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March 22, 2011

This Content is Automated (Its Creativity, Too?)

seo - Google Search.pngGoogle recently changed its search algorithm to try to tamp down some of the pages generated by so-called content farms and make them appear lower in search results. Content farms are so-named because they produce great volumes of "articles" based on analysis of search terms and calculated to pop up high in results. Such gaming of the system is called search engine optimization and SEO is currently considered the highest of the voodoo internet arts. 

Why should you care?

In traditional journalism, publications lure readers to articles with pithy headlines and imaginative ledes. Even just a few years ago, provocative headlines ruled online. Clever word plays, catchy phrasing, any kind of sexual reference - these were sure-fire clicks. 

Then came the age of the headline feed, and it turned out that readers couldn't be tempted with enigmatic headlines; they needed to be sure what awaited them at the other end of a hyperlink before they would click (although mentions of sex still worked). 

In response, headlines became more specific and informational, more utilitarian. Duller, even?

Then there was a recognition that reader free choice was less a driver of traffic than search engine results. So practicers of the dark arts began embedding articles with words and phrases in meta-data calculated to stand out for the search engines. This meta-data is more effective in gaining clicks than the cleverest of headlines. 

Then came the content farms. They decide what kinds of stories to produce based on analysis of what people are searching for online. The quality of these "articles" is generally not high. 

Also influencing what stories are produced are the crowd-rating sites like Digg, Stumble and Reddit, which elevate the most-read stories around the web. Nothing wrong with popularity, but sites generated by user algorithms tend to be kind of soulless.  

So now we're in a period where online editors can spend more time gaming meta-data SEO-optimized "headlines" and high-volume story lists than they do on trying to create an interesting editorial mix. And an argument has broken out. 

On one side are those who argue that SEO is killing creativity. When articles are produced and designed primarily to capture clicks, you get an endless stew of "how to," "why this" and celebrity stories and dumbed-down straight-ahead content wiped of subtlety or complexity.

On the other side are those who argue that SEO has made stories more transparent. Publications are forced to be more direct about what they're offering and readers have a better sense of what they're going to find before they click.

I don't think SEO kills creativity, but maybe it's just another version of chasing the crowd. SEO before the internet meant putting Britney Spears on the cover. Now that we have mountains of data about how people behave online, we can be much more exact about how to draw an audience. Still - can you do meaningful arts coverage by following the crowd?
March 22, 2011 6:28 PM | | Comments (1)


I think your article is a little too negative towards SEO. There are some nuances here, every SEO person is a not a bad guy. Why not use research to determine what language people use to describe things. Surely that research provides clarity when writing. Okay you can write content that gets people to your site, but you still need to convert them to what ever goal you want to achieve. That requires some good writing. glad to chat sometime about this. @johncass

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