Teaching, Promoting, Cheering UX and SEO Since 2002

Design and Development Fake Authenticity and Search Engine Marketing Manipulation

Search engine optimization is being defended once more. This time, by Danny Sullivan, who attempts to set things straight with Jason Calacanis. He is joined by many other voices on issues of trust, integrity, social media optimization and marketing practices.

The anti-SEO sentiment may be driven by bitterness over what is viewed as purposeful manipulation. Skilled search engine marketers not only target known users of a product, but they also create desire, need, and emotional connections to products or websites.

This, in turn, helps to create fake, inauthentic traffic and links by the unknown end users who weren’t specifically marketed to or designed for, but bought the storyline and wanted in anyway.

We want to feel part of the Big Thing, even if it has nothing to do with us, wasn’t supposed to be for us or isn’t remotely even like us.

“We have a hunger for something like authenticity, but are easily satisfied by an ersatz facsimile.”-George Orwell, c. 1949

Can we tell where we stand in a culture of fakeness? How can we determine whom to design or market to when the expectations themselves are created by our creations?

Targeting Authentic?

We may use simulated models in software development. We may create user personas, which can be composites of “real” people based on marketing and other data, such as behavioral. We’re taught to determine project requirements first. We might study and analyze data to be absolutely sure we’ll be successful at the end.

Or Targeting the Dishwasher?

If you ever watched someone load a dishwasher, you come to understand there is no standard way of using the appliance. Everybody has their own way of doing it. This is also how many people view web design. Since there are so many ways of interacting with a website or online application, we often hope to nab a small percentage that will use it the way we do.

Horror Stories

I know there are people who sit on the mountain, in their throne, surrounded by the misty haze from “I Am Right and You Are All Idiots” land. Sometimes these people keep us employed in odd ways.

For example, I learned that an acquaintance of mine was hired to work on a software application already in use by a certain industry. It costs an extreme fortune to own and maintain this application. In a sudden move, the software company changed its mind. It’s scrapping the existing application, restructuring the company and planning an entirely new application that will take an estimated three years to build. It is intended to replace the existing one, which no one is permitted to work on anymore, other than to maintain it for existing customers.

Many of us have worked for schizophrenic companies and ridden the roller coaster. One of the reasons for the crazy ride is the end user. Every time they think they know who that is, and the platforms they like the most, something new comes along and it’s Groundhog day again.

This particular company has no usability department, does no user testing and has no usability requirements documentation for their application.

Are we marketing and development for the right people?

What Comes First? The End User or the Cool Thing?

I view Digg as more like shooting paint balls into a field of obstacles with people ducking and screaming and trying not to get hit. If you manage to hit someone at Digg, a few things might happen. They want revenge. They will cut you down in gang-like fashion out of boredom and because it’s fun to do that. They may like you. They may join your side and call in the army to see your cool thing.

Social media marketing specifically targets Digg, Reddit and other social media because the people who participate there determine the next cool thing. It’s a tough crowd, but is it the right one for your company? What if they like something that fits their demographic? They make it cool and popular, and companies invest even more money into development because their data interprets the traffic and links as demand?

Wouldn’t you want to know who the people are who created the buzz? Are they who built your cool thing for or did they make you build it for them?

Are we building dumbed down versions of things because we didn’t put the time, effort and money into studying the actual target market?

It’s Okay to Mess Up Because Nobody Knows or Cares Who It Effects

There are mistakes in judgment and implementation every day. In today’s news, digital music sharing is under the microscope because the effort to protect music also created limits for those who legitimately share music online. The effort to help one demographic messed with the choices of another.

Jason Calacanis wrote in Why people hate SEO… (and why SMO is bulls$%t):

The whole point of social media is TO BE REAL NOT FAKE!!! Just be yourself and participate… that’s all it takes (and note, participation is not just putting in your own links, it’s voting/commenting on/submitting other people’s content too!).

I find this remark to be very sad, and very telling about the expectations of people in positions like his. I interpret this as permission to be hateful, judgmental, verbally abusive and cruel because in places like Digg, you don’t need to be real or authentic in the first place. You don’t need to ever use your real name.

Anything can be created without the benefit of ever telling anyone who you are. One only needs to note this week’s story on the attempt to propose live during the Super Bowl. The entire process was promoted and covered publicly under the initials “JP”. Donations poured in. Hollywood bought into the romance. When the proposal finally aired during a TV show, some swore it was just a marketing ploy rather than an authentic marriage proposal.

The lines between authentic and authentic fakeness are blurred. (A woman without makeup and hyperventilating while being proposed to is not how a diamonds company would advertise their product.)

What Dimension Are We in Now?

I’m barely touching on the subject of authenticity. Inspiration came from Fake Authenticity: An Introduction.

How do you know when something is real or fake, authentic or imitated to look authentic?

Are we now a culture that accepts and even demands fake authenticity?

Cartoonist Dan Clowes has mocked “blues clubs where all-white upper-middle class audiences who imagine themselves to have ‘soul’ like to congregate”… but the thing about the House of Blues is, it’s so over-the-top that it doesn’t just appeal to our yearning for authenticity-it actually rubs our noses in the impossibility of ever discovering an authenticity which has not always already been commodified. In a way, that’s a good thing-but only if it freed us from the futile quest for authenticity, which of course it does not. Instead, it makes you feel hopeless and resigns you to the world it has created. You find yourself accepting, with a weary shrug of the shoulders, the aesthetic which comes with the “Elwood” blackened chicken sandwich and watercress-jicama salad.

