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.”
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.