Forest header image

Symfony Finland
Random things on PHP, Symfony and web development

My Job Went to GoogleBot (and all I wrote was this lousy article)

Over ten years ago there was big hype around outsourcing. It seemed like all the things that could be done half way around the world for a fraction of the cost would be. I did think of this and even bought and read an excellent book, My Job Went To India (And All I Got Was This Lousy Book), from Chad Fowler.

As a web developer I did feel quite comfortable that the industry was too dynamic, quickly changing and "unspeccable" to be outsourced efficiently. In hindsight I was right, web development is still mostly done close to the client and it's still always chaos just hours before launch.

As silly as it sounds, there is even a rise of a Cult of Programming Artisans; supposedly hand crafting fine code and always searching for the elegant solution. Goddam hipsters.

But me? I don't feel as comfortable now as I did a decade ago.

Most people in the web industry rightfully think that they are living at the edge of technology development. Everchanging development trends, fancier data storages and improved interface technologies ensure constant learning and strengthen the feeling of betting on the future.

Surely this is the kind of job that cannot be outsourced. This is the information age and I am the blacksmith of bits. It sure is good not to be working in manufacturing or manual labour - a job that will be turned over to a robot in the near future.

I'm not much of an optimist, but the above I feel is very wrong. Even if the dreaded technological singularity will never take hold, the summary of My Job Went To India: 52 Ways to Save Your Job is more relevant to me than ever:

You've already lost your job. You may still be drawing a paycheck, but the job you were hired to do no longer exists. Your company has changed, the technology has changed, the economy has changed, and the ways you can add value have changed. Have you adapted to these changes? Or are you at risk?

In my case it's not other people that are threathening my livelyhood, it's the technology itself. Having worked on websites and web applications for a few years now, my current view is that people are the problem. People repeat mistakes, reinvent the wheel and waste time doing routine tasks. And most of the web development done around the world is just that, routine. Waiting to be automated.

Some say web development as an industry is always changing. But for ages we've been churning out website renewal after renewal with the same workflow: design, develop, migrate data, etc. At the end the site is launched and everyone is happy. Wait a few years and repeat. With more agile cowbell, of course.

There are always ruling trends in design and technology. Websites from any single era always resemble each other technologically and visually. Amplified by the rise of uniform design dictated by mobile devices. I choose not to be a designer, so read this article that discusses the design aspect very well: Design Machines - How to survive the digital apocalypse

Let's return to my domain, technology. If I ran a small consumer business, I would probably not even have a website for it. A continuously evolving platform like Facebook Pages would let me communicate with my customers and always be up-to-date. Why waste money and time on a custom website which'll be outdated soon? (Hmm... talk about cutting your own branch..)

I don't think automatic site generation (like The Grid) will make us all out of work as someone will need to innovate and design new things in the future. But make no mistake, you are likely not as special as you think.

The world is full of laymen web developers like myself, pumping out refreshes to websites every few years with marginally better tools and supposedly better working methods. And it's fine, just as long as you are aware that this routine might change in the future. You can't expect to copy-paste HTML for life. Have a plan B.

Is Google a friend or a foe?

Back to the title of the article - GoogleBot. For me as a Web Developer this is a reality I need to consider today. Google commands a vast majority of the traffic of the sites I work with. I've always wanted to please my friend Google. Google is great, I'll mark up my data for her. It's been a win-win.

While Google has gotten better and better at understanding data, they've also been pushing to new businesses. I'm not talking about cars or anything like that, just the Web. Google has services like Google Flights, YouTube where they enjoy a native competitive advantage due to inhouse nature of those properties.

Pushing brands is one thing, but with Knowledge Graph listing they're pushing into niches of all sorts. Effortlessly and without human intervention - with the help of robots and algorithms. There are plenty of businesses they will truly disrupt by taking control of the data that you have kindly provided them (spiced up with metadata).

You search for opening times of a store and get that data straight on the search result page - great! What is the incentive for your customer to visit your website to get the same information? And consequently what is the incentive of the data owner to spend time and resources in developing a new website that's bound to get less and less visits in the future?

Read more about the evolution of search results from the slidedeck from Peter Meyers' talk on Surviving Google: SEO in 2020:

Surviving Google: SEO in 2020 from Peter Meyers

Couple this omnipresent interface with the fact that pretty much everyone I know has a Google Account - it's something you really can't avoid online. With the level of result personalisation available today this is something that you've got no chance at competing with. Faceted ElasticSearch search results on your site? Cool story, bro.

If your business is selling products or services, this path in the development of the web is not bad for you. After all, you're in the business of trading, not maintaining a website. But if your business is ad supported and depends on visitors on your site... Yeah. Different story, but which reminds me of web developers running AdBlockers on ad supported sites they work on.

While Google is not the only search engine around, in many places like Finland it enjoys a monopoly. And rightfully so, it provides the best results up here. So please don't read this article as a manifest to switch from Google to Bing or whatever. They would do exact same thing as Google does. If they could. It's not evil. It's business.

I urge you to consider the wider implications of what's going on with Search Engines and embedded search interfaces and how it relates to your livelyhood as a Web Developer, SEO Snake Oil salesman, or maybe a contracted manual data curator working for Google itself.

Machines have replaced people in the past, but I do believe this is the first time they could make people obsolete completely without intervention from other people. It's also worth noting that Apple is entering the search business likely with mostly embedded searches.

Anyhow, I'm sure in a decade we'll still be doing something for a living. Probably just providing data feeds to Google. If Google is still in business in 2025.

Update: Automatic Code Transplant done by researchers at University College London:

"Automated transplants of features between apps could free human programmers from tedious, manual work and make developing software faster and cheaper.

Update: Automated Code Transplants done by researchers at University College London using MuScapel:

Automated transplants of features between apps could free human programmers from tedious, manual work and make developing software faster and cheaper.

Read more over at Wired: Code 'transplant' could revolutionise programming

Written by Jani Tarvainen on Friday July 31, 2015
Permalink - Tags: cms, google, seo, webdev, jobs

« Learn Symfony with Silex, the Demo App and the Best Practices Book - Symfony in a Nutshell »