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Google, YouTube, and the Attention Economy

What do YouTube, Marxist theory, and the attention economy have to do with SEO? Blogger (and author of Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture) John Battelle writes:

“SEO is persuasion. We live in a world of persuasion. Our attention is constantly being sought after. I see SEO as a tactical way to persuade someone to pay attention to a piece of information.”

The term “attention economy” has become a pseudo-academic, pseudo-pop-culture buzzword; Google it for instant verification. But what exactly does it mean? According to theorist Jonathon Beller, it begins with the image, or more specifically, the moving image. He posits that a Marxist vision of capitalism, driven by the under-compensation of labor, has in modern times been replaced not by marginal utility theory but by an attention theory of value, in which “Cinema brings the industrial revolution to the eye, and engages spectators in increasingly dematerialized processes of social production.” With the dawn of the cinematic age, it is the spectators’ gaze that drives the generation of capital, through the construction, assembly-line fashion, of a chain of stills into an “image commodity”. The movie theater, the living room, and the sides of skyscrapers serve as backdrops for the work of human attention. Language, as infertile cousin, has been competing with the productive capabilities of the image ever since that fateful first silent film. So are we headed toward a future in which words are abandoned forever? One might point to the Internet’s miles of text as evidence that the web offers language its chance for redemption. After all, great graphics are only as valuable as the written information they service. Boring old text ads, generated by the query search, supplant banners as attention-drawers of choice, and often outperform the most carefully designed graphic ads on the Google Content network. The human searcher’s data trails (think online RFP’s, social tags) offer evidence of Beller’s “productive value”, much of which does indeed appear to be driven by the power of linguistic content. Battelle calls this power behind user search queries “intent“: it explains “why the ROI of a clickthrough bought from Google is so much higher than a clickthrough bought from a banner ad impression. It represents a higher likelihood that someone is going to take action if they came from a search instead of a mouse click.” Thus it seems Google has nothing to worry about. As any SEO expert knows, the relative value of a popular search term within a competitive domain is hardly decreasing. And with Adwords and Yahoo Search Marketing term bid values, we have the most precise measures of a word’s monetary value to date.

On the other hand, however, the increasing popularity of YouTube suggests that the more completely we assume a Cyber lifestyle, the more all-encompassing will become the image commodity’s domination, with words quickly being subverted to become mere pointers or placeholders for video content. Currently, more than half of all Internet bandwidth is being used for BitTorrent traffic, which is mainly video. Ironic, given that the vast majority of online searchers really are online for the information: less than 5 percent of all Internet users are presently consuming more than 50 percent of all bandwidth. While at present, the average searcher’s preference for searchable, written content supports the vision of a brighter future for words, if video’s popularity continues to increase, the web may very well become the cinemiste’s dream.

That is, as long as it lasts. Bandwidth limits what they are, if the day should come when we are all grabbing several hours of high-quality video per day off the net, there is no way the current network infrastructure will support that level of use. The image brings down the Internet? Not surprisingly, the company with the greatest investment in search is the one fighting hardest to prevent this. But for some unforeseen reasons…

Enter Bob Cringely with some interesting predictions: seems Google is anticipating this future, though not with the dread one might expect. Take the slew of Google data centers, popping up in the strangest of places: “the technology backwaters” of South Carolina, for example, where the company has recently been negotiated building three massive centers; this for the state’s four million residents. Explanation? The visual assembly line strikes again: as bandwidth requirements increase, from 1-3 gigabytes per month to 1-3 gigabytes per day – (a 30X increase) — a huge burden will be placed on ISPs. “Those ISPs will be faced with the option of increasing their backbone connections by 30X, which would kill all profits, OR they could accept a peering arrangement with the local Google data center,” making Google one huge, hegemonical proxy server for the Internet. Or, returning full circle to Marxist theory, the uber-Capitalist profiting from the fruits of our productive labor.

Without choosing sides, one might simply point to the web’s unique ability to serve as battleground on which the conflict between language and image comes to a head once and for all. A conflict that plays out in dozens of interesting ways, and often not without irony: take, for example, the incident after Google’s recent acquisition of YouTube in which the homonymous site utube.com found itself so flooded with traffic that it opted for a permanent domain change. The SEO community promptly proposed an alternative solution: why not keep the name, and turn utube.com into an Adsense haven?

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