This Week in SEO (and the real world)

I promise this has some relevance to the rest of the piece, though I won’t vouch for exactly how much. Way back in 1976, Dustin Hoffman prepared for his iconic “is it safe” scene in Marathon Man with Laurence Olivier by staying up for 72 hours. Apparently, Hoffman looked like hell on the set – unshaven, shaky, dozing off – so much so that Sir Laurence not only noticed, he felt compelled to ask Dustin what was up.

015-marathon-man-theredlistHoffman explained his theory of method acting to one of the greatest actors who ever lived. Who listened politely, nodded, paused for a moment, and said, “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”

Which brings me to my topic.

So, this happened over the last ten days. I got an email from a client asking for some help with ‘new pages’ for her web site. The people running her site suddenly saw a desperate need to ‘optimize’ a separate page for each of her services. They sent along nine pages of SEO ‘gold’ to drive her to the top of the search rankings.

The only problem was that the content was unreadable. Seriously. It completely belied the intelligence, wit, and fun easily found across her social media. She knew it, asked me to edit the pages. I did, it wasn’t fun, it was like trying to breath life into a Cuisinart manual.

But, we got it done, returned it … and the web people tore it back down into some tidy, nonsensical key words with a few adjectives and un-associated verbs tossed here and there to give the appearance of recognizable speech.   Or, so I’m told, I was spared the sight of it – my client fired the web people.

I barely had time to launch into my well practiced, “I get this SEO thing, I really do … but I also know that every lawyer’s web person is using the same SEO strategies  … which really means using the same words, over and over again .. and even if you magically soar to the top of the charts, crappy writing inspires no one and …. (it gets worse)” rant when a client texted.

Actually, he texted about four times while I was finishing a run on the side of a text-free mountain. “Where are you, man?” was the last one. I was reading it when the phone rang. ‘Ah,’ I thought, ‘my first blogging emergency.’

It was no emergency, but it was urgent. A very well known reporter for the Washington Post had just left a message for him – turns out she had been following him on Facebook since February.  She wanted to talk, he wanted to run a few things by me first.

We talked, I drove home, he called me back a hour later – long story short, she’d like to check in with him on stories, he can call her with things he thinks may be newsworthy.  I told him, we’ll find something. Soon.

The thing is, my client’s Facebook page – with blog postings, of course, and quick videos – is a non-SEO glimpse into the soul of his firm. Really. Everything we post is a mini-story. Articles with captions that mean something. Put them all together over a few months and they tell a bigger story. That’s something that SEO can’t do.

So, to the SEO folks: “My dear boy, why don’t you just try writing?”

Which brings me to part two. The writing. People out there in Internet-land are using ‘readability’ scales to produce web content that will produce … well, whatever it is they think will happen through the magic of Google’s algorithms.

I briefly (very briefly) had a client last year who demanded that I conform to the Yoast (I think it was Yoast, I have tried to sear the experience from my mind) SEO Readability scale.

The readability scale is just what it sounds like – you type, it rates the content and, supposedly, tells you when it’s readable. It looks like this:

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This is it evaluating Jack and Jill. As in ‘Jack and Jill go up the hill.’ Mother Goose doesn’t quite make it, she gets a yellow light. Which is somewhat frightening, if you think about it.

No matter what I did, no matter what style I adapted, no matter how much I dumbed down content, no matter how simple I wrote, I could not get a green light. Which the client insisted on.

I thought it was stupid and knew I couldn’t be anyway nearly as creative as I’m supposed to be while worrying about a readability and a SEO green light on a single post.

So, I gracefully resigned. But, the damned readability thing kept bothering me. I’m not only confident that I write well, I’m confident that I write well in a variety of styles. I’ve won a Bob Dylan songwriting contest (“Cut myself shaving last night, there wasn’t any toilet paper in sight, gave me quite a fright…..”); an ‘imitate Hemingway ‘competition (Yes. I know. It’s easy in all the right places); have nailed Raymond Carver in a legal brief; can do stream of consciousness unconsciously.

But, I couldn’t pull down the coveted Yoast Readibilty Green Light.

Which got me thinking, ‘Who could?’

Who indeed? I went back to the damnable rating system and began to check out some of my favorite authors … of all time. Here’s how they did:

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Our newest Nobel Laureate flunks. Bob Dylan has all kinds of problems.

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Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises … not so great. Apparently.

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Somehow Alice in Wonderland getting a red light fits, at least down the rabbit hole.

