SEO and Digital Marketing

Out Now: The Truth About SEO

Have you ever…

  • Sat in a meeting and not understood a word of what the person responsible for your website is saying?
  • Thought “that doesn’t sound right” when talking to your web developer but not known what questions to ask?
  • Stared at a graph or a report from your marketing company and realised that you didn’t know if it meant things were getting better or worse?
  • Had that nagging dread that you’re handing money over to someone and not getting a return on it

… then this is the book for you.

Based on over a decade of knowledge accumulated working on SEO, website design, eCommerce, and digital transformation across a wide range of industries, The Truth About SEO is the book that every business owner should have – and every SEO consultant should worry about.

About the Author

With over a decade of experience in digital marketing and SEO as Technical Director of a bespoke eCommerce agency, and over twenty years of IT experience in general, Chris Lynch remembers a time when Google wasn’t the biggest search engine on the planet, people still believed that fax machines wouldn’t be replaced by email, having a smart-phone meant you’d bought a leather case for your Nokia, and a “Face Book” was something serial killers kept under their beds.

Driven by a desire to help businesses succeed regardless of their size or budget, Chris’ plain-speaking and honest approach to building online businesses; combined with his impressive technical acumen; has made him one of the UK’s most popular and sought-after experts.

Would you pay to tweet?

I’m amazed this video isn’t being shared more widely…

Under the new rules that Twitter might roll out, paying users of Twitter will “outrank” non-paying users when it comes to visibility. The original purpose of the blue tick, which was to verify people with public identities were who they said they were, will be replaced by a two-tier system of paying and non-paying users. Elon Musk is right, for a lot of Twitter users $8 is what they pay for a latte – but will they pay that to use Twitter or will they flee to an alternative platform they can use for free?

Uncomfortable Fact: “Your” community belonged to Twitter

(That’s Bill Gates, not Elon Musk but… you get the picture)

I’m seeing many people in my writing community express genuine concern that they will lose access to their community as a consequence of what is happening with Twitter. The sad truth is that if you think you have/had a community on Twitter… you’re wrong. It was never “your” community. It belonged to Twitter. The platform belonged to them, the data belonged to them, and they sold it. Now, the business model may be changing. It could be the greatest “bait and switch” in social media history so far – create a community, sell it, then get the users to buy it back on a never-ending rental model. Nice work if you can get it and an object reminder that if the product is free then YOU are the product.

Back when I wrote “The Truth about SEO” and was working as a consultant with businesses and brands who were building their online presence, I repeatedly warned about the dangers of building your business on someone else’s platform. If you don’t own your customer/community data then it means that someone else does.

Should you pay for “Twitter Blue”?

My guess is that if Twitter goes ahead with this the platform will be barely functional for anyone who wants to tweet unless they pay the $8 a month. You could write the tweet of all tweets, a magnum opus in 240 characters that would break the heart and steal the soul of all who read it but nobody would because, without that blue tick, you’re getting buried under Crazy Joes Second Hand Tyre and Fried Chicken Emporium. That may be less of a problem than it sounds, however.

50% of Twitter users post less than 5 times a month. When these “lurkers” do tweet, it’s most likely to be as a reply to someone else’s message rather than starting a new thread of their own. By contrast, it’s around 10% of Twitter users who create 80% of the content on the site.

These are the users that Elon Musk is targeting with his new Twitter; the low and mid-tier influencers who haven’t reached “blue tick” status yet but that have invested significantly in their online presence and don’t want to start again on a new platform. Combine that group with businesses who will see (or be advised) that getting a “blue tick” is a mandatory part of presenting their brand on Twitter and you have a decent size customer base for the new incarnation of “Twitter Blue”.

So, should you pay? If you’re a “lurker”, absolutely not. If you only use Twitter to keep in touch with a small group of friends and like-minded people? Probably not. If you’re using Twitter to build an online brand or promote yourself in any way though, a blue tic will soon be mandatory.

Why not Plan B: Pay the Creators?

