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.”
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?
“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.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.