SEO: Optimising or cheapening journalism?

What’s the best way of trying to lure as many people as possible towards this blog? High quality journalism perhaps? Dazzling originality? Or perhaps just a few popular keywords that will bump up my entry on Google?

Ideally, I’d like to think it’s the first two answers, but pragmatically, I fear it’s the latter one. Because no matter how good the content is, no one is ever going to read it unless they’re able to discover it first, and to do that, it means rating high up in search engine results. Of course this isn’t the only way to get yourself noticed – word of mouth, an established reputation or a platform with a media institution certainly help. But even that is not always enough to make even a ripple in the vast ocean of the internet.

According to David Sifry, founder of Technorati, there were over 133 million blogs out there as of September 22nd 2008, and those are just the ones that the website is tracking, minus spamming blogs. But the number of people who actually read them is, well, quite substantially less, shall we say. However this isn’t about blogs per se, but rather the staggering torrent of information, news and views out there with which individual media platforms have to compete. Everyone wants to make their voices heard, and so professional journalism needs to shout even louder. And to do that, a tidy little acronym called SEO is one way that newspapers and other online media platforms are trying to lure the millions of online users to listen to them.

SEO, or Search Engine Optimisation, is all about trying to increase the number of people visiting your web-page by including popular search terms in the web-pages’ content. So, think about a popular search term at the moment: Halle Berry is, according to Yahoo today, the most popular search term in the UK. So, by including loads of references to her, I am thereby, in theory, increasing the likelihood of people visiting this blog. The fact that those people who are hoping to see naked pictures of Halle will be sorely disappointed is by the by. The important thing is that they have been drawn to the site, and hopefully will stick around a while to read it. That’s the hope anyway.

SEO is now being implemented by some media organisations in order to maximise their readership. The Daily Telegraph has instructed its writers to make sure they include popular search terms in their articles, but this has given rise to criticism from various quarters that SEO is cheapening journalism. Are journalists becoming slaves to SEO, guilty of tricking readers into clicking to their article with false promises of Halle Berry in the buff? Both Private Eye and The Guardian’s Charlie Brooker have mocked what they see as the Telegraph blatantly chasing after readers at a cost to its journalism by slotting in popular search terms into their copy. As Brooker commented, “There’s something uniquely demented about slotting specific words and phrases into a piece simply to con people into reading it. Why bother writing a news article at all? Why not just scan in a few naked photos and have done with it?”

Surely this is making a mockery of journalism, reducing it to the level of “a reality TV wannabe who turns up to the auditions in a gaudy fluorescent thong in a desperate bid to be noticed” as Brooker puts it. By having to use certain key words to drive audiences towards their articles, it gives off a whiff of selling out to the advertisers and search engines, cheapening the articles to the verge of farcical.

But, on the other hand, why shouldn’t media institutions use SEO if it helps drive more readers their way? In the face of diminishing newspaper sales, media platforms are becoming more and more dependent on advertising revenue. It’s a simple equation: more unique users = more money from advertising, and SEO is a way of maximising that income, even if there is a risk of sometimes undermining the quality of journalism.

Ciaran Norris and Tad Chef have both lambasted The Guardian’s sniffy stance towards SEO as unrealistic in this digital age. And The Telegraph’s Shane Richmond responded to SEO criticisms from the Guardian by pointing out that SEO is “about writing and structuring your story in such a way that it can be found online. Doing that enables you to reach readers who don’t visit, and perhaps don’t even know about, your website. Do it well enough and consistently enough and those people might be tempted to become regular readers.

“It’s about making sure you can be found. No different from making sure your newspaper is available in every newsagent in the land.” The Daily Telegraph are simply trying to maximise their readership, and SEO is a handy tool that enables them to do this.

So is SEO a necessary yet harmless way of garnering readers or a weapon that is cheapening online journalism? In some senses, SEO is a double-edged sword. Use it and there’s the potential of skewering the journalism. Don’t, and you run the risk of less people even reading the articles. Many readers will still flock to established media brands to get their news, but with competition, partly in the form of citizen journalism, blogs and others, cropping up all around, the fight for users is intensifying by the minute. And in the battlefield of the internet, SEO may just be the extra ammunition one needs.

(To all those readers who really were expecting a picture of Halle Berry in the nude, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but just so you don’t feel too short-changed, here’s a photo anyway – with her clothes on):

Photo courtesy of indoloony at Flickr

© Melanie Hall 2017