This guest post is by Greg McFarlane of Control Your Cash.
Today, I bring you heresy. Not on the scale of Galileo trying to convince Pope Urban VIII that the sun doesn’t revolve around the Earth, but close enough.
Stop believing the lies. SEO is a fool’s errand.
SEO copywriting is the worst invention since the vuvuzela, and does at least as much to drown out coherent thought. I’m not talking merely about the damage SEO does in the hands of independent bloggers like (presumably you) and me. Visit the landing pages of some major corporations and other business entities, and you’ll see particular words and phrases dispersed and repeated through the text so awkwardly that the finished product barely qualifies as English.
Here’s an excerpt from a famous American hotel’s landing page. Discretion forced me to substitute the name of another city for the hotel’s actual city, which will make it .002% more difficult for you to figure out what hotel the passage refers to:
Your Ultimate Cincinnati Experience Begins At Our Cincinnati Hotel Resort.
Elevate your experience at the (5-word phrase describing the hotel). See all the changes that make our Cincinnati hotel new – up down and all around. The best value on the Cincinnati Strip, the (5-word phrase describing the hotel) offers affordable dining, spacious hotel accommodations, exciting Cincinnati hotel casino games, headline entertainment and some of the best thrill rides in the world, all in a central location. Boasting the tallest freestanding observation tower in the United States west of the Mississippi, this iconic Cincinnati hotel is recognizable all over the world. Visit the indoor and outdoor observation decks in the (5-word phrase describing the hotel) to see why our panoramic view of Cincinnati was voted the Best of Cincinnati for 2010 and 2011 by the Cincinnati Review-Journal. Dine in the city’s only revolving restaurant, Top of the World, offering 360 degree views of Cincinnati. Grab a drink at one of our many lively bars. Take advantage of our exceptional Cincinnati hotel deals and relax in our spacious rooms.
Wait, where are you located? And what type of establishment is it again? Thanks, I wasn’t sure. The accompanying photos of the hotel and the iconic skyline it inhabits weren’t giving me a clue either.
No one has ever read that preceding dreadful paragraph in its entirety, possibly not even the person who wrote it, ran it through an SEO program and then posted it.
The worst part is that the people responsible know that SEO “copywriting” results in non-syntactical gibberish, yet don’t care.
SEO devotees got trapped in the minutiae and lost sight of the ultimate objective: getting people to buy. Everything else is secondary, including intermediate and tertiary goals such as moving up in Google rankings.
It’s as if you were to make it your life’s work to keep your car’s license plate as legible as possible. You shampoo it daily, then buffer it with the most reflective wax you can buy, letting the plate serve as a gleaming reminder to the vehicle behind you of who you are and what state you live in. Meanwhile, you never bother to change the oil, check the tire pressure, fix the shattered windshield, or even confirm that you filled the tank and inserted your key in the ignition.
SEO not only shouldn’t be an end in itself, it runs counter to the more basic goal of getting people to hear what you have to say. The above paragraph could have read something like this:
The best value on the Strip boasts affordable dining, enormous rooms, casino games, spectacular entertainment and world-famous thrill rides, capped by the highest observation tower west of the Mississippi. Stand behind the glass, brave the elements, or even enjoy a gourmet meal, 1,149 feet above the ground.
It’s not Shakespeare, nor even Dickens, but it gets the point across. More importantly, it would get read. Perhaps not by Google crawlers, but by eyes connected to heads (and indirectly to wallets.)
If you’re writing for Google crawlers, or anything other than humans, the battle is already lost. Otherwise, who are you writing for? Literally no one. For people who preach SEO as a moral imperative, verbal resonance doesn’t matter as much as strategic keyword placement.
Oh, isn’t Greg being cute and naive. His right-dominant brain thinks that cold science is sullying his precious art.
No. SEO isn’t a hard discipline like chemistry or physics. It’s an attempt to codify a metric that has only a tangential relationship (and occasionally an adversarial one) with the more important one of attracting customers. You remember customers, right? The people who buy your products?
Telling a talented writer to write for SEO is the equivalent of someone having told Mozart, “Those concertos of yours are okay, but you should include at least one diminished seventh chord and a couple of appoggiaturas every ten measures.”
There are even better arguments for the death of SEO, one of which is an insurmountable little mathematical problem. Just as not all children can be above average, not all sites can be optimized. If they could be, then your definition of optimization is wrong. If every blogger in your field intersperses the same select words and phrases throughout her copy, the result is nothing. You can’t have everyone move up in the rankings. If you have 100 competing sites, and they all adopt the latest SEO practices, what remains are … 100 competing sites. When every blogger spends less time creating content and more time trying to please algorithms, the result is that no one benefits and readers now have a more difficult time sifting through everything. It’s the Tragedy of the Common Nouns.
And another thing. No one mentions that every time you Google something, the initial page grossly overstates the number of results. People see an intimidating 7- or 8-digit monstrosity that’s supposed to represent how many instances of the relevant phrase exist online, and then those people panic. For instance, entering “control your cash” (with quotes) ostensibly returns 8,410,000 results. (Fortunately, the top six that appear in the screen capture all happen to reference my site.)
Of course, I indeed searched for that phrase when I was thinking of names for my site. At that time, had I wanted to, I could have thought, “Oh my Lord. Even if I somehow add enough keywords in my copy that I reach the 99th percentile, there will still be 84,100 results ahead of me. Google displays them ten to a page, so unless a searcher is willing to press the arrow labeled “Next” at the bottom of the page 8,410 times, no one will ever see me.”
Try pressing that “Next” arrow anyway and see what happens. Go ahead, I’ll wait and meet you back here 8,410 clicks from now.
“Control your cash” doesn’t return 8,410,000 usable results. It returns 479 unique results. And that’s for a fairly generic phrase. If you want people to search for something more specific, such as (“heating ventilation and air conditioning” + “Fremantle” + “open Sundays”), you don’t need to season your pages with endless repetition of the same words. You just need to exist and be a little self-aware.
Writing is still the fundamental form of communication among literate people, last I checked. And those same literate people expect other literate people to speak to them as clearly and concisely as possible. That sound you heard was Strunk and White emerging from their graves, bloodied but undead, ready to tap a bony finger on anyone who thinks that doing the opposite of writing something compelling is going to boost business.
Greg McFarlane is an advertising copywriter who lives in Las Vegas. He recently wrote Control Your Cash: Making Money Make Sense, a financial primer for people in their 20s and 30s who know nothing about money. You can buy the book here (physical) or here (Kindle) and reach Greg at [email protected].