In the beginning was the word—and the headline writer, who worshipped at the church of the active verb alongside the layout artist, who defined the significance of a piece based on where it sat on the page.
In the end, or what seems like it to some journalists, there is search engine optimization, which redefines what matters based on a set of Google algorithms. Simply put, if editorial aligns with Google’s search priorities, if stories are written with an eye toward the web equivalent of great placement, they have a better chance of being read. Search engine optimization—SEO to its close friends—is the process by which savvy websters customize a headline, a lede, and in perfervid cases, the text of an article, to improve its chances of appearing at the pinnacle of the Internet’s Mount Everest—the top of the first screen of a Google search.
The goal is traffic, which, the theory goes, will bring advertising revenue. Part of the reason AOL was willing to pay $315 million for The Huffington Post, for example, was HuffPo’s extremely sophisticated SEO strategy, which guarantees an endless flood of traffic. If you need more proof of how powerful a grip Google has on cyberlayout, look at the battle between Google and so-called content farms, which seed their sites with content designed to sync nicely with search parameters. Google just announced a revision in its methods that is designed to thwart content farms and appease complaining customers—one of about 500 such adjustments it will make this year to protect its search engine supremacy.
On the surface, SEO is merely as strange and suspect and inevitable as cold type was to people who knew how to read hot type upside down and backwards. But this step in the media revolution has polarized members of the fourth estate in a way that typesetting never could, because it all but erases the line between editorial and publishing. Success—what used to be called circulation, now eyeballs—often resides in lowest-common-denominator language.
To a proponent like Jerry Monti, technology education architect and trainer at the University of California, Berkeley’s Knight Digital Media Center, SEO is all about “honesty” and “transparency,” a healthy move away from often self-indulgent writing, toward a more straightforward, efficient use of language. To a self-described curmudgeon like Gene Weingarten, the Washington Post columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner, it’s “the journalistic equivalent of a self-administered prefrontal lobotomy.”
The one thing they seem to agree on is that, for better or worse, the era of the clever headline and an above-the-fold mentality is over. Puns and double entendre and the significance of the far left-hand column on the first page have been consigned to the dustbin of journalistic history, as out of date as even the 1974 remake of The Front Page.
The question for resistors is how to work the machine—and that’s what its supporters call the SEO-Google combine, The Machine—so that The Machine doesn’t work them.
When SEO is good, it’s very, very good, according to those who embrace the technology. It is a great equalizer, delivering information created by any writer willing to learn the rules of the new game to any reader—sorry, user—who types in the proper key words for a Google search. Dorian Benkoil, journalist turned founder of Teeming Media, a New York-based digital media consultancy, thinks that those of us who draw breath actually have a lot in common with Google, in terms of our information needs, and that SEO is here to satisfy us both.
“Generally speaking, what’s best for human beings, to find and understand something on the web, is what’s best for the machine,” said Benkoil. “A lot of people will come across what you’re offering via a short link and perhaps a snippet of text. If that headline is cutesy or elliptical or hard to understand, and somebody doesn’t know what he’s going to get, he’s less likely to click. If it’s straightforward and honest about what it’s about, they’re likelier to click. And that’s the same for SEO.”
Monti thinks SEO may be the only thing standing between a story and Internet oblivion, and rejects the idea that it diminishes stories in any way. In fact, he thinks SEO encourages a welcome, reader-friendly mindset among writers and editors. “Most news stories are destined to be fishwrap,” he said, “so they’re not going to be great literature. If it’s traditional news, five Ws stuff, you certainly want to focus on SEO—key words in your hed and lede, make it easily scannable for readers, short paragraphs, bulleted lists, seventeen-word sentences, subheads.
“There’s so much research on what sentence length people easily parse,” he noted. “My research shows that at much longer than seventeen words, it drops off.”