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.

 

More Lessons from My 10-Tweets-a-Day Challenge

Chart showing tweets per day for February 2012In the beginning of February, I challenged myself to post at least 10 times a day on Twitter. As I explained in the blog entry announcing the challenge, I had a variety of reasons for undertaking it. Mainly, though, I wanted to make better use of my Twitter account.

Now that the month is done, how did I do? And what, if anything, have I learned?

Unlike my previous challenge to publish one blog post a day in November, I didn’t quite achieve my goal this time. The main reason for my shortfall was a vacation in San Antonio, Texas. As the accompanying chart shows, I fell short of 10 tweets for all 5 days of the vacation. On one lamentable day, I managed only one tweet.

Overall, I sent out 301 tweets, for an average of 10.4 a day. Humble though that number may appear, it is 10 times my daily average for the previous six months.

My aim was not just to tweet 10 times a day, but to make about one-third of the tweets promotional (linking to something I’d written), one-third curatorial (linking to something elsewhere on the web), and one-third conversational (where there is no link, just a comment). Despite having just self-published a book (the New-Media Survival Guide), my usual reticence restricted my promotional tweets to just 12% of the total for the month. Conversationally, I was closer to my target, at 24%. More than 6 of 10 tweets was curatorial.

A couple of other metrics are worth noting. My lifetime average for daily tweets, as determined by How Often Do You Tweet?, has risen from 0.7 to 0.9. And my net number of followers has increased by 28, to 283. Though I can’t say for sure whether my stepped-up activity is responsible for the increase in followers, I gained 45 in February compared with 29 the month before.

Midway through the month, I noted a few of the things I’ve learned about Twitter and myself in the course of this challenge. I would add a couple more.

First, I’ve found that tweeting about articles and other Web content is a good way to keep track of them. I don’t often remember to bookmark things I like. But since my Pinboard social bookmarking account records links in my tweets, I don’t have to remember to bookmark them if I’m tweeting actively.

Second, both the quality and quantity of my tweets are related to those of the people I follow. On days when a lot of them were sharing great content, I didn’t have any difficulty meeting my quota. On other days, there wasn’t much worth retweeting or commenting on.

Recognizing that this review of my challenge is of interest primarily to myself, I won’t draw it out. But as I noted two weeks ago, it’s been a good experience for me.

Will I maintain my average of 10 tweets a day in the coming months? I can’t guarantee it. But I will try. Stay tuned.

The iPad and the False Distinction Between Consumption and Creation

Image of a colorful Japanese manhole cover on an iPadListening yesterday to Leo Laporte’s podcast, This Week in Tech, I was reminded how technology is constantly befuddling those who believe in a clear distinction between content consumption and creation.

Midway through the show (at about 1:09), discussion turned to how Adobe will soon be releasing Photoshop for the iPad, and how Microsoft is expected to do the same for its Office suite. As Laporte and guest Dan Patterson noted, it’s remarkable how this small device that was once pigeonholed as “just a content consumption device” has opened up new creative outlets.

But this achievement is not unique to the iPad or even to other mobile computing devices. Think, for instance, of how turntables, which might seem pure consumption devices, become creative tools in the hands of hip hop DJs.

The important thing here is that technology is not changing the nature of content consumption, but revealing it. The technology simply reminds us that the act of “consuming” content—a bad metaphor really—can in fact be creative.

Thus, it’s unwise for anyone engaged in content creation—whether a journalist, creative writer, or artist—to think of their audience as mere consumers. They are not passive vessels waiting to be filled up with the creator’s content. Rather, they are active collaborators, interpreting, responding to, and mashing up that content—just, in fact, as the creator is doing.

Are there differences between what you do as a content consumer and what you do as a creator? Of course. But these activities are the two ends of a continuum, and there is no clear dividing line between them.

As audience, we have not just the freedom but the responsibility to creatively respond to content. And as creators, we do not absolutely own or control our content—we’re simply leasing it, and owe a debt both to those who contributed to it in the past as well as those who will do so in the future. If we understand this, we will be better consumers and creators of content alike.

(The image of a Japanese manhole cover on an iPad above, courtesy of Tokyo Japan Times, refers to a phenomenon known as drainspotting, or collecting and sharing pictures of colorful manhole covers, popularized by artist/content consumer Remo Camerota.)

An Infographic on the Right Track: Grad School to Google

Though I was once a big fan of infographics, my ardor has cooled of late. Too many of the examples I see just look like clones of each other. But now and then I run across an infographic that is distinctly different, and worth sharing.

Case in point: this interactive graphic from OnlinePhD.org, which steps you through Google’s growth year by year (thanks to Google Tutor for the lead.) The drawing is not outstanding, but the interactivity and engagement are.

Created by Online PhD

Where I think this infographic is on the right track is in suiting itself to the computer. Most other infographics I see are like huge wall posters that you must enlarge and scan up and down to read easily. This one instead lets you click through to a new panel of information. Much friendlier.

I’ve attempted a bit of research on the genesis of this infographic and how it was built, but have come up empty-handed. If you know something more about it, why not share it in the comments?

Adam Tinworth: Journalism in a Period of Continuous Change

Adam Tinworth

Adam Tinworth

If I were asked to name one active blogger that every B2B journalist should follow, I would probably suggest Adam Tinworth. For more than eight years, the British trade press editor has blogged about journalism, social media, and much more on One Man and His Blog. His insights there are based on a combination of his ongoing and enthusiastic experimentation with new-media platforms and his practical experience as an editor and blog evangelist for the UK branch of Reed Business Information (RBI).

