Portrayals of SEO in Popular Culture

David Hellowell

Portrayals of SEO in Popular Culture

In recent years,  due to the changing industry and the general level of digital awareness out there, SEO has shed much of its shadowy image – its practitioners have been shoved into boardroom meetings with executives and marketing managers. No longer will they hide in back rooms and behind monitors (even if they have a lot of monitors).

Considering that upward of 1.1 million people on LinkedIn feature “SEO” somewhere in their job descriptions and the fact that the UK SEO industry in 2012 was valued at over £500 million, you could say that, despite all the doom and gloom about unemployment and the economy, that optimising things for search engines is a profession that is on the up.

Why then, when we tell our friends and loved ones what we do, do we get so many blank stares? A quick glance at one of the many recruitment websites out there will tell you that SEO jobs are pretty well-represented and visible, even if the job titles are sometimes a bit arcane. So where’s the recognition? Could it be that we in the industry just lack an iconic character who could sum up the profession for outsiders, I’m talking about a film or a TV show – like how Woodward and Bernstein or Lois Lane gave us an insight into the life of a journalist or how Kevin Costner’s The Postman showed us all exactly what it’s like to be a postman.

If a single social network like Facebook is enough of a big deal that it gets a blockbuster movie, then surely our entire industry at least warrants a miniseries. Maybe there are examples out there, but perhaps SEO’s obscurity in the past forced screenwriters and directors to hide their SEO characters behind generic ‘nerd’ stereotypes. But the typical Hollywood IT guy doesn’t really fit the mould. At least not in our office. Your mileage may vary.

I need three monitors for all my spreadsheets, duh.

So with that in mind, are there any characters in popular culture who you reckon are secretly doing a bit of SEO? Or are there some blatant examples that we’ve managed to overlook? Here are a few potentials:

Neal Sampat – The Newsroom (TV Series, HBO, 2012- present)

The Newsroom is an HBO series about fictional Cable News Network, ACN. The show revolves mainly around the tortured relationship between the Executive Producer and Anchor of the “Newsnight” show (not that one). One reoccurring character is Neal Sampat, whose role in most scenes is to state “I only run the website!” with a panicked look on his face, before springing some unforeseen internet-based angle on the crew. As we never actually see the ANC website, just various characters’ infrequent reactions to it, it’s not entirely clear what he’s doing – is he a designer or a developer? Does he just upload stuff and find vaguely appropriate images on Shutterstock?


Why does our website rank so well in *Bing*?

Whether he knows a nice bit of HTML from his own elbow, what’s definitely true is that he utilises his in-depth knowledge of bloggers and social media, to find stories and angles that elude the other, more traditional media-focused, members of staff. In one episode he goes online to track down two expert geologists after their usual source of candidates fails and, in another, his web savvy-ness leads him to stumble across and ultimately break a huge story in the fledgling Occupy Wall Street movement, which has been trivialised by the other members of the team.

All right, so he’s not exactly doing keyword research and setting up 301 redirects (even HBO isn’t ready for that kind of sizzling onscreen action) but he did namedrop Topsy at one point and ultimately, it is his character who most identifiably acts as the show’s embodiment of ‘new media’.

Despite his supposed job being ‘running the website’ he’s more often being pulled into editorial meetings, used to analyse data and pick holes in campaigns and run down information. He’s a pretty good example of the multi-disciplined SEO, who deals with on-page, but keeps one eye on the bloggers, one on social networks and a terrifying forehead-mounted third eye on current affairs.

SEO in the limelight

So there’s an example of a character who you could argue is fulfilling at least some of the roles of the average SEO consultant. So what about actual representations of SEO or SEO Consultants in TV shows or movies? There must be at least a few, right.

I’ve managed to track down one and it’s on a show that most of us the UK won’t have even heard of. In a 2011 episode of CBS’s legal & political drama “The Good Wife”, the show’s protagonist (who is a Litigator at a law firm) finds herself stuck with the unenviable task of defending a client, who turns out to work in Search Engine Optimisation. The prosecution find this so revolting that they intend to use details of his profession to turn the jury against him. He has a decent case; it’s just that in his own words, “People hate what I do”.

I will save you, SEO consultant, when I'm done posing.

For the record, the judge rules all references to the defendant’s job to be inadmissible, as they’re irrelevant to the supposed crime. So was he guilty after all? You’ll have to watch to find out! I sure haven’t!

In this instance, the prosecution takes the immediate position that our poor SEO practitioner is a spammer and perhaps that’s reflective of a wider lack of understanding about the industry. Maybe we need to come out of the shadows a little more, before the industry we know and love reveals itself fully to movie goers and TV watchers.

Until that time, we’ll probably have to continue putting up with being shuffled into that vague pack of ‘website guys’.


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