“The classic old New York Post headline, HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR,” he continues. “If I click on that page and there’s a story about something other than a headless body in a topless bar, I’m going to be pissed off.” Monti agrees: “If lying is your professional strategy it’s time to look for another job.”

Weingarten is not interested in an SEO etiquette lesson. As far as he’s concerned, the online Lady Gaga headline isn’t a lie but a call to action. (The headline in the print version, where SEO holds no sway, was the search-worthless but sly, “A Digital Salute to Online Journalism.”)

Weingarten’s larger fear is that chasing the algorithm will erase the creativity that distinguishes us from the Googlebot. “We’ll all start talking literally, like SEO headlines. Subtlety will disappear forever. Sterility will be our lingua franca, even among lovers. Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy,” he said, referring to the lengthy SEO-averse passage in James Joyce’s Ulysses, about her thoughts while making love, “would become this: ‘Yes, I do believe I am experiencing an orgasm. Why yes, I am. And I am enjoying it.’”

Anjali Mullany, the social-media manager for the New York Daily News, has a contrasting and rather blunt perspective on the good old days, which is that they weren’t as different, or as good, as we might think.

“This is not a new debate,” she said. “Big news organizations have always been concerned with circulation, ratings, viewership. They’ve always made decisions based on what is going to make them money. That said, the audience has infinite choices on the Internet. If you’re concerned about traffic, you should also value publishing high-quality content on your website. I suppose that includes headlines that are both smart and SEO-conscious.

“As long as websites depend on traffic-driven advertising revenue in order to sustain themselves, and as long as Google and other search engines continue to drive traffic to media websites, SEO will continue to be emphasized.”

Shearer hopes that we end up with a two-tiered system, a digital version of The Associated Press breaking-news stories, on the one hand, and longer features that don’t engage in SEO-ery, on the other. And he’s reluctant to join in the machine-bashing: in the great chicken-and-egg debate about web user habits, Shearer thinks that user attention spans are what drive search-friendly journalism, not the other way around.

“I don’t think it’s a machine imperative,” he said. “I think it’s a people imperative. The impulse now is, ‘We don’t have time for that.’ Maybe in a slower day we would’ve had time for a headline where we have to think, ‘Oh, I see. That’s what they really meant.’ But with the rush of information, there’s nothing anti-human with saying that simple is better.”

As the closest thing to a SEO peacemaker I found, Shearer gets the final, crossing-the-aisle word, contributing two more of his résumé entries in the hope of increasing readership: “Wait. Don’t call me a humorist. Mention The Simpsons and Spinal Tap,” he said, as he does multiple voices for the television show and was the bassist Derek Smalls in the classic mockumentary. “It’s better for SEO.”

Update: The third paragraph of this article has been updated from the print version to include a reference to Google’s recent adjustment of its algorithm to minimize search results from content farms.

Ends 7/31: If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of
10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

 

More in Feature

The Fixer

Read More »

Karen Stabiner is the author of eight books and the editor of an essay anthology. She is an adjunct professor at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.