Bros before robos: Why we can’t let SEO trump journalism

April 21, 2010

There’s provocative story today in Online Journalism Review by Robert Niles in which he argues that learning search engine optimization is more important than learning Associated Press style.

For years now, we’ve seen the erosion of quality journalism through staff layoffs and buyouts, the shrinking of physical newsprint, the reduction in the number of beats covered, significant budget cuts, a growing emphasis on “alternative story forms” that often do little to tell a better story and an industry-wide emphasis on speed over accuracy.

But suggesting that AP style — which is a standardized writing style to make copy an easier read for broad audiences — should take a back seat to awkwardly worded headlines designed to pump up your Google results, indicates that something is very wrong. You’ve seen the headlines, I’m sure. You’ll have a popularly-searched term (they call it a “keyword”), followed by a colon, followed by a sentence that often (but not always) repeats that search term.

I’ll give you an example. I covered the death of Anna Nicole Smith, since it was a local story in Fort Lauderdale. A “well-done” SEO headline might read:

Anna Nicole Smith dies: Anna Nicole Smith found dead at Hard Rock hotel

That’s a keyword-heavy headline that should excite Google’s robots to no end. To the human though? Not very exciting. Here’s the headline and subhead we did run:

Mystery surrounds celebrity’s death
Anna Nicole Smith, 39, collapses at Hard Rock in Hollywood

I’d argue the second is far more intriguing and powerful than the first. Subsequent stories had even better headlines that would lose oomph with SEO techniques: “Smith tragedy may be jackpot for Hard Rock/ Coverage will likely increase hotel’s profile”, “Smith’s death still `a medical puzzle’/ No illegal drugs are found in her suite at Hard Rock hotel.”

Here’s why I’m not bingeing on “Google juice”:

  • Accuracy suffers. Instead of using the most accurate, appropriate language, SEO tells us to instead use what terms people might type into a Google search. What if the number one search term is editorially loaded or incendiary? The word “scam”, for example, is loaded, particularly if you’re writing about an ongoing criminal case that hasn’t concluded.
  • SEO-driven clicks are largely useless for reaching your local audience. This is where I really think Niles is off, particularly when he says that SEO, “most effectively allows their words to reach their intended audiences.” In my experience, SEO has largely driven non-local Internet traffic. Unless you’re on the level of CNN, it’s useless to your advertisers. Getting “Drudged” may temporarily boost your web hits, but will do little to convince local advertisers that you can reach your local market. Why does your local car dealer care if you’re getting clicks from Denmark?
  • Less real journalism training. I’ve sat in on SEO meetings that last up to two hours in which I’ve learned about 15 minutes worth of useful information. And most of it boils down to the following: headline with keyword, phrase repeating keyword. Then spam the keyword throughout the various meta tags and the actual story. Oh yes, and add the keyword to the URL as well. Every half-hour of SEO training is a half-hour that journalists are being trained in something other than doing better journalism.
  • Creativity is suddenly a “bad thing.” Read any article on SEO headline writing and you’ll see a pejorative-filled slagging of creative headline writing. “Cute” is the word most often used, followed by “clever.” And they’re not compliments. You’ll see references to journalists’ egos (OK, maybe that one is true). But trying to claim that patching together a headline using search term keywords is somehow creative is hard to swallow. It simply isn’t.
  • SEO can trick readers. Sensational headlines are nothing new. Yet SEO offers hidden means for news outlets to trick readers into clicking. Whether you believe it was purposeful or not, the Liverpool Daily Post did just this by adding the keyword “Madeline McCann” to the meta data of every story on their website. McCann was the little girl who disappeared in Portugal, a story that generated significant interest. As SEO grows, so will the temptation to elbow your competition out of the Google rankings by any means necessary.
  • Consultants take over your newsroom. This one is pretty self-explanatory, but along with social media “experts,” SEO “experts” are making a great run at newspapers just dipping their toes into SEO. At the same time, newspapers are laying off staff, buying out skilled veterans and letting beats go uncovered. Priorities, folks.
  • Google click-thru traffic is small. Based on what I’ve seen (and it is certainly not extensive knowledge), I’d guess that Google traffic accounts for between 10 and 20 percent of a news site’s traffic, on average. Probably closer to 10 percent for most news outlets. While this is a good amount of traffic, is it worth rewriting the book on news writing to accommodate a fraction of your audience?

Don’t get me wrong. SEO is good thing. Who can argue with newspapers increasing their influence, relevancy and traffic? In this world, it is integral to any news outlet looking to be relevant and can help drive legitimate, local traffic. And yes, journalists want more people reading their stories. During my time at the Sun Sentinel, management took a perfect approach to SEO: Do it as best as you can, but don’t sacrifice integrity for clicks.

Consequently, I’ve been pretty successful at SEO… precisely because I am a terrible headline writer.

But Niles’ article goes well beyond simply advocating for better search engine optimization. He’s calling for the full co-opting of journalistic language aimed at readers by Google’s language aimed at robots. In the end, who really benefits?

Not the reader.

These opinions are solely my own and not that of my employer.


3 Responses to “Bros before robos: Why we can’t let SEO trump journalism”

  1. Eric (Rick) Thomason Says:

    Amen, brother.

  2. Logan Braman Says:

    Excellent thoughts, especially the bit about accuracy. Absolutely love the headline too 🙂

  3. briandhaas Says:

    Ha! Thanks so much Logan. I get one of those like every five years.

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