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April 9th, 2015

The Trouble With SEO

Before Google, search engines didn’t get in the way too much.

This isn’t necessarily Google’s fault. There were a lot fewer websites then, and also many fewer people looking for them. Even then, however, unscrupulous web designers were working overtime to scam the system in an effort to gain ranking — which is why search engines now only pay scant attention to the “keyword” meta tag, which is so often stuffed with keyword spam that it’s not to be trusted.

Obviously, search engine ranking is important because it’s one of the main ways people find a site. People can’t read content they can’t find. And if nobody finds a site’s content to read it, what’s the use of writing it? So getting an article off of page twenty in a search result and onto page one is key — which is why you read so much about SEO, or “search engine optimization.”

SEO is basically giving Google what Google wants, for the purpose of improving the chances of getting a page to the top of a search list. For content sites, SEO can be sort of a deal with the devil, as writers who pay too much attention to “best SEO practices” will find that doing so will effect the quality of their writing.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I’m writing an 800 word article about Microsoft — which I’ve been known to do on occasion. Well, to make sure that search engines understand that the article is about Microsoft, I have to name the company, and frequently, within the article. According to SEO experts, I would need to use the word “Microsoft” at least eight times within the article to obtain a keyword density of one percent — just to make sure the search engines understand that this article is indeed about our buddies in Redmond. I’d also need to make sure that the title also contains the word “Microsoft,” as search engines give extra weight to keywords included in the title.

Additionally, because I’m writing this article for FOSS Force, you can bet your bippy the article will deal with something the-house-that-Gates-built is doing that has an effect on Linux or open source. This means, again following best SEO practices, I’ll need to use “Linux” and “open source,” as well as the acronym “FOSS” with sufficient frequency to convince the search engines that this is an important part of the story — again, eight uses each for my 800 word article. And if I really want to make sure that the article finds its audience, I’ll need to include “Linux” and “FOSS” in the title too.

Which brings us to a question Sir Paul once asked: “What’s wrong with that; I want to know?”

Back in horse and buggy times we might have said that this is a case of the horse driving the cart. What it means is that to follow best SEO practices, I must write for the search engine instead of the reader. It means that in all likelihood, I’ll sometimes have to use the noun “Microsoft” when I normally might use the pronoun “it” (or “they,” depending on how I view corporations). It also means I’ll be less likely to use substitute words or phrases such as “Redmond” or “the-house-that-Gates-built” for variety or snarkiness, because it’s not too likely that anyone will be searching for those terms.

A couple of years back I tried this for a while and found it totally unsatisfactory. After writing an article, I’d run it through an SEO checker and make the changes necessary for it to pass SEO muster. I soon found that the prose I was producing was tedious and not particularly a pleasure to read. Even if it did help folks find the article, the article wasn’t necessarily one that would compel readers to want to return to the site and read more — at least not readers who appreciate good writing.

I quickly abandoned writing for the computers that analyse the data returned by Google’s spiders. Search engines are best used to find content written with human readers in mind. Or dogs — if you know one who can read.

Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

3 comments to The Trouble With SEO

  • Colonel Panik

    This was very interesting, informative even.

    I do not like to think about people writing for some
    machine scoring system. I sometimes get to hang around
    with Science Fiction/Fantasy writers and they are very
    open about how our phoney phear from the government has
    caused them to “change” how or what they write.

    More and more of what is on the net is just like an inflight
    magazine trying to sell me hipster trinkets. Bah!

    FOSS Force is a nice change, thanks for being real.

  • I’m with you on this one. I feel it has a tendency to make my writing tighter but also dry and kinda stale.

    On the other hand, when I do the SEO things my pages tend to be read more. A sad reality.

  • I believe that main problem is, that we have Google monopoly on search engines market. The thing you are describing isn’t SEO, in fact it is GEO (Google…). I wish there were alternatives using completely different, transparent alghoritms…

    And SEO doesn’t have to be bad. There are valuable pages that have low positions in Google only because authors didn’t made some simple tricks. Like providing keywords or using not SEO friendly URL syntax. Or improving page speed. So SEO forces a little bit good webmastering and technology behind web page, too.