SEO Is a High School Popularity Contest

The Google search bar overlaying a high school hallway

SEO Is a High School Popularity Contest

A large majority of people who have heard of search engine optimization still believe that it’s an activity primarily for hackers and outcasts, rather than one that’s driven by content. It’s not. From a very top-level, the way SEO works is simple: assuming pages can be crawled and indexed properly, and a site’s architecture is clearly organized, the best content gets shared and search engines pay attention to sites that have incoming links from other sites.

A link from one very popular and trustworthy site (like the BBC or NY Times) means more to a search engine than links from fifty not so popular sites. Search engine optimization then, essentially, is just word of mouth.

This realization occurred to me only recently. With a lot of hard work putting out content and getting social shares, my website,, inched its way onto the front page of Google Search for the keyword, “Edward Sturm.” I was very proud. I had started my site just three months ago and by working every day to improve the UX and put out good content, I had gotten onto the front page of Google for my name (which was actually more competitive than I had anticipated).

Curious as to what else I’d rank for, I wanted to see if I’d be on the front page for my last name, “Sturm.” Nope, but I did notice something quite peculiar. On the front page of Google for the keyword, “Sturm,” was a Squarespace site for the personal website of a woman who shares my last name. Squarespace is a website builder, which isn’t great for SEO, and even more importantly, this website had a blog that hadn’t been updated in two years and only two sites linking to it.

Search engines prefer websites that are active with recent content and have reputable incoming links, so I was confused as to why this website was on the front page for this keyword. I did some more research.

I looked at both the backlinks that the site had and noticed that one of the two incoming sites had a backlink from from The Wall Street Journal.

I deduced from this that the weight carried by The Wall Street Journal was so high that it was enough to get a website tangentially related to it on the front page of Google for the keyword of my last name…and then it occurred to me: search engine optimization is nothing more than a high school popularity contest.

It’s all about who said what about who and if that person said anything about anybody else. “Natalie said this about Jamie, who said this about Dillon, who said this about Megan…”

What happens, however, if Megan is stand up person- one of the most benevolent, brightest, and kindest people, but also very shy? She sits in the back of the classroom, and makes herself unnoticeable. Is Dillon still going to say anything about her? Is he going to notice her? Maybe…but because she’s not making herself known, it’ll probably take a while for her to be discovered.

Let’s take this one step further. What if Megan is now some sort of inventor creating a new gadget that would really help the world? Again, she’s very shy, and she prefers not to talk to people. Nobody tells others about her brilliance. How long is it going to be before the public, or just anybody for that matter, finds out about her?

It may very well be the case that people don’t find out about her until way in the future when what she created is completely finished or totally validated; and because she’s not getting recognition up to that point, people aren’t going to go out of their way to respect her more and make her life a little easier.

Let’s relate this back to search engine optimization. Megan becomes a website with great content, or with a revolutionary new product or service. Her peers become other websites and word of mouth equates to backlinks. SEO really isn’t much less gossipy than high school and the problem with this is that people or companies who deserve attention could end up going unnoticed, while others less deserving of attention may get it only because they scream louder.

Unless search engine machine learning becomes uncomfortably invasive, there are going to be brilliant and benevolent minds who don’t get the attention they deserve and who don’t get to improve the world, only because they’re too shy.

The solution that we can draw from all this is to always try to show off what you’re doing.

For the most part, you need to produce and then tell others about what you’re producing. You need various forms of outreach and you can’t rely on being discovered if you don’t speak up a little. Try to create content that people will feel compelled to share and then set the spark on that content so people will share it for you.

Content is the high school prom king, but outreach is the queen.

Thanks to Brett Cohen.

Edward Sturm

Edward Sturm is an SEO and video and image producer.

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