Orwellian SEO: The Evolution of Understanding Customers

If you’ve met me, you probably wouldn’t be shocked to know I read 1984 as a teenager. You’ll be even less shocked to know I then went around accusing everything of being very Orwellian or yelling things like ‘that’s just what Big Brother wants, man!’ To be fair, in every generation there’s always a very loud minority of us doing exactly this. 

Working in the digital sphere though, you realise there might have been more than teen angst in what you were yelling. Channel 4’s monstrous reality TV behemoth that died with a whimper may have carried the name Big Brother but… The internet actually IS Big Brother, and it’s thriving. 

Here’s the most important question though: Is this a bad thing? Or are we okay with Big Brother?

Bear with me here. Big Brother, at its essence, is a figurehead. It’s a bit like Mystic Meg in that regard. Sure, we see the picture of the moustachioed man or the lady with the incredibly straight fringe, but we have no clue who’s actually writing the words. Who’s telling us our fortune? Who’s telling us what we like? Who’s telling us what we want to buy next? 

Similar to Facebook, Google, Amazon and the like, we know the names and what they do, but from the outside, we’re not entirely sure how they do it. 

We all joke about our phones listening into our conversations… But we quite like it when we then get a targeted ad on social media for a game that looks like it was built just for us. We’ve given up anonymity for convenience, and it’s difficult to know if we’d ever go back. It seems impossible we could either way. 

For example, I love reading. Give me all the books please Amazon. And their algorithm’s do. I finish one and it knows exactly what I want to read next. Why? Because I let it. I didn’t read the terms & conditions and now they’re legally allowed to mine my data… and possibly my kidney. 

Oh no, have we gone a bit Big Brother?

We rely on it though. Not just as consumers, but as digital marketers as well. We need the Big Brother-esque oversight for better understanding customers. In the 60s, there was the rise of focus groups and psychology within advertising and marketing. We couldn’t go through the entire nation’s search history, so we had to settle for 20 people we thought broadly represented who we’d like to buy our products. Then we’d ask them questions and hope they were honest. 

But anyone being observed isn’t acting naturally. There’s always a performative aspect. Perhaps they’ll answer with what they think will make a good quote so they can be on a poster! Or maybe they’re just here for the £20 and free lunch and just went to disrupt for the hilarity of it. It could be they’re the 10th dentist in a lineup and they don’t just want to fall in line and recommend your toothpaste. They want to stand out and be the one dentist who refused your minty offerings! Besides, their mum makes them their own toothpaste out of baking soda and love, and that’s all they’ll be recommending, thank you very much. 

Even more important than that, we couldn’t catch the unexpected customer. We could really only test within what we already know. It’s the unobserved actions that are useful. That’s where we’ve gone a bit Big Brother. 

Big Brother, Thou Name Art Google, or Maybe It’s Facebook

I’m not breaking new ground here. It seems to be less about if Big Tech is Big Brother and more about which particular monolith is going to win the race for ultimate supremacy. Security guru Bruce Schneier once stated “surveillance is the business model of the internet.” 

It seems like a big statement, but it’s not without merit. We’ve become very used to free services online. We don’t pay for social media, we don’t pay to access the majority of news sites, we don’t pay to consume video content on YouTube. But, to break Orwell’s very first rule, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. 

Google’s former Design Ethicist and the co-founder for Humane Technology Tristan Harris said “if you aren’t paying for the product, then you are the product.” So what did he mean by this? Basically, that you’re always paying in some way or another. If you’re not paying financially, you’re paying with your personal data. 

Next time you google your local shop to double-check the opening hours, notice that under the Google Business listing, there’s a bar chart showing the busiest times. For those of us not looking to fight pensioners over baguettes, it’s a godsend. But how do they get it? Is Google… Following us? 

Yes. 

The majority of us said it was okay because we appreciate the convenience of it. After all, once I give Google my data to anonymise and use as part of a group study – am I missing anything? Not that I can see, or feel. In fact, they’re so efficient about it I don’t even feel my privacy being invaded. It’s all quite a pleasant transaction on the surface.  

Anonymised Data Feeds The Internet 

79% of American adults say they’re very or somewhat concerned about how companies use the data that is collected on them. But the concern isn’t enough to stop them from changing how they use the internet. 

One important thing to note is that individual data is really not useful. In the digital sphere, we can only pick up patterns and trends from large data sets. While it might be interesting to track a single user journey through a website, there’s very little we can then do with that. We need to view a good amount of data over a long period of time. 

