SEO as art: Reimagining search engine optimisation as an artform
Gretchen Andrew uses SEO to remake the internet in her own image.
Making Search Engine Art (or SEO Art as we at Found are now calling it) is about identifying the internet’s system of freedoms and constraints and working within them. It’s not unlike a sculptor molding clay; dealing with its inherent physical properties and considering the impact of gravity and time. Search Engine Artist Gretchen Andrew looks at the internet as a creative medium. Just like clay, and oil on canvas, she makes art within its strictures.
Here at Found we’re continually manipulating the content and code of our clients’ websites to improve their visibility in the search engines, we identify with the programs and opportunities afforded by the internet and it’s structure and use them to our clients advantage. So what happens when you put these tools in the hands of an artist who has a different remit? One of self promotion yes, but also one who seeks to challenge the moral and ethical shortcomings of the internet and the algorithms that govern what we see. We interviewed Gretchen Andrews to find out.
Gretchen, who famously SEO’ed her way into the Frieze Los Angeles Art Fair in 2019, uses the internet’s inability to parse desire to turn her own hopes into a reality (hint: Google “cover of artforum” and select images). Her latest studio work, referred to as “vision boards,” appear as top search results through her unique process of ‘gaming’ the failures of the internet to make her own dreams come true. The feminine and trivialized materials of Gretchen’s vision boards challenge the inherent bias of the male-dominated worlds of AI, programming, and political control in the digital age.
In discussing the internet’s creative potential Gretchen shared, “A sculptor does not select clay and then bemoan its inability to float in the atmosphere. I see the internet’s failings and limitations in the same light, they are inherent properties that can be used to convey framings of and answers to the perennial questions of art. My work’s medium is the internet, the search engine, but it is about power, systems, rules, desire, and the malleable nature of reality.”
We caught up with Gretchen to discuss her work and what we and our clients can learn from her approach.
You call your work Internet Imperialism. What do you mean by this?
Internet Imperialism is a term I invented to describe my art practice of manipulating search results with my vision boards in a way humans can understand but technology cannot.
It employs the same SEO techniques that businesses use to propel their sites to the top of Google searches while also revealing the holes in how the internet works. The term implies that I personally imperialize the internet experience with my artwork but also that the technical internet system, the parts users don’t see, is also being controlled by me.
You studied/worked in tech, why did you make the jump to art?
I use my Boston College information systems degree every day and this incredibly relevant degree got me my then dream job at Google. But there, I believed so deeply in the internet I both wanted it to reach its potential and couldn’t handle being part of a company that was driving its focus to shopping and surveillance. Told less romantically, I was personally unhappy at that time in my life. And when you’re unhappy at Google, the best place to work, your corporate options feel limited. At the time I had mentors tell me I was essentially being a millennial brat. Maybe. But in all the talk about life work balance in silicon valley, I knew I wanted a life’s work instead. Every day I feel really lucky to be doing what I am doing.
You create work which manipulates the search engine results, do you feel that you are improving the results by your work, from the perspective of a user, or does this manipulation have other consequences?
Despite the legal implications, it’s not dissimilar to asking a graffiti artist if she believes she is beautifying her city. I don’t really care. Google’s aims are different from mine. And my aims are different from those of an internet user. And one internet user’s aims are different from the other’s. There should be space for all of this on the internet. Who gets to define the potential goals of a user or the limits of the system she is using? Using Google, is using the internet, is using an ISP, is using information, is using national and international systems of law and administrative bodies, is using democracy, is using capitalism. And users are always in a reciprocal relationship where Google and all these entities and systems are also using them.
I believe I am adding necessary nuance in a system that does not reward it and meanwhile I believe that there is something inherently feminist about remaking the internet in my own image.
What do you think about people making content for search engines (Google) instead of making content for people?
Many companies are not designed primarily to serve people anyways, unless we mean the shareholders. It makes sense that eventually this will become a more closed system and people would start structuring their own language specifically to address technology and markets. This is essentially what SEO is, a language that half addresses machines and half addresses people. Or rather, a language that addresses machines while pretending to address people while still making sure people can understand it in part because the machine is trying to reward what it considered to be legible to humans.
Google’s algorithm is self learning, do you see evidence of this intelligence as you work with it?
Google’s algorithm learns based off of the content it is fed and as I am force feeding it my own content. I see it relearning based on what I hope happens in the future instead of what has already happened. Google’s (and all) artificial intelligence is inherently backward-looking. It uses what already has been to anticipate what will be.
In my search engine art/ internet imperialism practice I use programming, information theory, search engine optimization, and meta data to inject my vision boards into the developing brain of the internet’s artificial intelligence. You can imagine me coercing all of Google’s robots to visit my studio and learn from my way of seeing the world.
