Yes, sir, it’s been one of those weeks, and yesterday was my breaking point. Basically, I put my foot down when being asked to yet again bastardize web content I’d written in the interest of SEO.
If you didn’t previously know, “SEO” stands for “Soulless Evil Occupation,” I mean, “Search Engine Optimization.”
I never aspired to write for SEO, I just sort of fell into it blogging for a small business I used to work for in-house as its first employee beyond the owner. Back then, we didn’t take the blog so seriously. It sufficed to write a paragraph about a local London point of interest or whatnot each of the five work days. Then when I went freelance, working from home, it became a seven-day-a-week task, which was annoying yet still rather casual. I mixed up informative, practical information and advice that related to the business with more touchy-feely human interest tales also relevant to its services. And I wrote off the cuff, providing facts, figures, and supplemental resources where they naturally supported topics and going research-light on the days when I wrote more from the heart. It was a nice balance, and the writing and ideas flowed organically. AND it still managed to double site traffic within the first three months of blogging every day.
A novice (still am), I delved more into the social media world, reading books, articles, attending seminars, even hopping a train to Manchester to meet one-on-one with an SEO guy (a friendly one, I might add, who I miss desperately these days), and simply chatted up other bloggers to compare notes on what did and didn’t work for us. Interestingly, a lot of feedback I received was that the most important thing is to write information your intended audience wants to read. Some bloggers didn’t even bother trying to deliberately seduce Google into upping their rankings; they just wrote relevant content, and the following grew from there.
I write that business blog with a personable tone and always a lot of empathy for what the target clients are going through. My expertise lies in the subject matter and in the written expression of it, not in SEO. And I always got favorable feedback from our readers, with some clients actually crediting the blog as why they chose this company over another. Modestly, I bowed my head with a blush and just kept writing, just kept being myself.
And then SEO experts entered my world. To start, the third-party SEO company hired to supplement my blogs ended up increasing our spam hits but drove actual readers away with their empty content. All they prioritized was quantity of posts and keywords, not whether there was any helpful information conveyed. It was when we received feedback from a successful web owner and ally that he’d stopped reading the blog because the SEO writer’s meaningless content had flooded it and drowned my own that those schmucks finally got fired. And I quote:
“I figured you were no longer doing it. I was attempting to read the blog and it’s now contentless. All the articles are structured around keywords with no actual content.”
Yet I understood the good intention underlying the new SEO focus. When all a small business has going for its marketing is its website and social media profiles, those understandably become a top priority. As the business made more money, it threw more of it into rebranding and website development. Which has been brilliant and absolutely makes a difference. I could not be prouder seeing what was once a one-man band grow into a legit office of several employees delivering top-notch service and receiving accolades from its industry and clientele. I have very, very much wanted to stay a part of it, even lending my face and voice to its promotional videos.
But this third-party SEO guy we now work with is killin’ me. Worse, he’s killing my writing. And I just don’t know if I can do it anymore.
I no longer have to blog every day; in fact, I only do so two or three times a week now. But the word count dictated to me has gone from whatever to 500 to 800-1,000, and the rules have become more defined. Each article must be well-researched and restricted to logistical advice pertinent to the service (fair enough). Each one must focus on a single keyword term that is used in the title, first two headings, first and last sentences, and overall repeated at 2% density, with no single word ever exceeding 4%.
Those are the basic rules, which probably don’t sound too bad, but try confining your creativity to the bland, redundant list of keywords dictated to you. Sometimes these terms are phrases, and sometimes the syntax of the words in these phrases make no sense when used in a sentence. And then try achieving that density with the repetition sounding natural and not too obvious. Try finishing an article you’re pleased with only to find you’re still short a few keywords. Try scanning your carefully thought-out and gracefully crafted sentences to see which you can force-feed a keyword term like they’re ducks being prepped for foie gras.
