SEO Shapes the Web. Should It?

For me, two of the most valuable aspects of the web are:

  • how accessible it has made mass communication—bringing it within reach for individuals and small, independent businesses
  • how simple it is for communities to develop around shared interests, no matter how small the niche and regardless of geographic boundaries

These are ideals—the promise of what the web can be and occasionally is.

The Web Now

The reality is that the gems are buried in the avalanche of low-quality, spammy, and boring content—the duds. But why is so much of the web piles of duds and so little of it gems? Can we change the ratio?

Setting aside the obvious types of web duds, the spam-like/scam-like and the anonymous and trollish drivel, I think another big category of dud pages are the marketing-driven “templates,” designed to appeal to the masses.

It recently occurred to me that search and SEO play a role in this deluge of duds because bots can do algorithms really well, and lots of them. So we get huge volumes of pages written to formulas, which is great for marketers. They get a lot of data to measure and “templates” for generating standardized content.

The gems online, however, are usually narrow in focus, addressed to smaller audiences, and focused on quality rather than quantity; they need the right readers more than they need a large number of them.

SEO and Content: Two Takes

A memorable talk I went to a few weeks ago got me thinking about the ways search and SEO influence which WWW we have now (mostly duds) and which one we’ll end up with (mostly gems?). Search, SEO and content strategy were the topics at the talk; the speakers were SEOs and the audience was mainly content strategists. The focus was on bridging these two disciplines, often seen as poles apart on debates such as writing for bots vs. writing for people.

The Traditionalist

The first speaker walked us through how to write with SEO in mind:

  • Write headlines that front-load keywords, that are specific, and that answer readers’ questions.
  • Immediately—in the first line of body copy—deliver on the expectations promised by the headline.
  • Use subheads, also with keywords, and white space to break up walls of copy.
  • Include keywords in the prime real estate: titles, SERP description copy, links, etc.
  • Make sure your CTA is above the fold.
  • In fact, try to get everything above the fold.

All well and good.

The Heretic

The next speaker got up, and right off the bat we knew it would be different.

She complimented the other speaker’s presentation, and then said her take on the topic was completely different. “I’m a heretic,” she said.

The heresy? Write whatever you want, however you want.

  • Write long. People will scroll.
  • Write in your natural voice. Your tribe will find you.
  • Write well, and write for real and living readers. The search bots will catch up; they are already quite savvy and improving at an astonishing pace.

Refreshing, even exciting.

The Web to Come

Until the heretic gave her speech, I hadn’t realized just how uninspiring the traditional methods are. But on further thought, it makes sense that traditional methods will wear thin quickly because those methods are tuned to the ways robots (web crawlers) can quantify what humans read and respond to. It needs to be formulaic, algorithmic, and appeal to the masses—bots can rank those things.

On the other hand, if we can write for people—if the robots are now sophisticated enough to accurately index human writing for other humans who search for it—we may just end up with a web with a lot more gems.

Comments welcome.


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