Here’s a question… If 10% of users are making Twitter the place that 90% of its users want to visit, why would you risk losing them? Surely it makes more sense to double down on those users and ensure that they stay on the platform? Seems logical but the reasons Musk may not be thinking in this way are twofold:

  1. He thinks Twitter is too big for celebrities and public figures to walk away from
  2. He thinks of the rest of humanity as “useful humanoid robots”

Take a look at the second clip below where Musk waits a painful amount of time for applause as he predicts a future of unlimited economic growth because of an unlimited number of robots (that somehow our fixed-size, fixed-resource planet will accommodate).

The truth that Musk has probably latched on to here is that most of the 10% of Twitter users who create content are replaceable. There are more “useful humans” still available to him, even if some of the existing creators decide to walk away.

How to protect yourself against the Twitterpocalypse

I’ve always been an advocate of posting content to multiple channels and of using your own website as your primary online presence. It’s a more difficult route because “walled gardens” like Twitter, Facebook, etc. don’t like you posting links that take users off their platform (if Twitter Blue means the algorithm no longer hates links, maybe I’ll be putting my $8/month down!) but it is ultimately more sustainable.

Having a presence on multiple platforms reduces the risk of losing access to a community and increases the number of people you are able to reach. You may think Mastodon is too much like hard work or that TikTok dances are too hard on the hips but coming to platforms late only makes it harder to develop your presence.

A Prediction: Twitter’s Future is Pay to Play

I predicted that Twitter might become a paid service some time ago, along with the risk posed by decentralised platforms such as Mastodon and Jack Dorsey’s “Blue Sky”.

As a subscription service, Twitter could have a vibrant future but I suspect that this would be short-lived. We are seeing proof that social media platforms have a shelf life; each new generation of consumers tends to gravitate towards platforms that their parents don’t use. Facebook and Twitter are both suffering heavy attrition to TikTok for example (a platform that, currently, also does not charge its users to post content). Unless it finds away to attract new users, the benefits of being on Twitter will diminish. If those users who may feel compelled to stick with Twitter and pay to maintain their communities there also start to lose interest, or find that $8 isn’t worth it, Twitter could eventually start to feel more like a graveyard than “the world’s town square”.

Unlike Twitter’s blue check mark however, you normally only have to pay for your grave once.

Social Media: It’s about control…

I saved this image when I first saw it back in October. Since then, Elon Musk has bought Twitter, and in the days and weeks that have followed the acquisition, there has been a crash in advertising revenue, mass layoffs, and an exodus of users. Amongst those losing their jobs are content moderators who have been at the forefront of the battle to keep misinformation and hate speech off Twitter.

Advertisers are leaving Twitter in droves and it’s up to users if they want to follow suit. For some, the platform is already becoming too toxic. Others, particularly “influencers” will be wondering if their personal brand is damaged or enhanced by being present on Twitter.

The problem for many users is – where do you go if Twitter is no longer for you?

As the image above outlines, all of the social networks are owned by someone… Except one.

Enter Mastodon

A literal “elephant in the room”, Mastodon is a decentralized social network similar to Twitter that, by design, has no one owner. Anyone with enough technical skill can set up a Mastodon server. That server becomes part of the federated network of Mastodon servers, meaning users on any server can follow and see content from users on any other server.

The experience is not quite the same as Twitter – discovery is more difficult and although Mastodon registrations have increased dramatically since Elon Musk purchased Twitter, there are still only a fraction of the users on Mastodon that there are on Twitter (and they are spread across a large number of servers, so you need to hunt them down).

If you are looking to connect and converse with other people with similar interests, Mastodon has a lot to offer. If you’re looking to reach a large number of people, you’re going to find the community small compared to Twitter (however, this does amplify your voice and mean you’re more likely to get interactions, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing).

The other thing to keep in mind with Mastodon is that it is moderated, just like Twitter is (or was), but moderation is server-specific. When you first register with Mastondon you need to pick a server and you will inherit the moderation rules of that server. If you truly want “free” social media, your only option is to run your own server, set your own rules, and then rely on federation (through the “Fediverse” of Mastodon servers) to spread your message across the network of Mastodon servers.

