Writing for the algorithm

What does SEO mean for writers & readers?

Words & images © Paul Ransom

Writing for SEO impact. How to make your posts SEO friendly.

(Learn to love the bot. Pander to the algorithm.)

Do the right keywords matter more than the using right words?

Is SEO the death of good writing?

Back in the bad ol’ days I used to teach professional writing. I hated it; not the teaching or the students, but the reductive, formula driven orthodoxies and one-dimensional commercial imperatives the course aimed to drill into its eager learners. I found it antithetical to the processes of creativity as I understood them, and said as much to my charges, (one of whom was a much better writer than I will ever be). But that was before SEO thrust its tabulating fangs into the art and craft of wordsmithery.

If, in the late nineties and early noughties, we were writing to the whims of the marketing department, in the twenties our gatekeepers are not even human. The key demographic is now a machine.

I realised as much when – inspired by this blog’s almost complete lack of traction – I clicked my way through an online SEO primer; which explains my earlier attempt to attract the robot’s gaze with provocative and simplistic headers. (Oops, sorry Googs, I meant keywords.)

Keywords, keywords, keywords. Oh, beautiful keywords.

Forget literary greatness; the machine does not care for style or genius. It trawls the net for algorithmic kicks. In the curious, mathematically mediated popularity contest of the search engine, the bots want clickbait. Data, stats, trends. Backlinks, meta tags, commonly used terms. And if those elusive keywords manage to jumble themselves into a key phrase, all the better.

As for accuracy and insight, originality and artistry – nope, they won’t help your page ranking, but ticking the right SEO boxes might. That is, provided you don’t slack off, because, tellingly, the aforementioned online tutorials were big on SEO being a marathon, which I took to mean that I would effectively be indentured to the ever changing vicissitudes of the machine.

Girl sending text message
Human does battle with robot.

Speaking of which…excuse me while I draw said machine’s attention to the best swimwear buys near me and the sexiest teen cumshot compilations1 – none of which I know much about but…fuck it, the algorithm doesn’t care. Truth and SEO are definitely not in a co-dependent relationship.

As long I key in the killer phrase ‘celebrity Illuminati list’ the fact that I neither know nor care is barely relevant. Is Marina Abramovic part of a global Satanist elite? Who the devil knows. The search bots sure don’t. In fact, they don’t even care to know. They’re too busy crunching data.

Whose data? Oh, that’s right. Ours.

Yes, it’s we who feed the matrix. Google didn’t invent the most popular search terms. We did. Thus, while analogue marketing wisdom was cobbled together from sales figures, focus groups and Edward Bernays2 inspired ad school lore, our newly appointed digital gatekeeper is a far more rigorous door bitch. She has the biggest sample size in human history to underwrite her assumptions.

Alas, the nightmarish literary dystopia of Luddite fretting and sci-fi populism is not merely the result of tech gone mad, nor solely the fruit of careful diabolist plotting, but at least partly our fault.The death of writing has gone viral.

So, what now? And what of the human reader – the one who will never get directed to this page?                   

Although the SEO course reminded me to keep my posts ‘human friendly’ and not to go too crazy with the keywords, it also made it plain that without the tactical insertion of bot-attracting features the chances of Google ranking this article anywhere near your click finger were (are) statistically indistinct from zero. The call-to-action was clear. Evolve or die.

On one hand, the online ecosphere is exciting and dynamic, an ever-shifting participatory democracy that encourages virtual vigour and rewards the lithe and adaptable. Stodgy old traditionalists and their nostalgist harping may still have their place; but even they have to keep pace with what’s trending in the fast-fashion domain of internet doom.

Yet, for all that, something about the algorithmic selection process, and the ‘system gaming’ it encourages, still grates. Perhaps I am being too precious, clinging to the artist fantasy, telling myself that I will not write simply for the approval of the corporate controlled algorithm. (Yeah, go me!) You won’t catch this auteur ruining a good paragraph by cynically dropping in machine friendly phrases like crypto tax calculator or vegan Christmas recipes.

Non-binary Nazi MILFS take down woke Hollywood reaction

Oh dear, how did that not get edited out? Damn you, Alphabet. See what you’re making me do. 

By now, you will surely have grasped the point. Today, writers and content makers are virtually bound to a shop window that constantly shuffles our spot on the shelf according to a formula we do not understand and have only miniscule impact on.