Google collects an incredible amount of data on all of us. If you’ve ever been into Google analytics for a website you own, you’ll have noticed there’s an entire ‘audience’ section. Not only does this break down the age and gender of users, their location and the devices they use, but what their other interests are – this is all based on Google search data. 

You’ll see trends of which percentage of visitors who visit your knitted beret site also like to travel. Or how many visitors to your replica Victorian bonnet company are also really into video games and gardening. 

It helps you build a clearer idea of your audience so you can better serve them. Without analytics, we can understand very little about our audience. We have to send out surveys to our existing customers to ask lots of questions. This can be effective to understand your existing customers more but… It requires a lot of goodwill on their part. A whole 10 minutes!? After they’ve already spent money!? It also limits you from finding potential customers. 

We also use broader things like search histories to gather keyword research. All of this broader data can also be used for creative content as it gives you a better idea of what type of content to produce that will be of interest to your target audience and will draw relevant traffic. 

Do you remember the internet before search engines?

That’s right – there was a time before search engines. When the internet first started, it wasn’t actually made for public consumption. It was mainly made for academics and had pretty limited uses. If you wanted to visit a site, you had to know the host’s IP address to connect. 

In fact, the first offering of Yahoo was just a public version of the founder’s bookmark list. People started contributing to the list based on categories. But it couldn’t search for things. It was limited to what users would submit to it. The first real search engine was Archie in 1990 and AltaVista changed the game in 1994. Neither of them are widely known anymore. They belong to the halls of internet history. 

Skipping forward a few years to 1997, Google came along, and it’s basically blown all other search engines out of the water with tools such as PageRank. PageRank is used to rate the relevancy of web pages to queries, not only on whether the pages contain the keywords but also by how many relevant pages link to it. And… Digital marketing was born. I accept that’s a simplification. 

But the reason Google won over Archie was that it was just objectively better. It was better at finding the right information for you because it looked at more than just the webpage. Google was one of the first companies to really ‘get’ the big picture when it came to content. And businesses have been trying to prove their relevance to Google ever since.

So, is big data the big bad or not? 

This is complicated. It’s undeniable that as marketers and online businesses, we rely on data. And, the vast majority of us are using it to deliver better messaging to ultimately deliver better products and services. It helps us understand how to speak to our audience. You also can’t deny the rise of individuality that has come alongside search engines. 

When businesses can see the vibrancy and range of interests people can have, they start developing a wider range of offerings. Before the search engines, we had a very tailored form of consumerism. It was less about businesses bringing us what we wanted and more about them telling us what we wanted. 

Look at the difference in advertising from 50 years ago to now. So many slogans started with phrases like ‘Women want…’ ‘Men smoke…’ Now you’ll notice the phrase YOU is everywhere. We use stats of how customers responded. Some of the most effective advertising is testimonials. Our actual audience has become the centre of what we do, not the concept of an ideal customer. 

There is a nefarious side to Big Tech though. Facebook has become the internet in some poorer countries. By giving out phones with free data Facebook has opened up millions of people to the worldwide web. Except that data can only be used to access Facebook-owned apps. Netflix’s documentary spoke with many former heads of Big Tech who openly speak about the fact their main purpose was to create apps that were addictive

They used anonymised data to then study whether or not they’re achieving their goals. 

So is data bad? Not inherently. Data has been used throughout the history of modern humanity. Customer research is nothing new, it’s just the pure scale on which we can do it now. It’s the unfiltered access some companies have to our lives that’s new. Look at how China has used it for their Social Credit System

We Have A Responsibility In How We Use Data 

Data collection isn’t going anywhere, and honestly, it shouldn’t. It benefits us as users and consumers as much as it benefits us marketers. But we need better guidelines on a governmental level. But as individual marketers and agencies, we can also make sure we take a vow to use data in an ethical way. We should be using data to deliver better service, not to trick people into staying up till 3am crushing candy. 

We’re dealing with real people’s information, and we have a duty to be mindful of that. We need to be very careful about where we get our data from and how we use it. Thank god the days of buying bulk email addresses are mostly gone and it’s about abstract data. 

We take this really seriously at Boom. At the end of the day, we’re people too and we give up as much of our data as anyone else. We want to make sure it’s being used responsibly and that’s why it’s good to have a conversation now and then.

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If you want to chat about how you can do good for your customers and still respect their privacy, give us a bell. We promise not to record the phone call. 

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