Setting up a Mastodon server is fairly complex, but something I think I may try… just so that if I bump into Elon and he mentions that he owns a social media platform I can say “oh yeah, I’ve got one of those as well”

DMCA request kills Moz in Google Search index

A little while ago I wrote about how easy it was to launch a DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) complaint against a website and how writers and other creatives could use this to get websites that were stealing their content removed from the Google index. (And, if you’re not on Google, frankly you aren’t anywhere…)

It occurred to me at the time that DCMA requests could be used maliciously if Google weren’t paying proper attention. I didn’t include it in the article, it seemed a bit far-fetched that Google would just remove a site without properly investigating it. I was wrong., one of the most popular websites about SEO and digital marketing, vanished from the Google index recently after a DCMA request that included was actioned by Google. The error was quickly spotted by eagle-eyed SEO pundits and reported to Google, prompting a response from Google’s Danny Sulivan. Whilst Sullivan’s response is short and somewhat lukewarm, the replies to it make for interesting reading – evidently isn’t the first site to be hit like this.

Google were quick out of the blocks to resolve the issue and was back in the index less than 12 hours later, a much quicker response than other site owners have reported getting.

Why should it matter to you?

This matters because if it can happen to a big, well-known site like then it can happen to anyone. have got clout in the SEO space and if its traffic had been significantly damaged by this, Google would have heard about it loud and clear from the SEO community. This was a highly visible error and it was corrected quickly. If other reports are to be believed, less prominent sites have a much harder time getting DCMA penalties reversed.

What this means is that any “bad actor” can target your site, bury its domain in a long list and send in a DCMA request that could get you kicked out of Google’s index. The process of your site reappearing in the index won’t even begin until you challenge the complaint, and you could be in for a long wait. This seems like a great place for Google to be working on cleaning up their index without human intervention but, as has already been established, Google is not great at working out who the original creators of online content are.

What can you do about it?

Short answer? Absolutely nothing. Just keep a close eye on the amount of organic traffic you are getting from Google and investigate thoroughly any significant dips.

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Bigger boys made me do it: Why copying “leaders” is sometimes a bad idea

If you’ve worked for any serious amount of time in eCommerce or digital marketing, you’ll have come across a client who wants to copy functionality or design from another company. They probably also think it’s easy to do this.

(True story, I once had a customer push me aside to grab my laptop so he could “show me this copy and paste thing”. This numbskull legitimately thought that if he copied a button from Amazon and pasted it into a Word doc he sent me, I could then paste it into his site and the functionality would magically follow it.)

Anyway, setting aside The Wizard of Copy and Paste, there’s still a lot of “let’s look at what X are doing about Y”, especially when it comes to legislation and regulation. Not sure how best to interpret EU Cookie Law or GDPR? Well, why not just copy what Google’s doing? I mean, those guys must have it right… right?

Well, as I’ve had the pain of pointing out on many an occasion, Google doesn’t always play by the rules. Case in point – Google’s super confusing approach to cookies.

I’ve never liked Google’s approach to cookies, especially their semi-implied assumption that allowing their cookies on their website means I also want to allow them in other places using Google services. I may not mind Google knowing about me but I might have a problem with one of the sites I visit using that same permission and assuming that it’s safe to drop Google Analytics on me without additional consent.

Seems obvious, and anything over thirty nanoseconds checking the ICO’s very clear guidelines would show that this approach is wrong, but I’ve come across more than a few developers who think this is OK “because that’s what Google do”.

Wake up call. Big tech usually aren’t following the rules. In fact, most of the time, big tech companies (including Google) are why new rules are being made.

If you’re looking for evidence of this, look no further than the latest fine issued to Google by the EU and the subsequent changes to how Google notifications regarding cookies…

We’ve all been there – you land on a website and the button to “Accept All” cookies is nice and clear and big and bold. Meanwhile, the button to reject cookies is as well concealed as the plans to demolish Arthur Dent’s house in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (by which I mean they were in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard”).

