This past week I spent some time helping my friend set up a blog intended to promote her new book coming out in May. We spent a lot of time fiddling with WordPress and talking about writing, why we do it, what we want out of it, how we are building our writing communities, and the value of an ISBN number.
In the course of those conversations we found ourselves talking about the explosion of writing for the web, much of it commercial, some of it beautiful, and maybe a sliver of it both. Eventually, I found myself trying to explain search engine optimization and what I’d done in my copywriting career to improve web page rankings. To a writer like my friend, committed as she is to precision in language, the very concept of SEO sounded downright Orwellian.
And frankly, when handled clumsily, with the single goal of producing web page hits, SEO strategy, while perhaps not making “murder respectable,” ranks pretty low on the scale of ethical marketing practices. Not too long ago, I spent a lot of my time filtering daft keyword suggestions from a third-party SEO company hired to support our company’s website re-launch. It was a surreal exercise that paired bad keyword research with an even worse understanding of our content. We eventually severed the relationship. No one was happy.
But a lot has changed between now and then, including how we search the Internet. Google’s launch last fall of its new algorithm Hummingbird didn’t kill SEO (nor did it intend to), but it has made SEO marketing a little less Orwellian, refocusing optimization efforts on content rather than keywords. And that’s good news for writers and content producers.
What’s so great about Hummingbird? Back in the 1990s, we entered a couple of search terms onto a computer screen and were presented with a string of results. Today, we talk to our mobile devices, and ask Siri a question like “Where can I find good pizza nearby?” In response to this conversational style of searching, Hummingbird takes into account not just keywords, but associated facts, people, and things. It looks at the relationships between them and tries to discern the meaning of the query based on contextual clues to return a more sophisticated set of results–or sometimes the “answer” itself. (You’ve probably noticed how definitions, locations, biographies, and other information appear now at the top of a results page). With Hummingbird, the concept of “things not strings” is driving search that “is becoming less and less about the keyword and more about the intention behind it,” says SEO consultant Jenny Halasz.
This sea-change has prompted SEO and content marketing experts like Paul Hill to call out the importance of language:
“Hummingbird is geared, in part, to mobile and voice search. So be clear in the words you use and how you structure sentences. Consider synonyms — the alternative words or phrases that describe what you do and that people might use, rather than focusing your content around an exact-match keyword.”
Hill is urging us to be clear. To be creative. To be precise. I am asking you to immerse yourself in the potential of language. And instead of “gumming together long strips of words … and making the results presentable by sheer humbug” (that’s Orwell again), find the words that are unique to you, to the organization you work for, to your customers, and to your readers.
If SEO can help drive that revolution, I’m all in.