Search Engine Optimization is dead – Long live Plain English Optimization

So, how did your website fare in the great Google SEOcalypse last week?

Did you lose traffic? Gain it? Did you even notice?

Sistrix tracked the carnage among some of the top so-called content farms on the Internet, based on keyword positioning within search engine results pages [SERPs]. Among the losers in the Sistrix report were Associated Content, Mahalo and

Personally, I don’t track keyword placement in SERPs for my websites. I track traffic and revenue. And I did see a drop in Google-directed traffic late last week on one of my websites, but a slight increase on the other. When I looked more closely at the loss in Google traffic, I didn’t see in decrease in referrals for the most popular keyphrases people were using to find my site, according to my Google Analytics report. All the loss seemed to be coming from the long tail, the all-but-forgotten, individually low-trafficked discussion threads and obscure listing pages on my site that I would just as soon Google ignore.

Well, consider that wish granted. The data does suggest to me, though, that Google’s not targeting entire sites with this latest algorithm change, but individual pages based on the thoroughness and uniqueness of their content.

Frankly, tracking keywords and obsessing about how highly your copy ranks in search engines provides one of the faster ways to go crazy in the online news business. With Google moving more toward highly personalized SERPs, chasing keywords is a fool’s pursuit.

It’s time to forget about SEO [Search Engine Optimization] and time to focus instead on PEO [Plain English Optimization].

Too many writers think of SEO as writing for computers, when their real focus should be writing to meet the needs of a human audience. Ask yourself these questions whenever you write:

  • Are you writing about something that people have personal experience with or personal interest in? Can you express that audience “need” in 10 words or less? Have you done that in the story?
  • Does your article do anything to provide a practical take-away that helps readers address this need, whether it be a to-do-list (even a short one) or at least relevant, previously unknown information about the topic? Can you describe that take-away in 10 words or less? Have you done that in the story?
  • Are you writing using the words and phrases that normal readers – people who aren’t your sources and co-workers – use when they talk about this topic? Are you using the vocabulary of a 10th grader, or a 10-year professional in the field?
  • Describe your piece in three words. Do those three words appear in the headline, the title tag or at least within the opening paragraph? How long does the reader have to read your piece before he or she will know what you’re writing about?
  • Are you drowning your reporting under too many words?

These principles aren’t incompatible with SEO, in fact they’re part of what many of us have been suggesting as basic “white hat” SEO principles in the past.

But with SERPs so variable these days, and with too many writers unable to get over the idea that SEO is writing for machines, I think that many of us would find it easier, not to mention far more productive, to think about Plain English Optimization instead.

Think about the people who will read what you write. What are their needs? What are you doing to help meet at least one of those needs in this piece? Are you keeping it clear and simple?

Write to PEO, and the SEO will take care of itself.

Writing tip: Keep it short, even when there's no copy desk to force you

Here’s a tip for young, or beginning, bloggers. Or even for old pros who need a reminder.

Just because your blogging tool lets you ramble on forever doesn’t mean your audience wants to read it.

The New York Times’ Paul Krugman wrote:

One of the hardest things about writing the column, as opposed to blogging, is the length constraint. It’s really, really hard to say something meaningful in a limited space. And yet, that constraint has its virtues: it forces you to be concise, to figure out what you really need to say and skip the rest, to find turns of phrase that are shorter and usually plainer. And my experience is that the process of doing all that almost always makes the thing read better.

I think Twitter’s has helped sharpen writers’ skills over the past few years. Think Krugman’s 800-word cap is tight? Try 140 characters. But too many writers switch mental gears when they close their Twitter application and open their blogging CMS.

Not everyone need write as tightly as Atrios, but why not make an extra effort to focus your words? Concentrate the power of your work into fewer words, so that they’re more likely to drive your audience to act upon them – to share them and promote your work with others. Dilute your work into too many words, and your audience will get bored and drift away.

Try this: For the next piece you post on the Internet, stop yourself before you hit the “submit” key. Copy and paste your words into some text editor. Count the words. Now try to cut half of them.

Can you make the same points? Keep all the important information?

If you can’t cut half the words, surely you could cut one-third of them.