And that’s OK right? Because, you know, that’s what Google does… right?

Nope. After a bruising court battle and yet another large finge. Google have been told that their cookie notification message must make the option to reject cookies just as clear and obvious and accessible as the option to accept them and that their current labyrthine implementation was in violation of current EU laws. Consequently, as announced in this blog post, Google are rolling out an innovate new approach to cookie notifications where it’s just as easy to say “no” as it is to say “yes”.

Here’s Google’s innovative new look. It has two buttons.

What it means for all of us

Hopefully this clear directive from the EU, and Google’s gruding capitulation to it, will drive forward change in the way cookie notifications are designed and herald the end of increasingly complex user interfaces that do everything they can to obfuscate the process and frustrate users into simply clicking “Accept All”.

What it means for your website

If you’re a website builder of any stripe, take this as a clear message that you can’t rely on simply emulating the actions of “bigger boys” instead of reading and understanding relevant legislation for yourself. More importantly, it is vital when looking at regulations that you try to absorb the “spirit” of the legistation/regulation as well as the letter of it.

Just because you can find a loophole, doesn’t mean you have to force yourself (or your client) through it.

Has any visitor to a website ever really thought “Wow, that’s clever!” when they are forced to navigate an annoying complex cookie notification? Or do they think, “Wow, that’s so annoying” or “Wow, that’s deliberately complicated, how stupid do they think I am.”

Frustrating your user is never a good idea. Trying to be outsmart them is even worse.

Find out more:

Confirmed: AI-Generated Content Is Against Google’s Guidelines

Throughout my career in digital marketing, there were a few rules that I always held to be immutable. One of them was this – If you can automate it, it’s probably SPAM. This rule steered me the right way on many occasions when tempting shortcuts were offered to me. I’d lived through the dark times of SEO, you see, times when Google was more easily fooled than it is today and SEO forums were awash with hacks, grifts, and ways to “trick” Google.

One of these tricks was “content spinning“, taking a copy of an existing article that was ranking well and replacing words and terms to create an article that was essentially the same but was technically different. This used to fool Google. It doesn’t anymore.

Whatever happened to the good old days?

Like any trick, it was inevitable that Google would develop a means to detect content spinning and guard against it. How successful they were at this is possibly a topic for debate – after all, there are still issues with plagiarised content outranking original – but fundamentally Google came out strongly against content spinning and the practice has all but died out following strong moves by Google in 2010 and 2011 against “content farms” and sites featuring predominantly duplicate content.

You’d think in 2022 we’d be a little wiser and know that shortcuts, tricks, and automated ways of altering sites to improve SEO are invariably engineered out by Google. Sadly, we are not. There’s a new snake oil business in town… and it’s called Artificial Intelligence.

The Rise of Skynet AI Content Generation

If you’re in the digital marketing, eCommerce, or web development space you’ve probably run across tools like Jasper (formerly Jarvis), Rytr, AI Writer, … the list goes on and on. It’s actually not hard to get into the AI content game. Thanks to freely available, open tools like GPT3, it’s getting easier and easier to spin up your own AI toolset. Of course, some of the output is pure nightmare fuel but it’s more than good enough that major news agencies have been using AI to generate content.

Legit copywriters, the type who have lungs and have to eat and stuff, have been up in arms about AI content generation. After all, this kit is taking aim directly at their livelihoods, offering a cheaper and more convenient option to content-hungry websites and digital marketers. Like the Luddites of old, they’ve been ready to smash the looms – if only there were actually looms and not just a load of code floating around in the untouchable “cloud” somewhere. But, are they just the old guard refusing the make way for the new?

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Is Human Copy Writing Dead? Better ask Google.

Personally, I’ve been pretty skeptical about AI content generation for a long time but that is changing. We are at a stage where AI already produces passable content and it is improving all the time. Eventually, there is little doubt that it will be able to replicate or replace human copywriting for basic topics using reference material. There is even evidence that AI can be used to generate fiction, given sufficient input data, although the output there is of a significantly… lower quality. Imagination and originality are, for now at least, out of the reach of artificial intelligence. Phew.