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Charles Dickens, with one of the worst ratings. (Tale of Two Cities).

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It breaks my heart that Huck Finn gets a yellow.

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Is it me or does Stephen King’s red light seem redder than the others?

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William Butler Yeats gets very close to scoring the terrible beauty of green.

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Yoast treats Moby Dick the same way readers in the 1850’s did.

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Whoa, a green light! Who scored it? Thomas Pynchon, the famously dense, complex novelist who frequently invents words. I used a couple of paragraphs from Gravity’s Rainbow. That is well-known as the book with the greatest opening line (A screaming comes across the sky) that no one has finished.

My spiel about optimizing content and programs rating the readability of pieces ends with the revelation that the writer Yoast thinks is the easiest to read is in fact the densest living writer in print.

I can only hope that the technology for self-driving cars is a whole lot better than this crap. ‘Cause that could get really messy.

No, Virginia, There’s No Such Thing as President’s Day

washYup, there’s no such holiday as President’s Day – at least officially. It’s just Congress’ way of making Washington’s birthday fit a three day weekend.(Really – see Section 6103(a) of Title 5 of the United States Code).

Washington’s birthday was a major holiday in the U.S. long before the Civil War, it was formalized as a Federal holiday in the 1880’s, it took an act of Congress in the late 1960’s to muddle the waters.

There was a push to move holidays to the Monday schedule we now enjoy. Given the proximity of Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays, Illinois tried to roll Lincoln’s Birthday into the already celebrated Washington’s Birthday Federal Holiday.

Since this new holiday, giving us all a three day weekend in the middle of February, would celebrate two prominent former presidents, it was naturally enough labeled ‘President’s Day’.

Who would argue with a day devoted to Washington and Lincoln? Well, Virginia in the mid-1960s for one. The late unpleasantness between the States was only a hundred years passe and Virginia didn’t like the idea of a usurper from Illinois sharing the spotlight with its most visible son. Virginia blocked the proposed bill in the House of Representatives in the discussion stage. It never passed.

The third Monday of February was designated Washington’s Birthday, Lincoln’s Birthday remains as it was – a state by state optional holiday. It has never been a Federal holiday.

Interestingly, Presidents since the 1968 Act don’t seem in a hurry to correct those who refer to President’s Day, opting instead to embrace the all inclusive, let’s celebrate all the Presidents Day. As in, it’s a day celebrating all 44 of us (or does Grover Cleveland get to celebrate twice?), because, hey, all President’s are created equal.

It has become the equivalent of ‘every kid gets a trophy’ – except most kids deserve it. Take, for instance:

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Warren G. Harding, he gets a trophy even though he wandered around behind the bench picking daisies while the others played;

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William H. Harrison, he only showed up for two practices and one game, but he wanted to be there;

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John Tyler …. even though after election he was the other team’s most valuable player . . .

Could do this all day…. but that would be a waste of a nice, sunny, Washington’s Birthday . . .

Just In . . .

The Trump campaign announced that hot on the heels of Jerry Falwell’s endorsement in today’s Washington Post (favorably comparing Donald J. Trump with Winston Churchill) comes another major endorsement: Carmine Lupertazzi, Jr.

little-carmine-lupertazzi-1024The DVD movie mogul released a statement this morning reading, in part: “This country is on the precipice of an enormous crossroads . . . we are, as a nation, in a stagmire. We need Donald J. Trump. . . He’s an old-fashioned kind of guy – very allegorical, with a grasp of the sacred and the propane . . . Donald J. Trump will guide our military to previously unheard of heights because he knows, better than most, that a pint of blood is worth more than a gallon of milk. But, if the time comes when military action is needed, Donald will not hesitate because he understands that historically historical changes come about because of war . . .

. . . Trump will be a more effective leader than Clinton, even more so until he is elected but until he is it will be hard to verify that he will be as effective as I am sure he will be.”

