Writing for the Web: The Human Algorithm and Zero-Sum SEO

Rockhopper Penguin Photo © Samuel Blanc [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Do you write for the Penguin, or the human?

I sometimes fear that search-engine optimization (SEO)  is the only aspect of new media that people have really cottoned to. Not that they’ve understood it, necessarily, but that they feel it is both justified and essential. It is something they simply accept.

But for any content creator, SEO (as most people practice it, at least) is the kiss of death. If you want your content to work, write for people, not for search engines.

I was reminded of this at last week’s SIPA meeting. In the course of a wandering and inconclusive presentation on writing for the Web, one of my fellow audience members asked the room, “Does anyone here think SEO isn’t important?” Out of perhaps 20 editors and writers in attendance, I was the only one who raised a hand.

This struck me as both worrisome and curious. No one there was particularly enthusiastic about SEO or how it aided their craft, but all glumly accepted its necessity.

In my defense, I argued that SEO is a losing game. The moment you achieve that precious optimization, Google changes its algorithm and reverses all your gains.

I might have added, it’s also frequently a zero-sum game. That is, whatever you gain from writing for search engines, your site visitors lose through irrelevant or shallow content.

My cynicism about SEO doesn’t mean I’m not in favor of marketing your content. Most writers, I think, need to do more marketing to potential readers, not less. But both parties should gain from that marketing effort. You should want your visitors to find your content because it’s exactly what they need, not because you successfully gamed a search engine.

Another way to put this is that, as a writer or journalist, you should worry less about Google’s algorithm and more about the human algorithm.

That to me is the takeaway from Guillaume Bouchard’s recent Search Engine Watch article on Google’s Penguin update.

Bouchard argues that the “solution for not getting pummeled every time Google changes its algorithm is to focus on providing the best possible relevancy to users.” You should focus on users, not SEO, in creating your content, he says, because “people, not just machines, have to get something out of it.” The best strategy for bringing your content to the attention of your target readers, he suggests, is to make it clean, clear, and useful.

That’s good SEO advice. Just as important, it’s good writing advice, too. Take it, and both you and your readers will avoid the zero-sum game.

 

One thought on “Writing for the Web: The Human Algorithm and Zero-Sum SEO

  1. a breath of fresh air this post is: sometimes, texts get so convoluted due to SEO that it’s unreadable.
    thank you!

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