So, is that it? Is it game over for copywriters? Well… no. Riding over the horizon is a most unlikely savior.


The Man from Google, He Say “No”

Like the Lone Ranger, John Mueller has come riding over the horizon to save the day with an unambiguous declaration that AI-generated content is contrary to Google’s guidelines. This actually isn’t something new but SEOs, especially those who like to find ways to try and outsmart Google, often need it spelled out for them.

“For us these would, essentially, still fall into the category of automatically generated content which is something we’ve had in the Webmaster Guidelines since almost the beginning.

And people have been automatically generating content in lots of different ways. And for us, if you’re using machine learning tools to generate your content, it’s essentially the same as if you’re just shuffling words around, or looking up synonyms, or doing the translation tricks that people used to do. Those kind of things.

My suspicion is maybe the quality of content is a little bit better than the really old school tools, but for us it’s still automatically generated content, and that means for us it’s still against the Webmaster Guidelines. So we would consider that to be spam.”

John Mueller: Google Search Advocate

More importantly, people and businesses that are currently investing in SEO projects that are utilizing these tools need to take note – Google has a habit of not only fixing its algorithm so that it can’t be manipulated by factors that it doesn’t like but also of penalizing sites that have been using the techniques that Google are engineering against.

Google may not be able to detect AI-generated content now but it’s safe to bet that if they are currently using humans to detect it then they are also using the inputs and outputs from those humans to train their own AI. Like a pair of Rock’em Sock’em Robots, Google’s own AI is on a collision course with AI Generated Content. Personally, my money’s on Google.

It Doesn’t Matter Who is Right, It Matters Who Has the Deepest Pockets… and it’s Google

Back in 2015, Google announced that sites needed to be mobile-enabled in order to rank. Web developers went into meltdown, updating sites with a frenzy that hadn’t been seen since the Millenium Bug. And then… nothing happened. The Mobilepocalypse never occurred and it was many years until the mobile index overtook the desktop index as the primary driver for search engine results.

It didn’t matter – the point was that since 2015 the accepted wisdom has been to make sites mobile-enabled because this is “Google Best Practice”. For SEOs, web developers, and eCommerce consultants, what Google says… goes.

And if Google say AI Content Generation is gone… it’s gone. It just doesn’t know it yet.

(And Google are happy to take money from the likes of Jasper for Adwords in the meantime. Just sayin’)

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Niche vs. Brand Marketing (Goodbye

My ruthless cull of domains continues! Now that all of my books, short stories, and movies are listed on this site I’m dropping more of my niche-specific domains and redirecting all of the traffic here. In some instances, the timeline for this is short, the expiry for the domains coming around sooner than it might have done if I was working with a strictly timed plan.

Allowing to expire this month is quite a milestone; it was one of my better-developed domains in terms of content and a “nice” domain in terms of fitting comfortably into my niche of writing and being matched pretty well to a search term that I can imagine people entering if they were trying to track me down. However, the numbers don’t lie and since I combined my domains the traffic to this single site has exceeded the combined traffic of the individual domains quite significantly.

What gives? Surely, you need a niche site? That’s what every SEO guru says… don’t they?

The more I look into it, the more SEO and marketing experts I find who are stepping away from the concept of “niches” and more towards developing brands that can operate across many spaces. Amazon do it – their brand is recognisable across everything they do and, well, they do just about everything.

Your niche, if you really feel you need one, is you – not what you do but the unique way in which you do it and talk about it.

Despite this, if I check Google for “niche SEO”, and filter my results to content just from the last week, I still see page after page of results all saying the same thing – find a niche, work exclusively in that niche, link that niche not outside, etc. etc.

Playing the Long Game

I normally like to finish off any SEO blog with a “here’s what you should do”, some hard-and-fast rules and actions that you can apply to improve your site. That’s not going to happen here. Instead, I’m going to give you a choice.

