By Jeff Ferguson
I’ve seen the legendary 1982 sci-fi/film-noir epic “Blade Runner” more times than I can count. In fact, I actually rate it as a higher favorite than any of the “Star Wars” movies – which either makes me a geek snob or a geek god, depending on which geek circle we’re talking about.
Unlike some of the “Star Wars” fanatics, the “Blade Runner” fan isn’t angry about the many versions of the movie that have popped up over the years. In fact, we tend to collect them (I still own the VHS, DVD, HD-DVD, LaserDisc and Blu-Ray versions of each of the various “cuts” that have appeared over the years) and enjoy comparing and contrasting them to each other.
Just the other night, I joined longtime friend and business partner Martin Thomas of Always On Communications, in his “Daddy Rolled A 1” blogger/Twitter persona, to “live Tweet” a showing of the “US Theatrical Version/Domestic Cut” of the film on Encore. Among other things, this version has Harrison Ford’s voiceover still intact and features additional violence that was originally only shown outside of U.S. theaters.
Anyway, the many versions of “Blade Runner” got me thinking about the many versions of “Google” that we’ve seen emerge and evolve over the years. Most SEOs seem to exhibit signs of great pain and issue much gnashing of teeth with each and every change made by Google. But much like the “Blade Runner” updates, I’ve actually enjoyed them. Why? Because I see them as major milestones along the path to the ultimate vision of their creators.
In “Blade Runner,” Dr. Eldon Tyrell is the fictional head of the Tyrell Corporation (he actually had a different name in the book that inspired the film, Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”). Tyrell is a wildly successful scientist-businessman who has amassed a considerable fortune by manufacturing and selling humanoid androids, known as “replicants,” for use in various capacities (many of them unsavory) in the still-emerging and incredibly dangerous Off-World colonies. A God-like figure due to his rare abilities to “create life,” Tyrell refers to replicants, including the most recent line of Nexus-6, as his “children,” and lives in a secluded, super-secure palace in the heavens.
[Batty wants Tyrell to extend his lifespan]
Tyrell: “Would you…like to be upgraded?”
Batty: “I had in mind something a little more radical.”
Tyrell: “What…what seems to be the problem?”
Tyrell: “Death; Ah, well that’s a little out of my jurisdiction.”
Roy Batty is the leader of a group of replicants who have escaped from one of the Off-World colonies and illegally returned to a stunningly dark, futuristic and vertical Los Angeles (replicants had previously been banned by law from residing on Earth) in an attempt to change a vital fact of their existence – a rather limited four-year lifespan, which was implemented as a way of controlling a “flaw” in the design of the beings.
So, you’re probably starting to ask by now…”Just how does this apply to SEO?” Well, so many SEOs seem to love to question their own Tyrell, in this case, the collective known as Google, about the creator’s own design. If you ever want to see a classic definition of hubris, listen to an SEO describe how his site, and his site alone, should rank at the top of a page of search engine results – no matter how superior the quality of content, site design, or inbound links of the other sites that outrank his page might be. And when they complain to Google about this, Google usually replies with an answer along the lines of, “That’s a little out of my jurisdiction,” and reminds them that their algorithms just rank pages based on the rules on hand. It’s the page owners’ job to make those pages as relevant as possible.
Later in the same scene from “Blade Runner” referenced above, Batty and Tyrell volley possible solutions to Batty’s little “death problem” back and forth, in a manner that illustrates that Batty is much more than merely a blunt object, but a genius who has been driven to desperation. I’ll save you some of this back and forth, but basically, they discuss different chemical solutions that could modify the lifespan of a replicant, all of which would end up killing them even faster.
Tyrell: “…but this, all of this is academic.”
Recently, on two separate occasions while answering SEO questions on the great question and-answer site Quora, my answers ignited a discussion on the more academic pursuits of some SEOs – a discussion that crackled with a fire that is usually reserved for debates on religion or politics. Or the value and merits of, say, “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.”
In both instances, the question was about internal linking. And in both cases, after providing my answer, I reminded them that “this was all academic”…and they should focus more on creating content and sites that provide a quality experience for their users, rather than trying to reverse-engineer the algorithm as a method of skirting the kind of work that Google had intended to be the focus of SEO efforts.
For starters, no one is ever making these efforts for purely academic reasons; they’re doing it to game the system. Schemes like “PR Sculpting” or the “decay rate” of internal links were never sorted out by SEO researches as ways to appreciate how the algorithm works, but rather as methods of tricking Google into thinking that less-popular pages on your site are actually more popular.
Secondly, at best, these “results” are a guess. Most of the time, the “tests” conducted to determine the existence of certain aspects of the algorithm are only performed on a small handful of pages or sites, which is rarely enough to provide a statistically significant amount of data to prove any sort of theory. If we’re going to act like scientists here, we need to learn how to properly test a hypothesis. And tracking the movement of one page for one keyword in a sea of keywords is not the proper way.
Tyrell: “You were made as well as we could make you.”
Batty: “But not to last.”
Tyrell: “The light that burns twice as bright burns for half as long – and you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy.”
This bit of dialogue from “Blade Runner” actually comes right after the previously referenced quote from the film. And to me, this exchange speaks so well to so many of the “tricks” that SEOs discover and uncover with all their tinkering.
The SEO “trick” is something that “burns twice as bright”…in the sense that it often does show some amazingly quick changes in the ranking of a page for a certain keyword. However, because these methods are eventually discovered and rooted out, either manually or algorithmically, they often also only “burn for half as long.”
I often describe these tricks as a difference between the “letter of the law” and the “spirit of the law,” which is an oft-quoted concept that deals with the purpose of the laws that govern our society. So many times, when laws are written, they have a very specific intent in mind, but are all too often either used to screw over the very people they were trying to help, or to skirt the law entirely on the basis of a technicality.
Folks who employ this tactic are always very proud of the loophole they’ve discovered, but somehow also always angry when the loophole is found and fixed. As I’ve said in previous posts at the Amplitude Digital blog, these people are like the SEO speeders who are angry at the SEO cop who catches them speeding.
Usually, these rather unconventional and often unpopular SEO beliefs of mine receive a somewhat similar response to what Tyrell received from Roy in the movie – a crushed skull and gouged-out eyes. (Well, not literally. Not yet, at least.)
They hate having their lives and livelihood exposed as a fraud. And they hate the messenger who delivers this unpleasant news most of all.
In “Blade Runner” circles, there’s always plenty of vigorous discussion and debate about whether or not the Tyrell character is truly a “villain” in this remarkable and multi-layered sci-fi story. And in all my years of watching and re-watching the film in its many incarnations, I must admit that I’ve never quite made my mind up.
On one hand, Tyrell is a conniving industrialist who’s profiting heavily from the futuristic slave trade of manufacturing life-like androids for hard labor, war and other ugly activities. On the other hand, he’s the brilliant and groundbreaking creator of a new race of beings who is savagely murdered by one of his own ungrateful and greedy creations.
In the story of “SEO Blade Runner,” Google is very much the Tyrell character. Or perhaps more precisely, the Tyrell Corporation.
And should some SEOs be designed to self-destruct at precisely four years from the date they launch their own so-called corporation?
Just try not to crush any skulls. Or gouge any eyes out.