Try this for your next 10 posts – whether they be blogs, columns, articles or comments. See if – or how – your writing changes under this demand.

If only more content management systems displayed the number of words as you typed, as Twitter counts down your remaining characters. Heck, maybe some CMS developer could bring back Clippy, who’d start yawning once you hit the 500 word mark. (You probably wouldn’t even need it to yawn – the mere sight of that thing returning to your screen should provide enough Pavlovian conditioning to make you stop writing.)

Yeah, I know. Writing online’s competitive. You want to get your stuff up, fast. Like Pascal, you know that it takes more time to write a short piece than a long one.

So that’s why you need practice writing tightly.

Start now. Wrap it up.

Don’t make me send Clippy after you.

Lessons in self-promotion for independent news publishers

When you step up from newsroom grunt to becoming a website editor and/or publisher, don’t forget that you’re also making the switch from reporter to source.

Being interviewed is part of the duties of a successful website publisher – you’ll need to know how to promote yourself and your publication in other media, to increase its exposure and drive new traffic.

To that end, I want you to watch this clip from one of the masters of entrepreneurial self-promotion:

Sure, Dolly Parton is on the show to talk about her support for LGBT youth. But notice how she slipped in a plug for every single project she has going currently? Her new musical, her single with Queen Latifah, her Dollywood theme park and her chain of Dixie Stampede dinner shows. She plugged ’em all.

That, friends, is a pro at work.

But let’s also notice three important points about interview opportunities:

1) A plug is not your pitch

Parton didn’t launch into a 30-second pitch for Dollywood when she mentioned her Tennessee theme park. She simply name-checked it. Too many sources blow their plug by talking too much about the project. If the moment’s right later in the interview, you can talk in more detail, but initially, it’s enough to just work in the name.

2) Look for the right context to bring up your projects

Which brings us to the second point. You’ve got to work your plugs into the context of the interview. Though the topic of interview was acceptance of LGBT youth, Parton expanded the topic to include race in order to work in a vignette spawned by a plug for her project with Queen Latifah. That provided the plug with the context that made it seems a natural part of the interview, and not a forced promotion for something which didn’t relate.

Same with the plugs for Dollywood and Dixie Stampede. Parton worked plugs for those family attractions into the context of talking about her extended family.

If the context isn’t there, you can’t make the plug. So, sometimes, as Parton did, you need to steer the conversation a bit to set up the plug. Steer it too far off topic, though, and the plug won’t seem natural or authentic and – unless you’re on a live broadcast interview or online chat – won’t make the cut into the story. And you likely won’t be inviting back for additional interviews, either. Ultimately, you’re there to advance the story. Plugs come within that context, or not at all.

3) Pronouns are your enemy

When you’re talking about your publication, never fall into the trap of using pronouns to reference it. The majority of your references should use the name of the site. Sure, you’ll need to use pronouns now and then to keep from sounding like a shrill shill, but many journalist/publishers are so sensitive to that risk that they take it too far in the other direction, and neglect to ever mention the name and URL of their site.

We’ll be talking more about promoting the news in future weeks on OJR. But I’d love to hear some of your tips, in the comments.

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The year-in-review story is a classic news device to recycle coverage at the end of the year. Execute it well, and a year-in-review piece can become an excellent promotional tool, too, educating your audience about the extent of coverage that you’ve provided throughout the year.

This example from Denver’s Westword not only showcases the paper’s past work, it provides an outstanding example of effective hyperlinking. The piece tempts the reader to click links, then rewards them with good content – encourage readers to rack up the pageviews. Don’t forget this technique with your years in review coverage.

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The Inigo Montoya Word of the Week: This week’s word is Randy. Sure, in the United States, that’s just some guy’s name. But in the United Kingdom? Uh, it means something else.

This week’s word stands as a reminder that when you publish online, your work can be read all over the world. Sometimes, that means readers in other countries will find meaning in your vocabulary you never intended. Here’s a story about the day when I had to wear a “Randy” nametag for my job at Walt Disney World (I’d lost my “Robert” one), and the interesting reaction it provoked from some elderly British ladies.

Check out these pages and this webpage from another successful media entrepreneur, Rick Steves, for translations of British English into American English, and vice versa.