The Post’s Weingarten, who last summer wrote a column headlined “Gene Weingarten column mentions Lady Gaga” as an indictment of SEO, is having none of it. When SEO is bad it’s horrid, as far as he is concerned, and that’s pretty much all of the time. He agrees that SEO encourages a certain SEO mindset, one he characterizes in a somewhat less flattering light.
“SEO is all part of a general degradation of our culture, in which we have replaced spontaneity with script, at the expense of growth,” he said. “It’s an extension of our MP3 culture, where we no longer seek surprise. We listen to music we already know. Same with SEO. People find only what they are looking for. They are denied the sort of surprise a newspaper page delivers.”
But surprise doesn’t hold a lot of currency in new media, where “consistency over time” is what moves a website or blogger up the Google rankings, according to Benkoil. “Good content that appeals, applies, and attracts attention” is what counts, he said, “and on the web that translates to links in, and to authority.”
Harry Shearer, who uses “humorist” as a catch-all for a career that includes documentary filmmaking, frequent blogging for The Huffington Post, and a long-running radio show, is not as apoplectic as Weingarten. But his concerns are no less universal. SEO recognizes more than key words; it knows—and ranks—the web profile of the site where those words come from, based on prominence and traffic track record. And that, according to Shearer, turns coverage into something like a prom queen competition.
“I’m much more concerned about story selection being directed by Google rankings and hit counts than I am about the cleverness/information quotient of a headline,” he said. “That’s where the danger is—if you use popularity in any form, surveys or hit counts, for what stories you run, that leads to a universe where we’re in two wars and two economic crises and what you see or read is basically about celebrities and political yelling. And that’s because celebrities pull ratings and hit counts everywhere, and political yelling pulls ratings on TV.”
SEO experts seem to prefer not to engage in heated debate; they’d rather instruct. Monti cites Google’s Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide, a low-key how-to guide, as proof that SEO is all about enhancement and ease of function, kind of the Internet equivalent of an automatic transmission. That’s where you’ll find a little cartoon guy named Googlebot, who looks like a teenage descendant of the Tin Man and carries a peace-love-and-understanding bouquet of flowers in his/its hand. He’s “crawling content for Google’s index, every day, every night, nonstop.” All we have to do to get his attention is follow the rules.
If everyone obeyed rules, though, we would have no need for police officers or pin numbers. Excess abounds in SEO’s shiny-new-toy phase, from the binge notion that if some is good, more is better, to downright premeditated abuse, sometimes called “black-hat” SEO. The New York Times recently ran a story about dubious business practices at an online eyeglass boutique, whose owner flatly stated that he welcomed negative online reviews from disgruntled customers because even bad news helped to drive his site to the top of the charts, SEO-wise. His big mistake seems to have been that he allegedly threatened a customer who complained, which optimized a police search: eight days later the man was charged with one count each of mail fraud, wire fraud, making interstate threats, and cyberstalking.
There are no equivalent penalties for journalists, at least not for the SEO maneuvering part, though both Benkoil and Monti say that Googlebot and the humans at Google who monitor bot behavior will sniff out manipulators and punish them by dropping their rankings. For journalists, the challenge is to avoid seductive excess—to stick with the Google guidelines and not change every noun to a word that performs better. It’s not an easy discipline. Shearer clicked when he saw a tweet with the headline, “Photographing Julian Assange,” only to find what he called a “stupid video” of a photographer trying to find the man behind WikiLeaks prior to his arrest.
Benkoil bristles at that kind of gaming, and at Weingarten’s tongue-in-cheek Lady Gaga headline—at any attempt to grab a reader with what he thinks are misleading SEO tactics. “What you’re talking about is a bait and switch,” he said. “If somebody’s searching for Lady Gaga and they click on this Washington Post story, are they going to be happy or ticked off?