text might be a nice touch. But often, the extra text is just that: superfluous. Many of Dziura’s products are self-explanatory, and additional information isn’t needed.
“Sometimes you’re just describing all the things that a magnet can stick to, and that’s pretty silly,” she says.
Like many small businesses, Dziura can’t justify paying for pricey SEO consultants or marketing agencies — one firm she spoke to had a minimum $10,000 contract. And even then, they told her, there was no guarantee that it would work like magic. SEO is a long game, they said, and seeing the benefits could take a year.
Dziura’s DIY SEO work is working for her in some regards. A Google search for “feminist gifts” surfaces Get Bullish halfway down the first page of results, below Amazon and SEO-bait lists by Cosmopolitan and Town & Country Magazine but above competing small businesses. People searching for categories of items like “funny kitchen towels” and “inappropriate socks” land on Get Bullish, in addition to the shoppers looking for the shop by name.
But Dziura doesn’t stand a chance in the “arms race” of SEO experts.
“I would say that just organically, I was able to do a C-plus, maybe a B-minus performance,” Dziura says. “But getting an A is very difficult.”
Search is more essential than it ever has been for Get Bullish. Facebook used to account for a significant amount of Get Bullish profit, but after Apple introduced the “Ask App Not to Track” option in 2021, ads on the social media platform are no longer profitable. Dziura still runs Facebook ads, but they break even at best, she says. The Get Bullish app is available to shoppers, too, but Google Search is essential to the business.
Dziura floats between two modes of writing, one a passion and the other a business imperative. She’s careful to keep the two separate, wanting to hold on to the human beings who come for real career advice. She’s still a writer with a name and reputation to protect.
“I would never use an AI for an article that’s being written by me giving people advice,” Dziura says.
But for the online store, AI-generated text weaves in and out of shoppers’ perception. Recently, she demonstrated updating the page for a cannabis-themed apron and using the Shopify AI text generator for help. She added keywords like “pot lover,” “funny gift,” “men or women,” and “smoking marijuana gift” to the prompt. She then instructed the AI tool to use a “supportive” tone of voice and to add a few emoji into the description.
“Gift the pot lover in your life this funny cooking and BBQ apron,” the resulting text read. “The perfect gift for the chef who loves a good smoke sesh, this apron comes in sizes for both men and women and will make them laugh every time they grill or cook! 🤣🤪” Dziura tweaked an error inserted by the AI system — the apron is one size — and pushed it live to the site. It was good enough to do the trick.
Bartholomew Jones didn’t know much about SEO until recently. In fact, he hadn’t thought much about Google’s impact on his business at all.
Jones is an artist, rapper, and coffee enthusiast, firmly rooted in the physical space he runs in Memphis, Tennessee, with his wife, Renata Henderson. Jones talks about coffee as a cultural and spiritual vessel that can connect people with coffee’s Black history and origins, and the duo prides themselves on developing an all-Black supply chain, from coffee farmers to shipping companies. The Anti-Gentrification Coffee Club #1 is a hub for community workshops and concerts, barista exchange programs between the US and Africa, and a shop and cafe. A recurring slogan across Jones’ merchandise: “Love Black people like you love black cxffee.”
The physical coffee club location is unique even among small businesses: for a long time, Jones had concerns about it being findable online. The Anti-Gentrification Coffee Club #1, first and foremost, was a community space to serve locals and where neighbors could gather — the space is operated by a community development fund that doesn’t charge rent. That allows him to offer customers their first cup of coffee for free; some regulars are on their 14th, 15th, or 16th cup.
The coffee club’s target clientele was Jones’ neighbors. He wasn’t looking to draw in commuter traffic from people who don’t live in the area. Jones worried about nonlocals calling the police on the community members; he heard about other businesses being inundated with online harassment following problems with customers.
“If I make my money based on satisfying the customers who are driving 20 minutes to the new hip cafe, then I have to de-prioritize my neighbors’ concerns,” Jones says. “If [visitors] feel uncomfortable around the people who live here, then I almost have to kick the people who live here out in order to pay the bills.”
