Years ago, I saw a disturbing blight spread across the web. The place that had once been my liberating and exhilarating teenage escape had changed. It was no longer dominated by academics, anarchists and teenagers. It was full of people people who trying to make money.

The web was academic but it became commercial

I mean it wasn’t like they were entirely new. Even back in the days of dialing into my friend’s BBS on my 56kbps modem, there were some commercial BBSes that could handle as many as eight users connected at the same time. Not much later, Amazon became a thing people talked about. And they were evil, because of patenting their “invention” of buying something with just one click. But they weren’t that bad. They were responsive to their customers and they were cheap enough that within a year I pretty much only bought books from them and two others—my campus bookstore and The Tattered Cover a huge, reader-friendly bookstore run by a wonderful old lady who actually stood up to FBI requests for customer purchase records in court.

But this new blight was different and worse. They had discovered that finding ways to rank highly in Google search results was a tremendously effective way to make money. In my opinion, they ruined search engine results pages in niche after niche from 2004-2008. At one time, a search for something like “Chinese learning resources” would have yielded a page with great free online dictionaries, the University of Berkely’s East Asian Languages pages, and the breakout podcast ChinesePod. But then I gradually started seeing those useful front page results replaced by link farms full of hundreds of pages of mutually linking crap. That was shortly followed by entire networks of sites with spammy, low-quality material linking to each other crowding out the remaining genuinely useful results.

snake oil salesman

Over the years, I started seeing not only spam comments on this blog but I started getting pitched almost weekly from slimy marketing types wanting to do “link exchanges”. That means they wanted me to add links to their page from mine and send my readers to completely unrelated to what they looking for in exchange for these marketers doing the same to their readers, sending them to my site, so Google would rank both of our sites more highly.

I hated not only marketers but marketing itself

I despised people talking about things like “keyword density” and “back-links”. I was sick of dealing with people so focused on what they could take and so unconcerned with whether or not what they were doing had any value at all for their readers that had to respond. When one SEO-enthusiast wrote to me first about marketing related things and then a judgement that my personal blog was “doomed”, I wrote a fiery blog post lambasting all greedy, superficial, SEO-obsessed bloggers!

Not only that but I even responded to his email with this:

I didn’t realize that valuing function over form was grandiose. It seems like it’s way less popular than the reverse. Maybe it seems to blunt, but I was just stating my opinion, that’s all.

I don’t really care much about traffic.

I don’t like Amway.

I don’t like marketing.

I don’t like getting emails from random people running pet shop sites who want to trade links with me.

This is absolutely fascinating to read now, nine years later, because now I do care about traffic and I am interested in marketing! I still don’t like Amway or spammy emails, but it’s a full reversal on the other two points! I had dug deeply into an argument (that had 50+ comments on the blog post) and in 2010 I probably disliked marketing even more than I did in 2007 when I wrote it. Most of this is due to the principle of consistency, but it sure didn’t help me as an entrepreneur with a great product and poor marketing!

Becoming a different person

What made my change my views about marketing? It’s hard to say, but I went through massive life changes after 2010. I left Taiwan. I stopped teaching English. I became a software engineer. Then I started a different business. Then I joined a small YC-funded startup that I desperately wanted to help. This path lead me slowly but surely to marketing.

I was right that function matters more than form. I was right that marketers flood in and ruin pretty much every platform or medium. But I was wrong that marketing itself was bad. There are things worth marketing to others (including oneself in many situations). Refusing to engage in marketing is somewhat like refusing to check players in hockey. Yes, it’s true that the game might be better without it, but refraining doesn’t change the game… it just makes you lose.