The three most terrifying letters in Web development these days are SEO, as in Search Engine Optimization. This is the official buzz-jargon for "designing your page to be read by the Googlebot." So what would happen if Google, with their famously minimalist and uber-useful search page, had to redesign that page to be read by the Googlebot? Something like this. (Found via reddit.)
This painfully funny send-up was an amusing little side-project created by the folks behind the Kango travel site (they talk about it here), but it hits the mark all too well. The dirty secret of almost every Web page on the planet is that their own front door or mainpage is useless, because Google has become the universal mainpage for every Web site, which then deeplinks to the individual pieces of content that the user wants to consume. Thus, Web design has become almost entirely about getting your stuff effectively indexed by Google, so you show up on your new, involuntary home page—a Google search result.
Google, in a very real sense, is holding Web design hostage.
(This, incidentally, is why everyone is going gaga-insane over sites like MySpace and Facebook, because those are sites where the users log in and click around for a long time doing whatever it is you do on those sites (here's a hint), meaning they can generate loads of pageviews independent of Google. They have that ephemeral but priceless "frequent and voluntary" traffic. Do they have viable business models beyond that? That's anybody's guess.)
As one of the folks that works on these issues for TR, this humor site was so funny it hurt, because we're constantly having to double check every move we make against its SEO implications. So why is that a bad thing? Because Google doesn't publish what it uses to index a page, specifically so that sites can't game the system. Every so-called SEO consultant is drawing inferences, basically guessing at what Google is doing based on what random Web design mutations they've seen flounder or seen fail. So we're left with the impossible task of gauging the impact of any design revision against an unscientifically presumed SEO fallout, and hoping we can crowbar in some usability improvements for the users (remember them?) in between all these balancing priorities.
Google maybe the greatest thing to ever happen to the Web's function. But it may also be the worst thing to ever happen to the Web's form.
Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can also follow him on his personal blog.