But as the business has grown and evolved, Jones has found himself paying attention to things he never envisioned would be relevant to his grassroots, hyperlocal enterprise.
The hybrid space was initially frequented by locals who lived in the area or who follow Jones on Instagram, and for a while, the cafe didn’t exist at all — that was opened in the community venue afterward as an experiment. Only in the last few months has Jones seen a rise in customers visiting the shop from Google Maps, drawn in by positive reviews and the intriguing name. Up until a few months ago, he estimated that 95 percent of revenue was coming from the online store. Now, the brick-and-mortar shop accounts for up to 40 percent of revenue.
“It has become kind of a strange phenomenon for us because we never really thought we would make money with the cafe, and the cafe has become a big driver of sales as of late,” Jones says.
The bigger the business gets, the more Google-related tasks Jones finds himself saddled with. Until recently, the Anti-Gentrification Coffee Club #1 had a five-star rating on Google Maps, a powerful method of bringing in business. This spring, the cafe got its first negative review from a customer none of the staff recognized and that Jones suspects could be inauthentic. He’s unsure if there’s a way to dispute it.
A dip in online sales of coffee and merch since the height of the pandemic has put more urgency on shoring up the e-commerce business and boosting other revenue sources. The online shop performs pretty well on Google without ads, Jones says, but he doesn’t have vast resources for SEO. The business’s social media manager was initially hired as an intern who worked their way up — Jones says they’re both learning on the fly what performs well and how to be intentional with capturing potential customers. Jones is competing on Google with companies that have larger budgets for advertising or dedicated SEO consultants.
“The pressure I feel is between the financial resources of other businesses and their ability to offload labor,” Jones says. “We’re kind of doing everything ourselves. We’re not hiring someone to work on our SEO and then hiring someone to make ads.”
Automation tools that could help other businesses relying on search traffic to maximize returns are not necessarily helpful for Jones. Recently, he fed the transcript of a video he made into ChatGPT and directed it to generate an SEO-focused blog post that “had a lot of emotion and high readability.”
“I was reading it, and as an artist, I was like, ‘This kind of sucks,’” Jones says. “So then I spent three or four days revising it. I was like, ‘I could have just wrote it.’” For now, Jones is prioritizing doing the marketing and promotion for the Anti-Gentrification Coffee Club #1 in a way that feels organic and in line with his artistic and ethical vision, even if it means the business moves a bit slower.
“Having people come in and be like, ‘… Your name looked interesting and popped up on Google,’ — that’s dope,” Jones says. “Now realizing we’re competing in a space we didn’t ever really set out to compete in, and the realities of how people play the game to compete in this not being how we make art or do business — [it’s] put a weird kind of pressure on things that we didn’t expect.”
When Thai Le was first starting out in the restaurant business, he went to great lengths to maintain control of his business’s presence online. Noticing that third-party review platforms appeared at the top of Google results, Le poured money into these sites, hoping that paid preferential placement on Yelp or OpenTable would result in more customers. If customers were searching for “places to eat near me” or “sports bars in Brooklyn,” why not invest in getting his businesses seen first? Le says he paid hundreds of dollars to third-party platforms, believing it would bring in more traffic.
The payout, Le found, was dismal. Running ads on the platforms didn’t result in more customers the way Le had hoped. Yet sites like Yelp and OpenTable continue to dominate the top of search results, even sometimes ranking above Le’s own websites; he describes it as having search results “hijacked.”
When Le opened the Brooklyn bar Witching Hour last year, he knew better than to sink money into boosting it in search results for Yelp or OpenTable — or even within Google Maps.
Meanwhile, he does what he can to keep his place in Google’s rankings. Le, who also has a job in tech, already knew the basics of SEO. Rather than shell out serious cash for a professional SEO service, he did his own research on what he should be doing to make his restaurants discoverable on Google — filling in all the metadata on the Google Business Profile, which appears on Search and Maps; adding as many tags as possible, like “family-friendly” or “bar and grill”; keeping business hours up to date.
When Google emails Le for more information, updates, or photos, he complies.