If you want fast and predictable results from SEO, go niche. That’s the safe play. Just remember, your growth will be linked to the size of your niche. If being the number one result for “Vegan Plumbers in Sacramento” is your goal, just make sure you’re never going to move (or accidentally start eating bacon).

If you want to build for a longer-term strategy around a brand that allows you to pivot into different markets without have to start from scratch each and every time, forget the niche and build out broad.

It’s working for me right now– check back in a few weeks and I’ll be here to let you know if it still is!

A Thing I Forgot I Did: Chatting with Mike Armstrong Back in 2020

I find a strange joy in unearthing things I’ve made and forgotten about. I’m vain enough not to see anything cringe-worthy in Googling myself and as I’ve been collecting and collating all of my various online personas into this single website, I’ve been quite astonished at the number of things I’ve found that I did that I’d forgotten all about.

This one is a wild and rambling chat with Mike Armstrong on his Morning Motivational podcast, back in the lockdown depths of 2020. At the time I was running Gravit-e and so we spend a lot of time talking about how the business was going turning the tumultuous events of 2020, how lockdown affecting everything from digital marketing to working from home, and probably too much time talking about tea.

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Mike is a huge personality on the Cardiff business scene and not crossing paths with him at various networking events has been one of downsides of lockdown. When I do next bump into him, we’re going to have to talk about the thumbnail on this YouTube video though…

You can check out more of Mike’s interviews here.

Goodbye, The Black Room. Hello, The Black Room.

Yesterday the domain I bought for The Black Room,, expired. It wasn’t asn admin error and I’m certainly not turning my back on The Black Room or any of its projects. So, why did I let it go? Well, read on dear reader…

The Folly of Domains

I have a lot of different interests and different projects, as you might be able to tell from this website, and I used to run a domain for each and every one of them. It was time-consuming, expensive, and ultimately pointless. Every domain needed content, carefully curated to avoid duplication between my sites but also written and built to take advantage of the overlap and link between my various endeavors. Domains would go through flurries of activity when I was busy in that particular area, then lay dormant for weeks or months whilst I was doing something else. Worst of all, when I would actually speak to someone who had been on one of my sites they would say things like…

“I went on your website but I couldn’t find your books.”

“Oh,” I would reply meekly, “Which one were you on?”

“It had a film on it?”

“Oh,” I would reply meekly… “Which one?

This is the great folly of buying domains for small projects and side hustles before they are fully formed and ready to exist as entities in their own right. We’ve all been duped by the Go Daddys and the 123Regs of this world that every idea needs a domain. The moment you conceive your side-hustle, whether it be cake baking or naked DJing, you need to rush out and buy the right domain for it before it’s too late. Because that’s how you stake your claim, right? There’s gold in them thar hills and if you don’t mark out your territory, someone else is going to buy, right?


Since I started my Big SEO Experiment I’ve pulled more traffic into this one, completely niche-less domain. I’ve had offers to work on projects, requests for interviews with podcasts and online magazines, and I’ve sold more books. So, here’s what I’ve discovered… you don’t need a domain for every little thing you do.

So, The Black Room’s carrying on?

Absolutely. You can still see the original pilot for The Black Room on YouTube and I’m still, when I’m not working on other things, working on more ideas for The Black Room universe. The biggest Black Room project of them all, OffWorld, remains in post-production and is inching towards completion day by day, week by week, and month by month.

As for any new Black Room projects, after my failed attempt at a Batman fan-fic-flick, I’m licking my wounds a little bit on the topic of projects where I’m reliant on so many other people and where things can fall apart completely out of your control. There is a purity to prose that I really enjoy; although it still takes other people to bring the books to market the actual creative process is entirely under my control and the only person who I’m relying on to make sure the story gets finished is me. Life has a real habit of getting in the way of projects and I don’t hold it against anyone when things don’t work out but it does leave you a little jaded when something you’ve poured your heart into doesn’t come to fruition through no fault of your own.

