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.


What Is the Lifespan of an Error?

There has been much coverage lately of a new book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal called The Lifespan of a Fact. It relates the years-long debate between D’Agata, an essayist, and Fingal, a fact checker, about whether artistry and accuracy can cohabit in the same nonfiction essay. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the book itself, as Craig Silverman says, “isn’t, you know, factual.”

Picture of a Broken Window by Fen OswinWhat interests me here about the book, though, is the obverse question implied by the evocative title:  What is the lifespan of an error? Rightly or wrongly, we tend to believe that the truth is eternal, that facts live forever, and that, by contrast, mistakes sooner or later die off unaided. Hence our attitudes about errors tend to be lax. But on the Internet, at least, errors are surprisingly resilient.

Some online errors seem to be beyond fixing. In a compelling article yesterday, Ars Technica writer Nate Anderson told the story of how the owner of a Spanish campground has struggled to get Google to de-emphasize search results for the camp. Those results highlight grizzly photos from a disaster that struck the camp more than 30 years ago when a passing fuel tanker exploded, killing 200 campers.

The issue is particularly tricky because the event did happen and is historically important. But is it highly relevant to a search for a camping spot? No one seems to think so. For a variety of understandable reasons, however, the search results live on.

This example is not an error of fact, of course, but of emphasis and context. That’s why it’s hard to fix. Errors of fact should be, by comparison, easily righted. And yet too often they aren’t, mostly because no one cares enough.

There are, unfortunately, abundant examples of this problem, but I’ll restrict myself to just two.

As Rebecca Hoffman happened to remind me yesterday by linking to it from her blog, I wrote last June about the problem of malignant typos. In my post, I noted that prominent blogger and journalist Frédéric Filloux had left uncorrected for two weeks an egregious misspelling of New York Times reporter Brian Stelter’s last name as “Settler.” Yesterday, in a new post, Filloux wrote of the importance of “proper editing and proofing,” giving me hope that his own error might by now have been fixed. But no. A quick check showed that the misspelled “Settler” appears permanently settled.

Filloux’s careless typo is, I suspect, a lost cause. I have higher if slowly diminishing hopes for a more recent error that I noticed last Thursday and shared with its publisher. In a post comparing the print-on-demand services from CreateSpace with those from Lightning Source, the CreateSpace cost per page was stated to be 12 cents per page. If that were true, a 100-page book would cost at least $12.00 to print, and legacy publishers everywhere would be smiling. In fact, though, the cost is 1.2 cents per page, or $1.20 for a 100 page book (not counting the cover). After five days, the mistake has not been corrected. But it’s early yet.

Is it rude or petty of me to point out so publicly these seemingly minor errors? I’ll let you decide. But my belief is that the future of the Internet may depend on how we react to such small mistakes. The situation calls to mind the broken windows theory of the recently deceased James Q. Wilson, which posited that tolerance of small crimes leads inevitably to bigger ones.

Though controversial in criminology, Wilson’s theory may prove true on the Internet. The more complacent we are about small errors, the more likely it is that we will eventually be plagued by large ones.

Photo by Fen Oswin.

The Privacy Canard: David Lazarus and the Evils of Facebook

In the Los Angeles Times today, columnist David Lazarus, a writer I admire, wrote an oddly bitter piece inspired by the Facebook IPO, wondering why so many people under 30 just don’t care about privacy:

It’s not just that we no longer feel outraged by repeated incursions on our virtual personal space. We now welcome the scrutiny of strangers by freely sharing the most intimate details of our lives on Facebook, Twitter, and other sites.

Why is this new attitude to privacy so bad? Because, he says, it can get you in trouble. His example is a Georgia school teacher fired after posting “photos of herself on Facebook enjoying beer and wind while on vacation in Europe.”

What happened to her is bad, yes. But is the root of the evil here an issue of privacy, or of bureaucratic intolerance and social hypocrisy? If we focus on the privacy problem in this case, aren’t we ignoring a much bigger problem?

For Lazarus, there are “serious consequences” to the fact that if you Google someone’s name, “you can see things they’ve posted online.” As he concludes with a sardonic flourish,

No worries. Privacy is so 20th century. Get over it. Better yet, post something online. What could be the harm?

It’s a little odd to hear a columnist for a major newspaper advise readers “don’t tell the world anything about yourself.” That, after all, is what columnists do for a living. Lazarus, for instance, writes frequently about his experience with Type I diabetes—surely an “intimate detail” about his life.

This seeming contradiction makes me wonder about why he objects so passionately to all those people doing what he does: writing about their own lives. Is he worried about their privacy, or about the competition?

That’s a cheap shot, no doubt, as it is to suggest that arguments about preserving privacy are really just canards, sleights of hand aimed at keeping us from seeing bigger problems.

But here’s my question: If it’s OK for him to tell the world about himself, why is it such an unwise choice for everyone else?

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?

Signals of Quality vs. Good SEO

Last month, I wrote about a discussion on an episode of This Week in Google (TWiG) featuring Google’s Matt Cutts. I noted that Cutts seemed to say that Google was aware of the rise of so-called content farms like Demand Media and that it would adjust its search algorithm so that low-quality commodity content didn’t overwhelm better material.

The following week, TWiG host Leo Laporte cited my article at the start of an expanded discussion of Google’s intent regarding content farms. In the clip from the episode below, Jeff Jarvis speculates that Google will “try to get more links to original content . . . and have signals of quality.”

What that means, he said, is that “if all you do is rewrite the 87th page about how to fix your toilet,” no matter how great your search engine optimization, you shouldn’t rise up in the search results. Instead, “Bob Vila’s original masterpiece about fixing toilets should rise up because it’s original and high quality.”

As Jarvis suggested, Google isn’t directing this effort against Demand Media or other content producers per se. Rather, it’s trying to ensure that quality content always rises to the top, regardless of who creates it and what SEO tactics are used. In other words, it’s pretty much business as usual for Google.

The entire episode can be viewed at Twit.tv.