When SEO Kills Good Writing

Search engine optimization is a common and valuable goal among almost every professional who is serious about his or her web presence. We all want to be highly discoverable by people searching the web. But sometimes  SEO is an opponent of high-quality writing.

Creative Titles Vs. Search Engine Bait

I’ve always been a fan of great titles – whether we’re talking about film, music, or literature. Some bloggers title their posts with pure search engine bait: descriptive search terms that are often informative about content but rarely expressive or thought-provoking. It’s a good way to make a blog post relevant and an even better way to dumb down your content.

Ernest Hemingway titled one of his masterpieces For Whom the Bell Tolls. The novel benefits from a gorgeous title that strikes a chord in the context of its themes. The title and the novel are one. But if the book had been titled by SEO specialists, it would’ve been named Spanish Civil War Drama with Romance. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

I’m not saying all bloggers should aspire to be Hemingway (though I won’t stop you if you do), nor am I suggesting that a poetic or clever title is appropriate for all online writing (especially in design fields, where tutorials and technical writing often require simple, descriptive titles). What I am saying is that if your writing has integrity, your titles should arise from your content, and not from SEO motives that are irrelevant to what you have to say.

I wrote a blog post about my love for 80’s punk legends The Misfits. I titled it I Fell in Love With a Ghoul because I was inspired by style of the band’s horror-themed music and lyrics. My title was meant to sound like it could’ve been the title of a Misfits song. If I wanted to SEO the piece to death, I would’ve titled it ‘I Love the Misfits’ or ‘Misfits Band’ (to differentiate my use of the term ‘Misfits’ from a film and a cartoon that both use the same word). These titles are clear and succinct and they contain the word ‘Misfits.’ But they are bland as fuck (How’s that for a title?).

The Evolution of Punctuation and Grammar

It’s also common to render popular search terms in bold. SEO wisdom tells us that some search engines place greater importance on bold words. In traditional literature, italics are the proper way to emphasize a phrase (hence the html italics code <em>). This is one way that web language is influencing the evolution of written language.

Evolution is a natural and beautiful thing. But bolded text can sometimes seem tacky and amateur. Also – and I admit this is a personal aside – if you are over the age of fifteen, you should never use an emoticon. I call bullshit on *this* way of emphasizing a word, too. Call me old-fashioned, but it just seems trendy.

In Conclusion

Many of us strive to excel at search engine optimization, myself included. Personally, I’m a beginner, and I’ve been implementing techniques I learned from knowledgeable sources like David Airey (read Web Promotion Tips from Brand Identity Designer David Airey) and the ‘SEO for Everybody’ series at Pearsonified. Perhaps the biggest change I’ve made so far is changing my blog’s header structure and placing the post title in an h1 tag on single pages (recommended in The Definitive Guide to Semantic Web Markup for Blogs). Hell, look at my little search engine optimized link fest here! All with descriptive <title> tags (roll your cursor over a link to see)!

It’s been exciting to learn more about SEO and its potential to elevate my blog to the next level. I’ve also learned a lot about blogging this year from my experience writing for Smashing Magazine (where I code and design the layout of all my posts). Smashing has the most powerful web presence I know of and there’s a lot to be learned from their content, their use of WordPress, and their cordial use of transparency in their social networking techniques.

Those are all examples of talented bloggers who have used SEO effectively while simultaneously elevating the quality of content. I suggest we all follow suit. Make sure to use SEO in a way that fosters your creative voice instead of killing it.

3 Responses to “When SEO Kills Good Writing”

  1. Hi Dan, it’s great to know you’ve been able to learn a thing or two from my experiences with SEO. Here’s hoping it stands you in great stead.

    Bye for now.

  2. Hello, David! Thanks for reading and commenting. I enjoyed your You The Designer interview a great deal. I also have been enjoying your insightful blog posts; especially your reflections on the evolution of your sites and your career. Thanks for sharing!

    Have a great day.

  3. You, too, Dan (have a great day, that is).

    Take care.

Leave a Reply