x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Would you read this headline? We can manipulate you only so far

Computers, and readers too, are too smart to be tricked and lured by the wiles of "search engine optimisation".

Let's not beat around the bush; we all crave attention. And the internet has given us an unprecedented opportunity to get it. Big time.

But the problem is that there's so much noise on the net, it's hard to get even a tiny amount of recognition, let alone the 15 megabytes of fame we each so richly deserve.

The realisation of this has given rise to a huge industry called search engine optimisation. For a fee, SEO "experts" will advise you how to attract more eyeballs to your website, generally by guaranteeing you a higher ranking in Google searches.

Many of them will tell you to cram as many "key words" as you can into the headline of your article, because that is what gets Google's attention.

Some sites have embraced this to the point where headlines are so exhaustive that they do away with the need to read the article - which is a bad thing.

The first flaw to conventional SEO logic is that this is not how Google works. Not anymore, at least. The search engine not only "reads" the headline of an article, but indexes the entire site, and billions of others. Google is smart enough to know, for example, that your page is about cats even if you don't slavishly use the word "cat" or one of its synonyms in every headline.

Also, Google throws up different results for different people, depending on the searcher's previous online behaviour.

For example, I once watched a viral video that refers to a character called Gregor. So, a few days afterwards when I googled "Gregor", that video was at the top of my search results. However, when a colleague searched for "Gregor", the number-one result was a biography of the pioneering geneticist Gregor Mendel.

Same search term, same time, same search engine, same computer network, same software; different result.

The second flaw in the keyword approach is that Google isn't the only show in town any more. If you want people to read your precious prose, you'll also have to promote it in context-appropriate forums, possibly do some advertising and definitely use social media.

I am not saying that headlines are unimportant; I'm saying that they are too important to waste on a simple regurgitation of a list of key words in the hope that Google will favour them. The headline should reflect the unique qualities of your writing, and tease your target audience, not bore them to death.

On Twitter recently, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen noted that, in his experience, inaccurate headlines could cut page visits by "two thirds or more".

So, I replied, asking Prof Rosen what worked best for him. His reply: "Elegant wording, a little piece of writing that captures what the post is about and makes the user think: I wanna know more ..."

That's exactly what mass-market newspapers have always done. They don't crowd their front pages with geographic references, full names or other tedious detail, they create a "shop window" of words and images that pique their readers' interest.

Of course, there's no point in having a great blog if nobody knows it's there. But promoting it honestly and, yes, elegantly via social media is a better way of doing that than writing a 10-alphabet headline that ticks all the SEO boxes.

The best way to get attention for your writing is to make the content original, entertaining, informative, engaging, provocative ... anything but forgettable.

Don't just run together a list of words you think people are searching for on Google. Even if that does give you a high ranking, you're only setting up some people for disappointment if you don't deliver exactly what they were expecting.

Unless you are planning world domination, it's not just a total-numbers game; it's a matter of engaging the most people who happen to be interested in the subject you are writing about.

Plug it like crazy with social media posts that entice others to retweet or share the link, and click through. The ultimate aim is to get the reader to bookmark your site and make it a regular destination.

The trick is that there's no trick. You can try to manipulate Google or social media, but it won't work unless what you write - including the headline - is worth reading.

 

bdebritz@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @debritz.