SEO & the Writer

contrary signals

SEO and the writer don’t get along. Words on the Internet are in a battle with technology. At least I am in a battle. I am loosing.

In 2008, a very long time ago in Internet time, I read two food bloggers – Smitten Kitchen and Lobster Squad. They were natural digital writers. Their words skipped along. I learned about style, phrasing, sentence structure, and voice for the web. If this is the new word, I thought, we are in for great wonderfulness.

But it didn’t quite work out that way

Things went seriously bad for digital writers, many whom are bloggers. The wave of wonder got lost when algorithms or SEO (search engine optimization) got to be in charge. Keywords (words you wouldn’t necessarily choose but must write into your story), are a big part of SEO. They lead the way. That means technology leads the content. That’s the wrong way around. It can make for clumsy writing. Worse, everything reads the same.

Two websites ago (10 years, now) Food Words usually placed second on the first page of any search engine (Google, Bing, Firefox, etc.). It’s nowhere now. That’s because it’s congested on the ‘information highway’. Algorithms are the way the crowded online space is managed.

At a business lunch a few years back one writer said to me in a breathless voice, “Isn’t it great, it’s all about SEO.” I nodded but I wished it wasn’t.

Algorithms are the word

Part of the job of maintaining a blog or website is understanding these algorithms, which are a secret (really, they are). They’re like beauty trends – today we use a freckle pen to draw a freckle on, yesterday we used a (different) pen to cover them up. Why? Elusive and ever-changing. I can’t keep up so my website is on page 435 of the search engine.

We all use keywords when we’re searching online. You know, words or phrases like dentists in Mt. Pleasant, hipster restaurants in Whistler, the meaning of razzmatazz. Anyone with a blog or a website figures out what those words are so that their site ranks at the top of Page One of a search engine in your area. No one looks beyond the first page. People don’t even go past the second entry. SEO and keywords are the way to get yourself noticed. Paying for Google Ads works, too.

Here’s how to do SEO for your site  

  1. Hire an SEO expert
  2. Become an SEO expert (and chase the algorithms yourself)
  3. Install some decent SEO software on your site (free or paid) and follow the rules the SEO expert lays out for you. Don’t think you don’t have to learn, you do.
  4. Just write and ignore at you peril (marketers say you will prevail, but I haven’t)

Obviously, many bloggers do the third. They teach and re-teach themselves many, many things. Some food bloggers are really good at technology. They know the business end of their business really well so they rank high. They may fill their blogs with substandard writing but they are are on Page One.

I can get quite cranky about keywords. I feel pushed around by math. I tell myself to be patient. The whole process is becoming more sophisticated. When the ugly keyword is completely obsolete and technology is invisible, my way will be the way.

Do we thank business?

Storytelling is today’s digital marketing commerce. That makes sense, stories persuade. But the story has to get read, which means it has to be good. Marketers are right, people don’t read dreck and they see through disingenuous words. But when we’re bending, folding, and mutilating to fit an algorithm that means the words, the very thing we want people to read, are secondary. Definitely the wrong way around.

The writer and the reader will be reunited. That’s one of the things I loved about those two food bloggers I read in 2008. They were employing that age-old intimacy between reader and writer. That should happen wherever words are read.

We’ll get past this Grade 9 writing style. We will tell stories that aren’t written to some mathematical formula. It will be good for every single one of us.

Post Script

Deb Perlman of Smitten Kitchen is still blogging, deconstructing recipes while telling stories about her small apartment and the idiosyncratic food suppliers of New York City where she lives. Ximena Maier of Lobster Squad is a Spanish commercial illustrator with a food blog. She makes beautiful drawings to hang her words on. She is less active these days but her lovely words are there for you.