Having said that, there is a little light at the end of the tunnel for The Exorcism of Bruce Wayne. I recently discovered that there’s a very large community of people making Batman fan-fic audio dramas. Audio would certainly keep the SFX bill down…

How Google’s Pirate Update can kill off sites stealing your content

Google has revealed that it now has a specific penalty that it applies to sites that receive repeated upheld DCMA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) takedown requests. In other words, it has a special button it can press to kill off sites hosting pirated content.

According to Google, sites hit with the “pirate penalty” can see their traffic from Google drop by an average of 89%. Quite why the reduction isn’t 100% is a different question, but it’s good to see Google taking real action against websites hosting pirated and copied content. The Pirate update actually dates back to 2014, but this is the first time in a while Google has reported on its efficacy.

In a new document released Feb 2022, Google said “we have developed a ‘demotion signal’ for Google Search that causes sites for which we have received a large number of valid removal notices to appear much lower in search results.”

It’s a little vague what constitutes a “large number” but this new penalty is an important reminder not to take it lying down if your copywritten content is being stolen and reused/shared on the web without your permission. (Especially as Google has a habit of ranking copied content above the original)

You can find more information on how to file a DCMA Takedown request with Google here.

Facebook vs. Google vs. You: How your privacy became the ball everyone’s fighting over

It’s common knowledge that Facebook (or “Meta” if you prefer) likes to track you around the internet, seeing where you go, what you look at, and then use that information to help target advertising.

It’s actually a pretty useful system if you’re an advertiser; you can target very specific groups of people and advertise to them for comparatively small amounts of money. Arguably it has powered the growth of many small businesses, and definitely some large ones, especially in the past two years where lockdown has transformed the way we do business and sell online.

I’ve used Facebook advertising many times for clients (in my past life in digital marketing) and for myself (in my current double life as an author). There’s no question that, done properly, it works.

The key is the accuracy and granularity of the targeting. Did you know it’s possible to target men in the UK, between 25 and 45, who like Doctor Who and reading? I do, because that’s almost exactly how I target my advertising when I have a new book to promote. If it’s a book aimed at younger readers, I sometimes switch gender and target the mums, mixing together some Doctor Who with Harry Potter and suitably parental type interests. It’s staggeringly easy, but it only works because we’ve been willingly (even if unwittingly) giving Facebook this kind of high-value data for years.

An important component in Facebook advertising is re-marketing; targetting people who have been to your website with more advertising for your website when they return to Facebook. All it takes is the addition of a small chunk of code to your website and you are instantly able to start targeting your audience. You’ve also just turned your website into a listening post in Facebook’s vast, global intelligence gathering network.

This was all shady enough when it was happening on our computers, but Facebook took it to another level when they adopted a “mobile first” strategy back in 2012. Some pundits thought that Facebook was late to this party but, even if they were, they certainly understood the party a lot better than others when they arrived at it. Location data added a whole new and unprecedented facet to Facebook’s advertising might; combined with the information of who our family and friends were, Facebook could now calculate what we might be interested in before we even knew it ourselves.

How does Facebook know things I didn’t tell Facebook?

Facebook isn’t listening to your conversations. It’s been tested and proven that they aren’t. The truth is actually a whole lot scarier…

Here’s a rough sketch of how it works…

Facebook knows who you are and knows what you’ve been looking at on the internet lately. Let’s say it’s a new car. Facebook knows who you are spending time with because they know where you are, where other people are, and which of those people are your friends. If you’re considering a big purchase, like a car, chances are good that you are discussing this purchase with your friends. So, maybe Facebook would be on to a good thing if it showed adverts for that car you like the look of to your friends, right?

Facebook might even know if you make that purchase, as they love to gobble up data about our purchases from our credit card providers and they know, of course, if you’ve made a purchase through Facebook Marketplace, a Facebook Ad, or Instagram.

