Juicy Industry Gossip and Practical Search Advice From ‘SEO: The Movie’

Documentary explores what makes businesses rise to the top of search

Pieces of candy featuring the Google logo are at the official opening party of the Google offices in Berlin. Adam Berry/Getty Images

When stay-at-home mom Jill Whalen started an online parenting chat room over two decades ago, she had no idea it would lead to a career in SEO, shorthand for the mysterious world of “search engine optimization.” 

For the uninitiated: go ahead and Google (GOOGL) “wine store” with your ZIP code. You’ll likely see the friendly shop you buy from all the time pop up as the first or second listing. You might (or might not) see a well-known directory like Yelp near the top, too. This isn’t magic—it’s SEO. Whalen retired from SEO consulting in 2013, but before that she made a nice living for herself with the stay-at-home job, and has left behind a legacy of industry fundamentals known as “white hat” practices in her wake. 

As one of the pioneers interviewed in SEO: The Movie, Whalen said, “SEO in my opinion is simply a little piece of your marketing pie. You need to make sure your website is technically crawlable, and more. Above all, have something nobody else has—something to make you stand out from the crowd. This isn’t new advice, but it seems to me it’s more important than ever.”

Directed by John Lincoln, CEO of Ignite Visibility, a leading SEO company, the 39-minute documentary points out that even today you’ll meet three types of SEOs: white hat, black hat, and gray hat.

In black hat SEO, the tricks focus on finding loopholes to manipulate Google so that a business or product ranks higher than it deserves to. But in the long run, black hat tactics don’t work because Google eventually finds out. Google admits to 300 to 400 algorithm changes a year. Some SEO consultants believe it’s even higher than that, maybe closer to 600. One algorithm change per day? Highly likely, but “Google makes the rules” and it won’t reveal them. Grey hats experiment with loopholes, but depending on the shade of gray, they typically use fairly above-board principles.

If the real rules were known, or leaked, there’d be abuse from all hats. Google has evolved tremendously since 1998, and it bears the scars to prove marketers will screw with anything they can.

But why make an actual documentary about the history of such a niche industry? Because of how much it has changed since its birth in the mid-1990s. And, of course, for Lincoln, this is also an excellent way to drive business toward his company. “I’ve dedicated a large portion of my professional life to search engine optimization,” Lincoln said. “This movie gives a glimpse into the birth of the industry, the parties, the spam, the people and the ups and downs.” 

One such party story involves a plexiglass balcony pool at the Palms Las Vegas and a less-than-sober, nude Rand Fishkin (founder of Moz.com, considered an SEO industry bellwether). But don’t worry, the movie contains no nude people. Or actual hats. Or nude people wearing hats. And no, I’ve never Googled that—I swear on my granddaddy’s Yahoo.

SEO: The Movie debuted on June 20 and is available to stream online for free.

Juicy Industry Gossip and Practical Search Advice From ‘SEO: The Movie’