Even better, try spending your summer researching for and writing a 64,000-word website (your third version by now of the same site), with each of its approx. 100 pages containing 500-800 words and following the same rules above. Try doing so to sell a specific service to a specific target audience with a specific tone within the specifically-defined structure imposed by SEO rules. Try racking your creative brain to figure out how to write the same thing multiple different ways (in one case, writing the same paragraphs in over 70 different ways) to expand the content Google can search for without duplicating it. Manage to follow all the rules step-by-step even though every time you have a question about the instructions, the SEO guy is a dick who, in lieu of just answering the question, each and every time simply redirects you to the original directions “you were instructed to follow,” asks you why this is so difficult, tells you to stop making excuses for yourself and get the job done, and repeatedly throws you under the bus during conference calls with the business owner and web developers.
Try then keeping your cool when, even though you shared your content with everyone involved two months ago, it’s only now at the last-minute that there are claims of densities and keywords supposedly not following the almighty gold-plated “original instructions you’d been given,” even though you can’t fathom how that could possibly be so, that if there are other terms appearing too frequently it’s probably because the subject matter and purpose of the writing naturally commands it. That manipulating it too much in the interests of what Google might fancy could confuse if not offend an end-user who sees right through what you’re doing. That you can already hear your poor words dying a slow, painful death by SEO.
Oh, but there you go “making excuses for yourself” again…listen to you.
Granted, all the while, the business owner—the only one who really matters, in your opinion—is over the moon with your work, defends you to the death, and wants you to stay on writing for the company. That’s the only redeeming factor, and yet the SEO deeds still have to be done.
So try all this and tell me you wouldn’t want to tell this SEO guy where he can stick it and abandon the project.
I am a good person.
I am a good writer.
And I am usually a great team player.
But I can’t work with someone who threatens to erode my ability to be any of the above.
So, cheers to all you douchebag, socially inept, condescending, basement-dwelling computer guys who perpetually lord your technological expertise over us pea-brained common folk! Thank you for reminding me I’m an idiot every chance you get, and I’ll remind myself how blessed I am not to live a life as miserable as yours. Now go back to computing on your Cheeto-encrusted keyboards while I go do some real writing for my manuscript.
P.S. As a disclaimer, I repeat: I never aspired to write for SEO. Nor have I ever pretended to be skilled at it. In fact, I originally tried to turn down this recent website project on that basis, but the owner wanted me to do it because I understand the business better than an outside writer would. So, out of loyalty (and for the money) I took it on.
P.P.S. I like to think I am usually not this mean. Throwing my non-SEOed poop around on this blog is just great therapy. Thanks for indulging it. Golden Rule? Respect me and I’ll respect you. Diss me and I won’t respect you, but I’ll still be professional to your face and maybe just trash-talk you under the alias of a primate with buttons for eyes.
November 15th, 2012 at 12:52
Aw, your experience seems very painful. I can totally feel it to here. To me, hard-core SEO does not have a lot to do with writing or even pleasing the reader, but making the product findable, while readers then hop away on skimming only the most important content.
For heartfelt writers, this is a very frustrating fact. As a freelance writer working a lot with companies online, I have stopped offering these kinds of services, as I rather want to go for something search engine FRIENDLY rather than optimized. Loads of clients want to go with the cheap crap approach as long as it works. But not everyone, and it is those I love to work with.
But the facts of how search engines work nowadays aren’t responsible for arsey and smug behaviour of the social media guys involved. If your client is that loyal to you, maybe they can give that guy a hint that traffic is not yet loyalty.
And wishing you good recovery time. Every craze has its awakening, so, I believe, will that blind data-drivenness.
November 15th, 2012 at 13:24
I’ve missed you, Monkey ❤ Best wishes on your novel work.
November 16th, 2012 at 00:54
I think it’s time to say ‘bye’ to that job.
November 21st, 2012 at 20:50
That bastardo!!! I agree with the last two comments.
November 29th, 2012 at 00:03
They dont’t deserve you or your writing! Fight the power!
April 5th, 2013 at 11:35
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