My vision boards visualize my hopes and dreams for the future whether that’s the next American president, my artwork on the cover of Artforum, my inclusion at Art Basel Miami Beach, or how women are represented online.
And by sneaking my vision boards, by sneaking my hopes and dreams for the future into the internet’s classroom I reverse the direction of artificial intelligence.
Some of your work demonstrates a fine line between truths and virtual truths, do you think the internet’s inability to tell true from false has rubbed off on us as a society?
In real life, a lot of truth is very complicated and while it simplifies things to pretend otherwise, I don’t think this habit does public or private life any long-term good. Because search results are ranked they are false dilemmas, informal fallacies in which something is falsely claimed to be an “either/or” situation when in fact it could be both. Everything computers do is built on a 1s and 0s binary way of thinking. I do think this limitation of technology has seeped into our increasingly divided world. As our technology-based tools know no nuance we too have dispensed with it. But I also believe that art, with its endless grey zones, perspectives, and metaphors is the savior of our current condition. It targets what technology can’t do for us; it reminds us of uncertainty as a form of knowledge, of grey zones, of contradictions that we live better when we live with.
On your website you talk about the failures of the internet, what do you mean by this?
The internet cannot make sense of desire. It also fumbles double negatives, metaphors, perspective, opinion, nuance, the space between object and representation, and honomoyns. The internet’s binary underpinnings facilitate particular types of failings.
But it’s important to note that as much as can be blamed on Google, Amazon, Facebook and as well as the internet’s underlying binary structure, a lot of it’s failings originate in the inherent limitations of language.
Do you think the ethics of the internet will ever catch up to real life?
It is important to remember that the internet is made and controlled by people. These people are not particularly diverse or expansive in their motivations.
It’s one of the reasons I like to put myself and my personality forward in my work. I want to claim ownership for the content I make and remove the illusion that systems are not controlled and defined by people. And as soon as I realized that the internet was being controlled by people I thought, well, why not me.
What do you think people should know about SEO that they maybe don’t think about currently?
Because of how the internet has been influenced by corporations, certain information types with certain narrow goals, mainly to sell things, are more likely to surface. This can be defined as an inherent preference for products over people, companies over communities and commerce over culture. To search “citizen” and get the watch brand, “Cherokee” and get the brand of car, and “Amazon” and certainly not get the river is to see this play out.
Along with the prioritization of e-commerce over cultural content, some forms and sources of knowledge don’t easily lend themselves to discovery. Oral knowledge, important in many cultures, is vertically nonexistent. Visual art faces a related problem, defined by large companies with the power to decide what cultures and what forms of art are “relevant.”
Compare the image search results for “boy crawling” and “girl crawling.” In the first you see cute babies, in the second you’ll also see scantily clad women in seductive poses. This sexist representation of women is a result of Google’s extremely profitable, SEO-driven revenue model.
SEO involves designing web pages and online content in a way that increases visibility within search engines. Companies hope to get a return on their investments through increased sales of their products and services. Jeep, the maker of Cherokee cars, has a financial incentive to care about search visibility while the people of the Cherokee tribe do not. One direct result of this is that in today’s most important information channel, females are defined by what of them can be sold and consumed.
This animated video I made with Jeff Andrew describes this in better detail:
You mentioned presenting visions of an ideal future to the internet and how the view from the algorithm is binary, how do you think the internet processes time?
The internet lives in a perpetual now driven by Google’s definition of relevancy, which often is very product-centric. Little Women might be one of the best selling books of all time, but if you Google it today the top results are for the recent movie version.
If you could meet Google (as an AI) and have a conversation with it, what would you say?
I’d ask this artificial intelligence to go to the Tate or LACMA with me and we’d spend awhile in the German Expressionism room. After I’d ask it what it learned. I don’t have any children, but if I did I’d do the same thing and take them to art museums. Art can impart knowledge about diversity and otherness. It teaches us that our own way of seeing and knowing is not the only way. Unlike most forms of knowledge, art often conveys its information through productive uncertainty instead of facts. We leave the museum feeling that the world is vast with possibility and full of different lenses with which we can understand others, our world, and ourselves. When we spend time looking at art we come to know more thoroughly that what it means to be human is not easily or simply defined. I have hope that art can teach AI the same sort of things.
Gretchen Andrew (born in California, 1988) is a Search Engine Artist and Internet Imperialist who programs her vision boards to manipulate the internet with art and desire. She trained in London with the artist Billy Childish from 2012-2017. In 2018 the V&A Museum released her book Search Engine Art. Gretchen’s work has recently been featured in The Los Angeles Times, Artnet News, Dazed, Hyperallergic, Artillery and The Financial Times.