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Precarity behind Google’s Search Results: Serbian Search-Engine Optimizers Navigating Autonomy and Control in their Work-Life.



Search-Engine Optimizers (SEO) are part of the global invisible workforce contributing to the Google ecosystem. Between trying to ‘game’ the Google algorithm in order to achieve higher rankings for websites in search queries and implementing Google’s requirements for effective website crawling, these workers are part of a highly delocalized and precarious workforce. The presentation draws on an extensive qualitative study which investigates the work-life of SEO workers in Serbia. Special attention is given to their experiences of autonomy and control. The appeal of a “freelance” work-life supposedly offering a higher degree of worker self-determination stands in stark contrast with the realities of work in the global SEO industry, simple and advanced forms of control as well as local and global economic pressures. Nevertheless, workers have developed strategies to navigate the space between control and autonomy. These individual (and partly collective) strategies to cushion the insecurities brought about by the highly precarious nature of this work will be presented. However, the research concludes that the labour process, its global and local context, as well as the embeddedness in Google’s search-engine ecosystem offers very limited room for workers’ collective action. [Presentation held at the Annual Conference of the "Institute of Protest and Social Movement Research" (Institut für Protest und Bewegungsforschung, IPB) as part of the panel "Digitalization, precarization, and marginalization – three sides of the same coin?" (Chairs: Sabrina Zajak & Christian Scheper)]
Precarity behind Google’s Search Results:
Serbian Search-Engine Optimizers
Navigating Autonomy and Control
in their Work-Life
by Felix Nickel @felixdigitalis
Institute of Sociology, Goethe-University Frankfurt (Main)
DFG-SNF-Project „Digital alienation and appropriation of
work: Experiences of alienation in digital service work
(collaborative project with Basel University)
November 15 2019
IPB Conference 2019, Berlin –
It all started with…
a drink with friends and a
simple and boring question.
1. Introduction
So, what do you do?
I am working online as a
copywriter and I am
writing texts for SEO.
Empirical Research Interest:
What is this job and what are the working conditions?
How do online workersexperience and cope with the
tension between autonomy and control?
Theoretical Interest:
Credibility of claims about ‘radical autonomy’ of
labour from capital by Autonomist Marxists (Lazzarato
1996, Virno 2007, Moulier-Boutang 2011)?
(New) forms of control to submit (digital) labour
(Burawoy 1985, Fuchs 2014, Pfeiffer 2017)?
Felix Nickel | 15.11.2019 | 2
2. Control: two logics of submission
Submission of workers in
brute force (violence,
threats, active union
Alliance of the state with
capital and the formation
of zones where local
labour rights do not apply
(Burawoy 1985, 263).
“Growth of part-time and temporary work […]
orchestrated by specialized agencies” (Burawoy 1985,
àfragmentation and atomisation of labour
Threat of capital mobility and relocation of production
è“subordination without struggle to the whims of
management” (Burawoy 1985, 265).
Technology: Digitalised artefacts of advancement
become instruments of atomisation and control, and not
[…] instruments of collective solidarity” (Pfeiffer 2017,
35). Increased possibilities for tight workplace
surveillance (ibid.) Felix Nickel | 15.11.2019 | 3
Sample: Six workers based in Novi Sad and Belgrade (Serbia); 29-31 years old,
all university graduates with at least one completed undergraduate degree.
Method: Semi-structured in-depth worker interviews; qualitative content analysis.
Major reasons to enter this field of work: situation on the local labour market
Difficulties to find adequate employment after university graduation.
Entering to the SEO industry through a local branch of a digital marketing agency
(role of the local economy)
Moving to the global labour market to overcome low local wages (see also: Graham,
Hjorth and Lehdonvirta, 2017).
Crowd working platforms are hardly used in order to avoid the high competitive
3.1. Sample and role of local labour market
Felix Nickel | 15.11.2019 | 4
Interestingly ‘elaborate’ mechanisms of workplace control like tight surveillance or
algorithmic management only played a minor role.
Precarity as Control
High income and employment insecurity: no contracts, piece rates.
Precarity leads to workers' self-control: accepting almost any terms in order to make a
living and building relationships with clients in the hopes of overcoming precarity
Search engine ranking itself becomes the performance indicator
metrics which are the targets of workers' labour also become the source of their control
à(indirect) cybernetic control emanating from Google’s search-engine (cf. Raffetseder,
Schaupp, and Staab 2017, 232f.)
