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?
“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.