Flustered pundits claim that blogging has changed writing forever, but they're wrong. You know what has really changed writing? Google search. Thousands of internet puppies are writing "content" that is perfectly optimized to rise to the top of search rankings. Search engine optimization (SEO) has become its own art, a genre designed to make writing algorithm-friendly and human-clickable. What has SEO done to our writing? Now Sean Gallagher over at Ars Technica has a smart, funny article about a new piece of consumer software, InboundWriter, which helps you turn any piece of writing into something that's optimized for search. The best part is that Gallagher actually ran his own article through InboundWriter, so his analysis of SEO is actually designed to be 99% optimized for SEO.
Whether giving the masses the power of SEO is a good thing or not is another question entirely-while InboundWriter can optimize pages for search, following its advice to the letter doesn't make you a better writer (though the new Twitter research tool certainly can make you a better-informed one). But like the honey badger, Google doesn't care if you're no Raymond Carver. To get a feel for what SEO experts think determines a "high-quality" page from the standpoint of a search engine, I used InboundWriter to search-optimize this story. I'll let you be the judge of the outcome; InboundWriter gave it a score of 99 out of a possible 100.
What's noteworthy about Gallagher's article is that it isn't your usual journalist-sneering-at-content-farms cliché. He describes all the ways the software offers to optimize your article, including making it stand out as "popular" or "easy to find" in search, making it play nicely with Google's ad network AdSense, and making it suitable for the education level of your intended readership.
Most of the tweaks that InboundWriter suggests will probably seem familiar to anybody who reads the web on a regular basis. Google determines relevance in part by figuring out how many times an article mentions a keyword phrase — so, if you want good SEO, you'd better write repetitively, using key terms over and over. The software will scan Twitter to find phrases that are rising in popularity to suggest keywords to you, or you can try for words that are rarely used so that yours will be the first result on very specific searches.
As Gallagher points out, there's nothing particularly heinous about these writing directions, but they don't produce work that's beautiful or engaging stylistically. Every era's advertorial and pulp had rules, and today is no different. If newspaper writing's limited column space required brevity, web writing requires keywords. Lots of them. What's new about today's commercial writing is that its rules have been determined as much by algorithms and software as they have by copywriters or editors. InboundWriter's designer recommends that writers be advised to produce content that is roughly 70 percent optimized, according to the software.
Add InboundWriter together with common spelling/grammar check programs and you've got writing that's being given both top level edits and copyedits by software. Which makes sense, given that its primary reader is also Google's search algorithm (or Microsoft's, or Facebook's, or whatever comes next). Even if you aren't using search, places like Yahoo! News feed you information using a "news personalization" engine that is apparently the source of most of their clicks.
Fifty years ago, a layer of editors stood between writers and their public. For a while there, in the heady 2000s, we believed we'd toppled the reign of editorial tastemakers and put writers directly in touch with their audiences. Increasingly, however, there are layers of reading, writing, and analysis machines standing between writers and readers on the web. Certainly this isn't true of all writing, all the time. Still, it's worth pondering the idea that we are becoming reading cyborgs. When we are online, we often cannot read without machines.
Read more of Gallagher's article about InboundWriter over on Ars Technica.
Image Kirsty Pargeter, found via machine-aided search at Shutterstock