Super Bowl LIV will be played on Feb. 2, 2020, at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida. The game, which will be contested by the AFC’s Kansas City Chiefs and the NFC’s San Francisco 49ers, will kick off at 6:30 p.m. ET (5:30 p.m. CT; 3:30 p.m. PT). In the United States, you can watch on Fox. The “Pepsi Super Bowl LIV Halftime Show” will be co-headlined by Jennifer Lopez and Shakira.
If you’re in this post, you probably arrived here after searching for information about the Super Bowl. It’s probably fair to guess you arrived here via Google, which has been synonymous with “search” for the better part of two decades now. If so, welcome. You may not know it, but a long-running war has just been fought on your behalf.
Well, I say on “your behalf.” That is, in fact, not entirely true. To digital media (hey, that’s us), people searching for information aren’t really people, but resources to be captured and monetized. Lots of people are out there looking for Super Bowl information, so “demand” is high, and by the rules of economics, supply will also be high. This is why more or less every digital outlet on the planet has published (or will publish) something with a headline very similar to the one you just clicked on.
This war is fought on an unusual, mathematical battlefield. Clicks from potential readers follow Google’s search rankings predictably, with a precipitous drop-off to links that aren’t at the top of its list. Scoring highly on Google’s algorithm is the key to making money off search traffic. Unfortunately, Google’s algorithm is shifting and opaque, and reliably “winning” is difficult.
The inscrutability of Google’s entrails has led to digital media hiring a whole cohort of search-diviners. The Search Engine Optimizers are not an inherently bad crowd — some of my best friends are members of the priesthood — but they are indicative of the way this battle has impacted the overall media landscape, creating a sort of search-industrial complex as everyone battles for a share of the pie*.
*I don’t think you’re a pie, fractional or otherwise. Just wanted you to know.
SEO staffers track demand around events. Did you know, for instance, that the Little League World Series is an important part of the sports calendar, at least by search audience? Now you do. Headlines are assigned to writers, with advice on metadata (don’t ask), URL, and even length and paragraph structure. That’s how you end up with paragraphs like:
Super Bowl LIV will be played on February 2, 2020, at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida. The game, which will be contested by the AFC’s Kansas City Chiefs and the NFC’s San Francisco 49ers, will kick off at 6:30 p.m. ET (5.30 p.m. CT; 3.30 p.m. PT). In the United States, you can watch on Fox. The “Pepsi Super Bowl LIV Halftime Show” will be co-headlined by Jennifer Lopez and Shakira.
You’ve read that one already in this post, but poking about on the internet will result in the discovery of hundreds, and quite probably thousands, of equivalent paragraphs. Writers and outlets are falling all over themselves to scream the exact same thing at potential readers.
In case you were wondering, this isn’t fun for us, either. We are told, of course, that the work we do to “capture” search traffic is important, not just for the bottom line but for the reader. Search-focused posts add value by providing useful information. That is true, so far as it goes, but let’s imagine whichever article currently occupies the top rank for “What time does the Super Bowl start” is annihilated by some sort of electronic misadventure. What would happen? Would fewer people know when the Super Bowl begins?
Nothing would happen. Article number two and every one below it would jump up a slot, and the readers would get the information they were looking for without noticing this new void in digital Super Bowl coverage. You could repeat this little thought experiment dozens of times, punting the SEO runner-up into oblivion, then the next one, the one after that, etc., etc., and still the readers wouldn’t notice.
Search traffic has created a perverse incentive for everyone to write the same maddeningly dull post over and over again. Can we do anything about this? Almost certainly not. The machine is unstoppable. No matter what, thousands of hours of work will go into chasing readers like you and enticing them to various websites, each click worth fractions of a penny.
We can’t stop the great search machine. But we can, at least, be a little bit depressed about it.