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Writing for the Machine: Hysteria among journalists

Writing with search engines in mind should not be daunting for journalists and other writers. Here, we will examine writing news story headlines with SEO in mind.

Last year, The New York Times published an article called "This Boring Headline Is Written for Google," which focused on the effect search engines are having on journalistic writing. The primary focus was on the negative impact of "writing for machines" and the corresponding loss of creativity such an endeavor entails.

What always amazes me is the fear and anger that many writers express about writing with search engines in mind. Just in using the phrase "writing for machines" they create among themselves a rather Orwellian hysteria, but it is only just that: hysterics. Why? Because it simply isn't true, symbolically or factually. Search engines--and especially Google--are designed to examine text published on the Internet and simply return accurate results when a human user plugs in words on the other end. To that end, there is no writing for machines, there is only writing for other human beings.

What has been affected is twofold. First, the writer must want to be found, or at least must be paid, in part, to be found. Most newspapers, which make money in part from online advertising, encourage this. Second, in response to this need, the accuracy of writing and the logistics of words must be taken into consideration more than in the past. These attributes aren't for the proverbial "machine," however, but specifically for the end user, the searcher.

Thus, creativity is not challenged at all. Rather, the creativity simply needs to shift with the new paradigm. Let's take writing a news story headline as an example. One headline in a recent edition of The New York Times is "Tangoing Cheek to Cheek for 3 Minutes in the Park." The story is about dancers hooking up in Central Park to tango and otherwise skip and hop together. The title above is fun and creative. It may not be fully optimized for search engines, but in fact, it's not far off.

What could be done to improve this headline for search engine users without obliterating its creative edge? It's a matter of including focused, common-sense wording without replacing colorfulness or colloquialisms. The term "cheek to cheek" is fun and describes dancing in a way that might not reflect how a user would employ a search engine. But that doesn't mean it has to go away. The other half of the headline, "for 3 minutes" is also colorful, but has less to do with the story. Little of the article focuses on the length of the dances, but instead the positive attributes of the dancing that goes on among the middle-aged in Central Park. Calling Central Park "the Park" adds ambiguity for humans and spiders alike, so call it "Central Park" instead.

A search-friendly headline can often incorporate search-savvy words within a creative headline by halving the headline into two distinct yet complementary parts. For example, our headline here could become "Dancing the Tango in Central Park, Cheek to Cheek." What have we lost? The time reference, which isn't core to the story anyway. What have we gained? Descriptive and focused search terms in the form of "Central Park" and "dancing" and "tango" (which is more popular with searchers than "tangoing"). And, I would argue, we have not lost any of the creativity or local color of the original headline.

This is just one example, but the core philosophy here is for journalists to let go of their search engine "machine" fears and simply embrace accuracy; writing search-friendly content is not to consider "the machine," but rather to consider the same humans they otherwise write for. Reaching them is the only difference, and through search engines, writers have both a larger and more focused audience to reach. Why on earth do they complain? Hey journalists, these search engines are actually good for you!