Though he frequently attends and covers new-media events like Le Web, which he’s liveblogging about this week, Tinworth is no armchair pundit. What makes his blog so compelling is the fact that he is, in many respects, a typical working journalist sharing his experiences in the exciting but often confusing and disruptive world of new media.

As he mentions in the following interview, conducted by e-mail over the weekend, Tinworth has a new career disruption to deal with. He learned last week that he will “most likely” be leaving RBI as part of a staff reduction. Though no doubt disconcerting, it is the kind of change that will surely lead to rewarding new experiences both for him and his readers.

What was the pivotal moment that shaped how you view the post-print era?

The single most important moment happened in late 2001, when I first encountered a site called Livejournal. I was freelancing for an American games company to top up my rather meager journalistic income from my full-time job, and some people I was collaborating with on a project invited me to join the early blog/journaling site. I remember typing my first post, pressing publish, and seeing my words right there on the web, with the ability for people to leave comments underneath. This was not only easier than our publishing CMS at work (where the same process would have taken hours, not seconds) but more functional—because there were comments, something most content management systems still lack.

It was a life transforming moment—I’d been involved with online communities for four or five years at this point, but they’d seemed “other”—completely detached from what I did in my day job. And now anyone with access to the internet had more powerful publishing tools than I had in work. This would change everything—the speed of the news cycles, the nature of our competitors, how news was delivered. It was a moment that defined the next decade of my working life.

Indeed, if I have any regret as I leave RBI, it’s that the average WordPress user still has more publishing power at their fingertips than the average journalist within one of our teams.

In the past decade, what in your mind were the most important new-media issues?

I still think that the most important issue is acknowledging and enjoying that you’re publishing into a more crowded, noisy, dynamic, and swashbuckling public sphere than ever before. We used to call it “blogging,” but it’s become a bit more complex than that now. The world has changed and  seeing people clinging defiantly to journalistic structures that were products of the print process—the inverted pyramid news story, and the 1000 word plus feature—as the only methods of journalistic expression is a melancholy call-back to King Canute.

The forms of journalism I find most exciting these days are those that are done in cooperation with their audience. Jon Ostrower mixing his own passion for the latest news in aircraft development with the knowledge, skill and research of his readers, for example. Or Tony Collins hitting the point where he had more leads from his blog readers than he had time to follow up. That’s journalism done in recognition that we no longer have exclusive access to the tools of publication. Instead, what we have is time and skills, to find out stuff that wouldn’t otherwise come to light, and to become a unique voice of investigation and research amongst the experts and enthusiasts publishing on any topic.

Pretty much everything I’ve done in the last decade has been exploring that idea in some sense or another. We’ve invented the single most efficient and accessible information distribution system mankind has ever come up with. It was bound to transform every information business—and journalism is an information business—utterly.

What do you think are the most pressing new-media issues facing journalists today?

Business models is, sadly, the obvious one. The old “journalism is a great way to sell advertising” model is in pieces online, and there still aren’t enough experiments that result in hard data about what journalism is actually good at achieving that makes money. I think RBI’s “funnel” model, which brings readers through social media, free-to-air news, registration-dependent services, and paid-for service is a good one that seems to work, but even there there’s plenty of work left to do to figure out what types of journalism (and content) most reliably support the underlying business model.

I have a habit of being disparaging about “serving some Platonic ideal of journalism.” Journalism has almost always been a commercial pursuit, and the trick has always been in balancing commercial imperative with journalistic ethics. Both sides of those equations are vital, and you need to find a way to balance them. The whole phone-hacking scandal is an example of the balance going wrong one way; every noble journalism endeavor that goes bust is the other.

The second issue is the competition for attention. I know precious few journalists still who have really got their head around this concept. They still create arbitrary lines in their heads between professional journalism and the rest of the content on the web, and don’t really think of the mass of blogs, forums, social networks, video and other forms of content as competition. But it is. And often, it’s winning the battle for attention.

The third is probably the need to accept we’re in a period of continuous change. This isn’t like the shift from hot metal to desktop publishing, where there were stable “before” and “after” states, but, instead, a world of information exchange where the rules, mechanism, and tools of publishing develop month by month. The rapid growth of mobile in the last 18 months to two years is just the latest example of that, and I think we can all name publishers who are ahead of—and others who are well behind—the curve.

In the early days of OM&HB you wrote “readership in itself is not something that I’m over concerned with. This blog is for me, not for you gentle reader.” Has that view of your blog changed? How?

Yes and no. It’s still my playground—where I experiment in public. And that experimentation and learning is more important to me than building a huge audience. But for the last five years I’ve been conscious of how important it is in communicating with my RBI colleagues, and I’ve often used it quite deliberately as a tool to stir up conversations within the business.

And also, with an eye to the future, I’ve been aware that it’s become a major source of my reputation outside the company. The sort of work I’ve done isn’t obvious to the outside world. You see the reaction, not necessarily the catalyst. And I enjoy thinking in public, and getting my peers and contemporaries to join in a conversation and refine those ideas.

Given recent events, it’s going to be one of my strongest marketing tools as I figure out what’s next for my career after my stint in RBI—and that’s a conversation I’ll probably end up having in public, too.

I wish I still used phrases like “gentle reader,” though.

Adam Tinworth is one of eight new-media thought leaders profiled in the forthcoming e-book, the New-Media Survival Guide. More of my interview with him will be has been published soon on the ASBPE National Blog.