Precarious, temporary employment and the need for good credentials appears to raise
effectiveness of this form of control
3.2. Precarity as a central form of control
Felix Nickel | 15.11.2019 | 5
Individual Strategies:
coping with insecurity
Finding better-paying clients,
individual risk-management
through diversification of
Skill development and career
advancement (moving up from
copywriter to SEO-manager)
Giving up completely:
feelings of detachment,
frustration, depression and a
desire to leave the industry
3.3. Workers Individual & Collective Strategies
Collective Strategies: mainly coping with
Information sharing about clients (risk of wage-
theft) and job opportunities
Referral of ‘colleagues’ in case clients or
agencies need more workers; formation of
freelance teams
One attempt at collective organising led to
change in remuneration system, BUT client was
able to change the system again without
workers being able to resist (economic
Based on local connections and past projects
Felix Nickel | 15.11.2019 | 6
Most important mechanisms of control
Disciplining effects of precarity:
(indirect) cybernetic control: search-engine metrics acting as performance indicators
Role of digital networks and technology
Mainly used for labours’ self-organisation BUT not for building networks of resistance
SEO industry is built on using geographically uneven economic development and taps
into the highly skilled labour pool in Serbia.
Worker‘s strategy towards precarity: adapting not openly rebelling
mainly adapting to the requirements of capital due to political and economic
Even collective forms of organizing appear to be futile due to the oversupply of labour
on the global labour market.
4. Findings and Conclusion
Felix Nickel | 15.11.2019 | 7
Burawoy, M. (1985) The Politics of Production: Factory Regimes Under Capitalism and Socialism.
London: Verso.
Fuchs, C. (2014) Digital Labour and Karl Marx. New York: Routledge.
Graham, M., Hjorth, I. and Lehdonvirta, V. (2017) ‘Digital labour and development: impacts of
global digital labour platforms and the gig economy on worker livelihoods’, Transfer: European
Review of Labour and Research. SAGE Publications Ltd, 23(2), pp. 135–162.
Lazzarato, M. (1996) ‘Immaterial labor’, in Virno, P. and Hardt, M. (eds) Radical Thought in Italy: A
Potential Politics. University of Minnesota Press, pp. 133147.
Moulier-Boutang, Y. (2011) Cognitive Capitalism. Cambridge (UK): Polity Press.
Pfeiffer, S. (2017) ‘Industrie 4.0 in the Making Discourse Patterns and the Rise of Digital
Despotism’, in Briken, K. et al. (eds) The New Digital Workplace: How New Technologies
Revolutionise Work. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 21–41.
Raffetseder, E.-M., Schaupp, S. and Staab, P. (2017) ‘Kybernetik und Kontrolle: Algorithmische
Arbeitssteuerung und betriebliche Herrschaft’, Prokla: Zeitschrift für kritische Sozialwissenschaft,
Heft 187, 47(2), pp. 229247.
Virno, P. (2007) ‘General itellect’, Historical Materialism, 15(3), pp. 3–8.
Felix Nickel | 15.11.2019 | 8
Political and economic dimensions of the labour process are influencing
mechanisms of control and logics of submission.
Political Dimension
Lack of appropriate labour market regulation àno securities for workers
Receiving money from abroad is facilitated
Economic Dimension
Local labour market pressures (lack of adequate employment, low wages)
Global labour market pressures (risk of clients hiring cheaper workers from
another country
B.1. SEO workers in Serbia and the
political & economic dimension of the LP
Felix Nickel | 15.11.2019 | 9
B.1. Theory:
The labour
process &
intersecting at the workplace (Burawoy 1985)
Felix Nickel
15.11.2019 | 10
(Author’s own figure)
B.3. Mechanisms of control
Felix Nickel | 15.11.2019 | 11
Personal direction of workers by company owner
Personal direction of workers through hierarchical system of the firm
Tec hn ical
Impersonal direction through technical design of machines in the
production process
Impersonal direction through (codified) rules and systems of rewards/
discipline, paths for career development
Impersonal direction through evoking identification with company norms
and values
Impersonal direction through a socio
-technical system using ICTs which
integrates elements of technical, bureaucratic and normative controls
Algorithmic and
Impersonal direction through a recursive socio
-technical system using ICTs
which integrates elements of technical, bureaucratic and normative controls
with the ability for (at least partial) automated decision making
Mechanisms of Control
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