Mary Branscombe (marypcb) wrote,
Mary Branscombe

Gaming gaming Google, acing the Attention Economy

My friend Peter asked me over lunch on Sunday how Simon and I advertise our blogs, because he's starting to blog more and wondered how to attract readers. Peter gets a page on Wikipedia and he's interesting to read (go argue with his latest post about whether Linus supports DRM), but he noticed that the post he wrote that got picked up on Boing Boing got a lot more comments than other, very similar posts (indeed, when you search for him on Google, you get, in order, the Wikipedia link, a ZDNet blog, his Linked In Profile and a link to just that post).

'I don't bother with SEO,' I said; 'I'm mostly talking to people who are already listening.' Which probably indicates a certain lack of ambition. SE-what, he replied? Well, now I can point him at the SEO-by numbers explanations in this blog on IT Pro, which sums it up as lots of links, phrases people will search for and keep the sentences short so the spider can understand them. There's a company raising venture capital on the basis of promoting link journalism, where you annotate links to other online articles to synthesise the evidence and put your own view in context (kind of an accessible annotated bibliography). And the blog also links to a superbly subtle column by Charlie Brooker for The Guardian that criticises the practice of shoehorning in irrelevant mentions to Britney Spears and Angelina (and of course, in the process, includes them often enough to squeeze out the very Google juice he's decrying).

The comments seem to rather miss this parodic point and criticise the column for being too ivory tower. 'No one is stopping you from having a beautifully crafted article that no one can find,' says one but then claims we need to optimise the superior content to make it stand out from the masses. Quite how pumping it up with the same search steroids will do this, I'm not sure. I  know SEO works well enough for people to pay for it, but much of it strikes me as the Emperor's New Clothes of the Web. If everyone with a site on topic X optimises it with the right keywords, how will any one of them stand out? And isn't it actually about making it easier for us to stop assessing the value of sources ourselves, to stop seeking out good writers and just listen to what shouts the loudest and flashes the brightest?

Very little writing is pure, self-indulgent art - except, ironically, blogs. Anything that's written for publication has to make a point, fit a format, reach a reader (yes, alliteration and metaphor help). The length of fiction - flash, short, novella, novel, series - dictates both the depth of plot and character and the structure of scene and climax. News stories have to read from the top and cut from the bottom so you can fit what matters on the page at the last minute - call it a dying art, but more people in the UK read UK newspapers on paper than online. Sidebars and other page furniture break up a magazine article; they're called page entry points because they can get you to start reading, but they can also give you a break from following the thrust of the article and let you absorb it before you return to reading. Any piece needs to speak to its audience; if I pick up a romance, I'm not after the gritty, indulgent gore of true crime. So you can't say 'it's art, I shouldn't have to care about the demands of commerce or prostitute my pure writing to structure'. But much SEO structure is banal and reductive and lazy and lowest common denominator in a way that other writing structure strictures aren't.

What about good SEO structure? Probably, I've seen it and not known I was seeing it. Maybe, like any other writing craft, ars est celare artem.

Tags: google, rant, search, writing

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