Faulkner and Running …

IMG_2389Went for a run this morning in Faulkner country – Oxford, Mississippi, home of Ole Miss. My daughter directed me to a rail trail behind campus … I hit it at 7:45 am, already 83 out with humidity at 70%, no breeze, not a cloud in the sky. Some observations:

  • Mississippi is hot.
  • No matter which way you go on a rail trail run it always looks like it’s uphill. This was no different, I was cursing my daughter all the way out (2.25 miles) while looking forward to the downhill back … only to be struggling going back? A look at MapMyRun a few minutes ago showed a kind of short, sickening, shallow roller coaster pattern that I somehow interpreted as always up … except for:
  • Almost dead center of the trail there’s a quick, nasty, 60 foot drop, then a quick, nasty, 60 foot hill, all over just overIMG_2386 a hundred feet on a straight line – it’s a ravine, there used to be a trestle across the gap but …
  • Dead bottom of the ravine is a historical marker – the Buckner Ravine was spanned by Buckner’s Trestle. Two major train tragedies occurred there – one in 1929 that injured 50 or so Ole Miss Students and professors, and one in 1870 that made national news – 20 dead, 60 injured.
  • This was interesting on the way up, on the way back I realized that I was the third train wreck at that particular spot,
  • I’m used to chipmunks running underfoot every two feet. There were no chipmunks. None. Where are the chipmunks? There ought to be chipmunks. Well, maybe next year.
  • IMG_1010All of this naturally made me think of Oxford’s most famous non-football resident, William Faulkner. It’s a Sunday morning in JUNE and it’s 83 before 8 am – it was 89 when I finished. Not the hint of a breeze, not a hint of a cloud. Back in the day, the rail line ran pretty close to Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s home. Faulkner didn’t believe in air conditioning, he refused to install it. When he died in 1962 his widow put in air conditioning before she put him in the ground. This was a man who embraced misery. Like his characters.
  • For me, this says it all about Faulkner. Forget sitting through Comparative Lit 301; go to Oxford in the summer, walk, run, crawl around town for a few hours, try to sleep with the windows open and ceiling fans twirling, and for God’s sake avoid air conditioning for a day or so, and I guarantee you will learn more about the man and his literature than you will ever learn sitting around talking about him.

 

 

 

Too Long A Sacrifice …

proclamation-irish-republic-1916One hundred years ago today one of the most ill-considered, worse-executed rebellions in history began. Dublin, Easter 1916, while over 35,000 Irishmen were dying fighting for Britain on the Western Front and Gallipoli, a group of Irishmen, some veterans of that fighting, took over the Post Office and other key buildings in Dublin, ostensibly waiting for the populace to rise up and join them.They issued a Proclamation establishing an Irish Republic.

It never happened. There were over 5,000 British troops – many of them Irish – around Dublin at the time, the rebellion lasted six days, over four hundred – mostly civilians – were killed, a swathe of downtown Dublin was blown to pieces by British artillery. The self-styled Irish Volunteers surrendered, were vilified by the people of Dublin who had had no warning of the rebellion.

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Lower Sackville Street, Dublin (1916)

That was that and it probably would have been another short circuited Irish uprising doomed to historic obscurity along with Vinegar Hill and the skirmishes of the ‘Year of the French’ except for what followed. Despite British Prime Minister Asquith’s assertion to the House of Commons that the Irish Volunteers “fought bravely and did not resort to outrage” harsh reprisals followed.

The British arrested 3,430 men and 79 women all across Ireland. One hundred and eighty-seven men and one woman were tried in secret by military tribunals and were not allowed a defense. The British government later found that the trials were illegal. That would come as little comfort to the the leaders of the rebellion, ninety were sentenced to death.

3785171459_c48090d777Sixteen were executed over the course of five days in the first week of May – despite warnings and pleas by the Irishmen in Parliament. With every execution public opinion in Ireland changed. Radically. The execution of the rebellions de facto leader, James Connolly appalled the world – severely wounded, probably with a day or two to live, he was brought to the place of execution on a stretcher and had to be tied to a chair to keep him upright enough to be shot.

World outrage was so great all the other death sentences were commuted to penal servitude. Almost two thousand Irishmen were held in prisons in Scotland and Wales for a year or more without ever being charged with a crime.

In an instant, Great Britain snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Public opinion swung, unrest grew, the British fed into it, Ireland achieved independence a half a dozen years later.

The inept, local, uncoordinated rebellion succeeded in the long run. There’s scores of lessons, from every viewpoint to be learned.

William Butler Yeats was caught as off guard by the Easter Uprising as most of his fellow countrymen. He wrote one of the great poems of the English language a few moths after the executions. It’s beautiful and ambiguous. But, he saw the future, the last line of the poem is A Terrible Beauty is Born. 

“People Like Stories …”

15-oj-people.w529.h352It was finally said. I had been waiting and waiting and finally, eight and a half hours into The People v. OJ Simpson, someone said it. The thing I had been saying for the previous eight weeks, the – to me – one, clear, overriding, theme of the trial.