(And, because of the way the offline data is acquired, they even know things about you if you’ve never even had a Facebook account…)

According to a recent article by Vox, Facebook and other big-data based companies are even working on algorithms that can predict the end of your relationship. (And, if that doesn’t creep you out, read The Facebook Effect by David Kirkpatrick, which includes the nightmare-inducing claim that Mark Zuckerberg created an algorithm in college to predict which of his friends would “hook up”. It was 33% accurate. That’s the guy calling the shots at Meta and Facebook)

Enter Apple and a Game Changing Privacy Wall

Facebook’s insatiable lust for data and the powerful tools it builds and puts into the hands of just about anyone with a credit card have had serious negative impacts on society; elections have been influenced, the course of referendums changed, and today dangerous disinformation still runs rampant across the platform. The people behind these things have all taken advantage of Facebook’s unprecedented influence machine.

Finally, regulators and legislators are taking note. More importantly than that, consumers are taking note as well, as people are starting to question just what happens to their data and how social media platforms work behind the scenes.

Apple has been the first of the big-tech companies to identify the inherent opportunity here. In the potentially unique position of not being reliant on huge amounts of data about its user to turn a profit, Apple was able to make a strong play out of protecting its users’ privacy by blocking the kind of tracking facilities that Facebook relies on for monitoring its users on the iPhone. For once, Apple’s vice-like hold on the software running on its phones proved to be a huge boon for consumers as it wiped out Facebooks tracking capability in a single software patch. This one simple move hit Facebook’s profit margin by over $10 billion whilst also positioning Apple as the consumer’s champion on privacy and security.

Your move, Google

Apple sells 1 in 3 smartphones worldwide, so Facebook doesn’t need to worry… right? After all, there are still all those lovely Android users out there and, thanks to the fragmentation in the Android mobile phone market there are plenty of phones in use today that aren’t running the latest version of Android and won’t be getting an update any time soon.

Well, maybe not. Google recently announced wide-ranging privacy changes of their own, including bringing an end to third-party tracking and data sharing in apps. It’s a super-fine line for Google to tread as they, like Facebook, rely on advertising as a major source of revenue and use copious amounts of user data to improve targeting and advertising effectiveness. In their blog post, Google (Alphabet) went to some pains to stress that they were not taking the “blunt approach” of others (e.g. Apple) and were committed to helping advertisers transition to new, privacy focussed technologies.

Google themselves are having real problems weaning their systems off intrusive user tracking. The most recent attempt, Federated Learning Of Cohorts (or FLoC) was roundly panned and quickly killed off. Its replacement, “Topics”, isn’t really much better – it still takes your browsing history and infers your interests from it and whilst the topic groups are allegedly broad, that doesn’t really answer the question of why Google should be looking at your browsing history at all. It’s a question being asked in the American Congress, in the EU, by a growing movement of activists, experts, and consumers, and by the UK government, all of whom have expressed an aim to see an end to all behaviourally targetted advertising.

Enter… Nick Clegg?

Yes, sliding in from stage left to take a leading role as one of Facebook’s “Big Three” (alongside Zuckerberg and Cheryl Sandberg) is Sir Nick Clegg, former deputy Prime Minister of the UK and the man so famous for his lack of integrity that there is a Wikipedia page explaining his role in triggering student riots in the UK after going back on a manifesto pledge not to introduce student tuition fees.

Deployed by Facebook to lobby governments worldwide, he’s already in the spotlight as Facebook seeks to challenge Google over its right to implement privacy controls in the Android operating system. Incredibly, I find myself realizing that Facebook has a point – Google blocking other forms of tracking but allowing their own (Topics – which others can then plug into via an API and presumably for a fee) does have all the hallmarks of a classic piece of anti-competitive market monopolization. As odious as Facebook’s tracking of users is, surely it needs to be an “all or nothing” situation; how can it be right for one company to track you, but not another?

It’s going to be a fascinating time in the digital advertising space and I can’t decide if I’m very, very glad not to be in it right now (and having to explain to clients why their campaigns aren’t working how they used to) or whether I’m going to feel like I’m missing out not being in the thick of this fight.

Ultimately, the late 2020s may be the time when personalized, behavioral advertising finally dies. Who knows, we might just have to get creative with our advertising campaigns again to compensate….