Search engine evolution revives newspaper skills

The more I learn about writing for digital platforms and optimizing writing to improve search engine results, the more I am reminded of skills and practices used by professional writers and editors for a very long time.

Digital search engines such as Bing and Google opened the world’s treasure trove of knowledge to be accessed by anyone who can type search words into a browser. That’s a good thing. And in the world of business, it’s important to show up early on searches. A bad aspect of that need is how people try to trick the search engines into displaying the results that favor them.

The search engines are constantly trying to maintain the relevance and usefulness of searches by adjusting their algorithms to weed out bad or unethical practices. That’s because if users aren’t getting what they want, they will use a different search engine. For example, in 2013 Google made a major change with its Hummingbird algorithm. Rather than focus on key words, Hummingbird looks at all the information it has gathered on a user, such as which subjects the user has searched for in the past; or where the user is located.

Content creators have to walk the fine line of wanting to show up in search results without violating the policies of the search engine. For example, if a writer inserts what is believed to be an important keyword everyone is searching for 15 times into a 700-word article, and into the headline and sub-heads, it’s called keyword stuffing. The word is being used in a redundant, unnatural fashion and in the wrong places. It’s just bad writing. Google’s algorithm punishes keyword stuffing with lower rankings.

Content creators are, however, advised to be aware of the keywords in an article, to use them appropriately in a few places, including the page title, and perhaps headline, lead graphs and subheads. It’s just simple organization, like you would do with an outline. Let’s not make it too complicated and don’t garbage up your article.

The goal of the search engines is to provide users with a more meaningful, relevant, intuitive experience. So sole focus on keywords is becoming a thing of the past. The new buzzword is “semantic” search, or relating a user’s search history, location and preferences to give the user more relevant, meaningful results. The author of the Hummingbird article linked above recommends following these guidelines for content producers:

  • Create human-focused content that answers known queries and needs. (Consider meaning, medium and message.)
  • Identify entities, attributes and connections in content (through and other markup) for search engines to digest.
  • Ensure content is crawlable, indexable and sharable.
  • Seek, enhance and inspire authority signals via social media, PR and good old marketing!

These recommendations sound very much like what editors and writers have been doing since the printing press was invented. And there’s more. Another author writing on SEO techniques says when writing headlines and title tags (the little box that directs search engines to the article), keywords are not as important under new semantic search rules.  Instead, she says, it is important that every title is:

  • Concise (not more than 60 characters)
  • Relevant (inform the readers on what the post is about)
  • Enhancing readability (Is your title appealing to readers? What will make them click?)
  • Having an emotional impact (The best titles manage to build emotional triggers, favoring their virality. It’s the emotional impact that is instantly built in the reader’s mind, making the click easier, mostly triggered by the provoked emotion)
  • Keyword-optimized (providing that it’s used in context)

All of these recommendations are something that newspaper headline writers have been doing for a long time. Have an emotional impact? Check. Use terms everyone else uses? Got it. Be concise? Newsprint is expensive. Relevant? You bet.

This evolution of search engines and writing for digital platforms is moving from the technical back to the intuitive; from focusing on the machine to the mind and the user’s satisfaction. It’s just good writing. And that’s not programmable. It’s the creative and cognitive process of writing.

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