Something I had gleefully relayed to my clients, over and over again – um, this might be a good time to apologize, so, ah, sorry – was finally said aloud by Chris Darden (a great Sterling K. Brown): “People like stories. It helps them make sense of things.”

It was obvious to me from pretty early on that this trial – one I saw live, day in and day out while I was studying for the Bar exam, but didn’t see this then – was about story telling.

The prosecution had overwhelming evidence – and proceeded accordingly. The defense told stories. The prosecution talked blood trails, and gloves, and science, and more science, and matter-of-factually laid out a building block, evidentiary case. The defense presented a protagonist, several antagonists, colorful side characters, humor, pathos, theories, and fleshed it out with scenes complete with dialogue.

Marcia and Chris presented the jury with a law school casebook, a scientific journal, and a criminal procedure manual. Johnny, Barry, Bob, and the rest of the defense showed them LA Law.

It was never a contest, as Darden finally realized – at a time when the People’s best bet was a mistrial and a ‘do over.’

The storytellers won out – in the criminal trial. The civil trial, which began less than a year later, was handled by a torts attorney, a man used to telling stories. He told a better one that time around.

It really is all about the stories.

Of Datsuns, Central Falls, Ziggy, and the Thin White Duke

Providence Rhode Island, late December, 1975, school’s on break but I’m stuck working  at the Marriott hotel. I’m working the ballrooms, we set up mid-afternoon, keep the bars stocked through a million Christmas parties back in the day when office Christmas parties were parties, tend some bar, bus tables, break down.

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A typical Providence winter day.

It’s s blur, we’re putting in 18 hour days, it’s somewhat offset by the fact it’s the Seventies, the drinking age is 18, the Marriott is very generous with food and left over beer.

One night we finish at 3 am and have to be back by 7:30. A co-worker, Manny, offers to let me crash at his place instead of tramping back to an empty campus.

Providence in the winter is a cold, bleak place. The wind is whipping in off Narragansett Bay, wind chill is around zip, week old dirty crusty snow is scattered around the parking lot, the only light comes from the State House a hundred feet away.

Manny’s driving a 1970 Datsun 240z. The heater’s broken, it’s been through one or three too many Rhode Island winters, salt has eaten through some flooring. The defroster datsun-240-z.jpg.800x600_q85_cropwheezes, barely keeping up with our breaths off the windshield. The drive to Manny’s apartment in Central Falls is miserable in the Germans-in-panzers-outside-Moscow-1942 way.

Manny’s apartment is over a bar because in the one square mile that comprises Central Falls everyone lives over a bar. Three am never stopped a bar in Central Falls from being open, we zip in, grab a fittingly freezing cold Narragansett draft, chug, head up.

Nice, comfortable apartment, the couch is as advertised, as it’s 1975, there’s nothing on TV at 3 am, I’m so overtired the beer’s done nothing, I don’t have a book, even at 18 I’ve been in that state enough times to know I’m not sleeping anytime soon. Not so for Manny, he heads for his bedroom and wife, tells me to help myself to his music collection, the speakers are right by the couch, it might help.

1d2379400bbdf2d7cd96e303614d581aHis stereo is one-piece-has-all, AM/FM, turntable, 8-track player. I opt for an 8-track because 8-tracks never end, they’ll play over and over again forever or until the plastic melts.

I’m exhausted, grab the tape on top of the pile pop it in – nothing ever sounded clunkier or more fragile than an 8-track tape pushed into its player. I settle into the couch, pull up a hefty blanket, the tape does the usual 8-track click, whirl, it’s-fifty-fifty-whether-it-plays-or-eats-the-tape sounds.

There’s a silent pause, a drum, more drum, then … wow. As in something fundamental in the world has just shifted, neck hairs rising, difficultly swallowing, there’s a fuck of a lot more to the universe than Providence, college, work, study, books …

… It was Five Years, the first cut of David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the 1371731616_ZiggyStardust986Gb060612Spiders From Mars. I didn’t fall asleep for a few hours, heard the album through and through until I finally passed out, woke up to it around 7.

First chance I had I got up to Thayer Street and the Brown University bookstore and bought the album. And the new Young Americans. And I never stopped buying and I never stopped listening to an artist who never sat still.

Thanks to David Bowie, there’s a lot more than one damn song that can make me break down and cry.