“That is one of the things that’s really beneficial for me to use Google Search. I don’t get upsold — they want my data,” Le says. “[Third-party platforms] pressure me to use their services so I get better reviews or I get better search priority … and [costs] can be exorbitant.”
Google Search’s dominance has created a cottage industry of SEO professionals who promise to share their lucrative tricks to climb to the top of search results. From YouTubers to firms peddling proprietary tools, SEO hustlers propagate a never-ending stream of marketing content that floods Search. Some companies sell tools that allow marketers to mass-produce and distribute blog posts, press releases, and even robot-narrated podcast materials, with the purpose of creating backlinks — a signal that Google uses to rank content in Search. Small businesses must decide if they’ll try to learn SEO practices themselves or pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars to have a marketing firm do it for them.
While other platforms are still nowhere close to overtaking Search, entrepreneurs like Dziura, who sells feminist gifts, are taking note of how people are (or aren’t) using Google. Now, any retailer, big or small, can add more text to their website without a team of copywriters, and given AI’s tendency to generate falsehoods, there’s even less guarantee that what consumers are reading is real. It’s why people append “reddit” to the end of searches — they want an actual answer or opinion, not one mediated by a search ranking algorithm.
Dziura specifically notes the trend of young people using TikTok for Google-able things and has seen shoppers flocking to TikTok, Reels, or live shopping events. People like videos and product shots with hands holding items. If shoppers want candid shots and videos of products, Dziura will give them that.
“Consumers really, really don’t like having to weed through all this garbage,” Dziura says. “We’re always looking for ways to have a more human way to communicate.”
Thai Le, the restaurant owner, has also noticed the importance of using social media — like Instagram — to get people to the door. He’s started using AI tools to generate images, flyers, and social media copy for Witching Hour, including Instagram hashtags. The content creation job doesn’t come naturally to him.
“I understand filling in fields on Yelp or filling in the fields on Google Search, but something that’s as creative and more open-ended, like social media, is still a mystery,” Le says.
I came across the “Butt-Lifting Leggings/Scrunchars Tights” blog over the course of a weeklong internet search for black, flared leggings — an item that, in theory, shouldn’t be complicated to find but is also fairly specific.
A Google search for “black flare leggings” reminds me why I hardly ever shop from retailers anymore and, if I do, why I tend to stick to the same brands: search results are a nightmare.
A dizzying number of sponsored products populate the top of the page, a funhouse of mirrors reflecting dismembered legs walking or standing, hips resting to one side. More sponsored retailers — plus a couple organic links — follow before a slew of images tagged with relevant keywords pop up. Next, a panel of search queries that Google has deemed relevant: “What are flared leggings called?” “What is the difference between flare and super flare leggings?” “Are flared leggings still in style?” If Google’s own experiments with generative AI in Search continue, the benefit of loading sites with content catering to these search phrases might evaporate in the future. All said and done, there are only a handful of direct, unsponsored links to leggings on the first page of results.
The butt scrunch leggings blog, like most SEO filler, lives in a forgotten section of a website where normal humans do not venture. The content doesn’t have to make sense, but reading it is uncanny, hilarious, and a little threatening.
“Tights having a scrunching effect are known as butt-lifting leggings or scrunch tights,” the blog begins. “So this article is for you if you’re looking for tights that go into your ass!” The post is a wall of unformatted text, links to products, and subsections with titles like “Which pair of leggings should I pick,” “What is so unique about crossover leggings,” and “Leggings with an ass opening.”
This is the type of content publishers, brands, and mom-and-pop businesses spend an untold number of hours on, and on which a booming SEO economy full of hackers and hucksters make promises ranging from confirmed to apocryphal. The industries that rely heavily on Search — online shops, digital publishers, restaurants, doctors and dentists, plumbers and electricians — are in a holding pattern, churning out more and more text and tags and keywords just to be seen.
By the time I land on a pair of leggings to buy, the effort I’ve put into looking for options will not be dissimilar from the work retailers have done to get me to find them in the first place. It is grinding, senseless, and vexing work from both sides — it’s garbage to produce and garbage to consume. I know it wasn’t always this way, yet it’s hard to remember the last time it wasn’t. And increasingly, it feels like it can’t be like this forever.