Is smoking what Jason Calacanis labels, “SEO-crack”, or marketing the magic of illusion worth investing in?

I wonder if it matters these days whether or not it’s productive to invest in, design, develop and test a product intended for specific people and uses.

It seems to me there’s an entire culture with millions of people anticipating the next totally far-out thing and they no longer give a damn if it is real.


  1. February 9, 2007    

    Something you touched on but didn’t explore is the idea that there is no such thing as authenticity – or rather, perhaps, that authenticity is an unattainable ideal if it exists at all. William Ian Miller wrote a whole book on this subject.

    Miller is interested in the way that we manufacture ourselves, and the degree to which we are aware we are doing so. He does not talk about online fake personas but arguably they are a way to explore alternative versions of ourselves, ones that may contain some truth about ourselves.

    Now, as a 50-year-old English white male (or so I claim), if I masquerade in a forum as a 15-year-old Chinese-American girl that would obviously be inauthentic. But in that persona perhaps I reveal parts of myself that would otherwise be hidden. So maybe it’s not so phony. Who knows?

  2. February 9, 2007    

    I went to explore that book (thank you!) and it prompted more thoughts. One is remembering the persona created by Howard Dean in his blog during his run for President. His target market was the Internet and a certain demographic I guess. But the moment he yelled and acted like Tarzan and was caught by the camera doing it, the press went nuts and his credibility was blown in seconds. I remember feeling as though we were duped all along by how he was marketed online.

    Which raises the question, is the Internet an honest way to market people? If there really is no such thing as authentic, we have even more reason to not trust certain sources.

  3. February 10, 2007    

    One thing we all forget when we think of people we meet online is that all we are really seeing is a one dimension entity.

    As human beings we’re using a method of interacting with people that we were never really ‘designed’ to use. Humans have always been social animals that interact best when we’re face to face and when we’re assessing one another both conciously and sub-conciously on a huge number of levels.

    Here on the Net I may come across as a grumpy old fart but in real life you would see me in a totally different light because you would be assessing me using other factors besides what I write.

    I doubt that we will ever really be able to judge people here on the Net – even if they are using video – because it’s all staged. Social media may have been a step towards that happening but once the manipulators stepped in social media was doomed to be just another marketing tool.

    And that saddens me.

  4. February 10, 2007    

    Stuart, I never think of you as a “grumpy old fart”, LOL

    Either social media is named incorrectly, or the definition of “social” has drastically changed.

    And, as designers, developers, and marketers, what do we do with this new kind of “social”?

  5. February 10, 2007    

    Kim what we do with this new kind of “social” may well depend on what we, as individuals, consider to be ethical.

  6. February 12, 2007    

    Movies are all about fake authenticity. Nothing you see is real. But that by itself doesn’t deprive them of value.

    Great post, BTW.

  7. February 14, 2007    

    People May hate Seo ,Especially The Search Engine Company guys because when a person optimize a website he never thinks about the content of the website and their only aim is to promote the website which leads them to Black hat Seo and other nonsense Stuffs

  8. February 14, 2007    

    when a person optimize a website he never thinks about the content of the website and their only aim is to promote the website…

    Beginners may do this, but skilled, professional SEO’s do not limit their services in this way. Many of the top SEO/M companies include usability services, and will not accept a new marketing contract with a client unless the client agrees to have their site evaluated for usability. Marketing a bad product is fruitless and experienced SEO’s are well aware of this.

  9. Daz's Gravatar Daz
    February 14, 2007    

    Heh Kim, great analogy on “the loading of the dishwasher”… I’m gonna use that one on a client, its so true though!

    And this guy (jason’s) outburst on SEO… he’s entitled to his opinion, do I agree with him? No, but its been great following it online, certainly thought provoking AND entertaining!

  10. February 17, 2007    

    This is a very, very interesting topic and related I think to another very important concept – integrity. The problem with personas is that they are individually incomplete descriptions of ourselves. If we do not pursue authenticity (I mean by this some golden thread that persists and links personas – an identity) we get trapped in the phantasmagoria of disconnected personas (this is an ancient problem remember the Minotaur and his Maze)which has very severe psychological consequences, despair for one, not unlike Eliot’s Hollow Men. Indeed personas are important for exploring one’s identity (and we give a moratorium to adolescents for exactly this purpose and I think that the Internet has extended this)but that is just because they are incomplete. What binds peronas together is an identity, this is what persists and is held accountable in the end. A persona masquerading as identity is therefore not sustainable and will collapse under scrutiny (as per your account of Howard Dean). Neither can one act with integrity without a strong grasp of one’s own identity, personas by themselves contradict themselves and give the lie. As the Internet matures, becomes reliant on trust and accountability (the foundations of good business) so we will see inauthentic personas collapse. Thank you for a most stimulating and thought provoking blog

  11. February 17, 2007    

    And should any question the importance of identity and its integrity I will refer to that wonderful piece “Jim and the Indians” by Bernard Williams

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