The tyranny of SEO

A huge amount of the text on the Web is written more to satisfy Google than to please or persuade readers. The name of this game is Search Engine Optimization, or SEO for short. Websites maintain blogs not to inform, but to get in keywords that will improve their search ranking. There are sites that have blogs for no reason except to improve their search ranking. Writers make money from this — or at least they will till AI does it better. (Having machines create text to please other machines seems entirely appropriate.)

There is software to enhance SEO, analyzing pages and suggesting keywords to add. At the same time, Google’s software includes tests to detect keyword stuffing, repeating phrases incessantly for their own sake. I’d give an example, but that would hurt my search engine rank. :) There are WordPress plugins dedicated entirely to SEO. It drives trends, sometimes in a good way; people who wouldn’t add HTTPS support for security reasons will add it to get a slight boost in search rank.

The demands of SEO aren’t arbitrary, though. They reflect the realities of the Web. Millions of sites are competing for people’s attention. People just glance at many more than they read. A page with a dull headline won’t hold readers. A headline that doesn’t clearly convey the page’s subject matter can appeal to an audience you already have, but it won’t bring in new readers. The same goes for an article that doesn’t get to the point quickly.

SEO isn’t a substitute for quality

Some people and sites are big names on the Web. If you’re John Scalzi or the New York Times, you have an audience that’s committed to reading your material. A much larger number of sites have no regular following and really don’t deserve one. They hope that SEO alone will get them readership. But that’s the real tyranny of SEO. The site owners who think they can win by maximizing some “algorithm” actually have nothing to offer.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to get a good search rank, provided you first have something to say. If you don’t, what does it matter if millions of people open your page? They won’t care. Once you have good material, you can worry about tweaking it for the search engines.

Good SEO is attracting the audience that you want and that will want you. Bad SEO is trying to game the search engine. As Nikki Usher put it, SEO should “drive traffic rather than chase traffic.” The essence of good SEO is: Write in the language your audience understands. If you’re writing for a general audience, use straightforward language and avoid unnecessary complication. If you’re writing for specialists, use their jargon where it’s appropriate. Jargon, properly used, is straightforward language for the specialist, saving a lot of unnecessary words.

Don’t be a robot

Bad SEO twists the sense of the text to squeeze in key phrases. It ends up sounding like every other SEO-driven article on the Web, so it fails to stand out. Articles like that sound robotic. People will read a few sentences and realize they have nothing new to say.

You don’t just want people to come to your website. You want them to stay and to recommend it to others. SEO doesn’t measure that. Start by having something that’s worth reading, and the rest will follow.

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