  • NB: If you search, you affect the algorithm. None of us are cleanskins.

For creatives above a certain age this will sound unerringly familiar. Before the algorithm we had touch points, target markets and buzz words like ‘relevance.’ Back then, fame lasted an entire quarter hour and flavours were said to persist for a whole month, although the odds of it being your fifteen minutes, let alone month, were incredibly slim.

Truth is, most artists, from antiquity to the AI era, have struggled to find appreciative (paying) audiences. The SEO enigma is simply the latest iteration of an ever-opaque wall dividing writers from readers. But at least the marketing mavens of yore pretended to have standards, even if they didn’t. You could, if you were lucky, appeal to their better angels. Or at least schmooze them senseless. Unfortunately, the machine does not give a fuck. It is grinding, mechanistic, soulless – and cannot be swayed by either flattery, favours or fellatio. You will either meet its formulated criteria or you will not. Spitting and swallowing are no longer relevant categories. 

At heart, the issue I have here is not the blind robotic data crunch, nor even the monetisation of it, but the effect it has on content. How many of us now chase algorithmic approval? What does this do to storytelling? To structure? To rhythm and flow? To ideas

Will the relatively narrow lexicon of SEO narrow our shared language?

Please understand, I am not here to herald a cyber-led collapse of civilisation, even though a key phrase like ‘tech giants bringing down the environment’ may just spike the bot’s interest. Indeed, I am more concerned about the cultural and creative landscape being bequeathed to my younger cohorts, and I wonder what the amplified anchoring effects of SEO will have on our craft’s shorter forms; journalism, criticism and think pieces.      

  • In saying this, I have someone particular in mind; a young author who works as a barista at my go-to local café. After a few months of idle cross-counter chat we discovered that we shared a passion for writing and that we both had ‘completed’ novel manuscripts awaiting test readers. So we swapped, and her book is marvellous. She has a supple imagination and her work, (although easily recognisable as genre fiction), exhibits a bravery, a daring, that I would hate to see crushed into conformity by commerciality or searchability. I would wish for her the scope to keep imagining, to stay true to her vision, and to have her voice heard by other human beings. I have no desire to see her reduced by Big Tech to clickbait.

However, zooming out, we see how none of this is truly new. Languages and art forms are not and, in my opinion, should not be fixed. For writers and artists the shifting topographies of taste and technology have always been part of the challenge. Google is simply another in a long line of gatekeepers; as was the professional writing course I used to teach. From Aristotelean arcs to algorithmically ranked key words, storytellers have always been urged to bend their tales into one shape or another. Art is not made in a vacuum, no matter how self-indulgent it longs to be.

Perhaps, if I asked her, my young friend would simply shrug off the SEO imperative as a natural part of content creation. My reflexive distaste likely says more about my crusty, outmoded world view than it does about big data tyranny or the imminent death of vocabulary. Moreover, it may well be that the reason no one reads this blog is because it’s just not that interesting, to humans or bots.              

And so here we arrive at the core question. How far am I prepared to go to find an audience?

Whether it’s heartless machines, mini-skirted marketing mouthpieces, or lecturers who think they know better, ‘someone’ always wants us to edit our voice to suit. Even though this parallels the ordinary process of growing up, of regular socialisation, it can seem a whole lot harder to swallow than consensus sanity and adult reserve. Which is why we so often spit. (Cue obligatory last chance at key phrase success.) 

Is oral sex a ritualised conform/resist metaphor?

In the extremely unlikely event that the above has fooled Google into ranking this post in the top nine million, and that you have therefore clicked onto this page, let us both give thanks to the rule-based gods of SEO. Despite everything, we have found each other. Hello.

Global elite controlling hand
Evil glowing hand – possibly the author’s. Note lack of mouse.

And yes, in case you were wondering, I am not a robot. Can’t you tell?          

1: Come to think of it, Cumshot Compilation would be a great band name; although I imagine you would only be able to find them on the dark web.

2: Freud’s cousin, and one of the pioneers of modern advertising & PR techniques. He is sometimes called ‘the father of spin.’ Beloved of tobacco companies and the CIA, Bernays remains a divisive and fascinating figure. Much of the cynical marketing manipulation we are daily subjected to is seeded in the soil of his notoriously Machiavellian playbook.          

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