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:

jack and jiilll.JPG

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:

things have changed

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


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


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


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


It breaks my heart that Huck Finn gets a yellow.


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


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


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


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.


The Eleventh Minute

Perhaps if we take  a moment to remember that today is Veterans-Armistice-Remembrance Day and that at eleven past eleven this morning, 1918 The War to End All Wars ended; and then take another moment to read Siegfried  Sassoon’s poem – written in the trenches – we could begin to start not needing to make new veterans.

HAVE you forgotten yet? …
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow

Like clouds in the lit heavens of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same — and War’s a bloody game. …
Have you forgotten yet? …
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz–
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets.
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench–
And dawn coming, dirty-white and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-grey
Mask of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet?
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

A Letter to Gettysburg …

Dear Judge Harvey:

Unlike certain other visitors to your town, I know when to give up.

Gettysburg Hotel Interior and Exterior PhotosI paid for my parking space for the date in question, as the enclosed receipt clearly shows. I was in town so my son could visit Gettysburg College, we stayed at the Gettysburg Hotel. I paid for parking late in the evening, the ticket says it was good for 24 hours, I retrieved the car just over 12 hours after parking, I never moved it during the night.

I returned the original ticket with an explanation and the original receipt to your parking authority. A few weeks later I received a summons. Believing (forlornly hoping is more accurate) that everything crossed in the mail, I ignored the summons.

I received a second summons earlier this week. I note that to plead not guilty will cost me $58.00 and I would be required at some point to drive the five and one half hours down to Gettysburg to appear in your court and pleasantly point all this out in person.

While I love Gettysburg and would really love to have someone acknowledge that fact that I Landscapedid indeed do exactly what the hotel told me to do in paying for parking and “whatever you do, don’t move the car before you leave” that’s too much of a time commitment to save $12.00.

I am not pleading guilty, because (a) it’s over a $10 parking ticket; (b) I’m not. However, while I feel I have been ‘Dan Sicklesed’, I’m sure my $70.64 would do some good for a great town, so please accept my payment.

Best Regards

The Bert Bell Bowl and the VP Debate

instant-replay-green-bay-diary-jerry-kramer-hardcover-cover-art-1One of the seminal books of my child hood – right up to 1971 and Ball Four– was Jerry Kramer’s Instant Replay. Jerry Kramer was an all-star guard on the great Green Bay Packer teams of the ’60’s. On the many occasions that golden-boy Paul Hornung was injured or suspended for gambling, Kramer also kicked field goals.

Kramer played every season of Vince Lombardi’s run with the Packers. He wrote Instant Replay in 1968, it ends with the Ice Bowl game against Dallas, Kramer’s the guy who made the block that allowed Bart Starr score the winning touchdown with 16 seconds left, the wind chill at the time was -56.

Kramer’s description of the Ice Bowl is riveting … well, especially to a pre-teen who got to see maybe one NFL game every other week before the playoffs. What really struck me about the book though, was Kramer’s description of life in the game. He didn’t hold back – for a mainstream book in 1968, I suppose – in describing his injuries, some really gruesome, or Lombardi’s brand of intensity and sometimes nastiness, though even then, I realized it was the kind of nastiness a coach can get away with when the iplayer knows the guy really cares about him.

Kramer didn’t flinch from the brutality of the game, this might account for the fact he’s the only member of the NFL’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team not in the Hall of Fame. He also didn’t hold back from describing some of the more ridiculous aspects of the NFL.

One such inanity was the Playoff Bowl. Between 1961 through 1970 the division championship game losers met in the Orange Bowl to decide who would finish 3rd.The game was, unsurprisingly, loathed by the players – except when they got to play the perennial runner-up Dallas Cowboys, they were that hated by the rest of the league.

The game really didn’t have an official name, Third Place Bowl was too depressing, Playoff Bowl wasn’t used because, logically enough, the teams playing it were, in fact, already out of the playoffs. Some referred to it as the Bert Bell Bowl, after the former commissioner of the NFL. Lombardi called it the Shit Bowl.

playoffbowl-e1450633792223Kramer didn’t skimp on describing one of the Packers two ventures into the Shit Bowl. He skipped their win in 1963 but vividly described their loss to the St. Louis Cardinals (ask your grandfather) in 1964. Well, vivid to a ten-year old – Kramer described the huddle as reeking with stale alcohol and staler vomit.  Players were either hung over or still somewhat drunk, no one cared, least of all Lombardi who just wanted out of Miami (he said it was a “hinky­dink football game, held in a hinky­dink town, played by hinky­dink players.”)

Naturally, I thought of the Kramer and his description of the Shit Bowl when my youngest asked me if I was going to watch the Vice Presidential Debate. I don’t know if I ever saw a Playoff Bowl game, but I did see the Bentsen-Quayle ‘debate’ and experienced the Jack Kennedy moment first hand. I was in a bar in Manhattan after rugby practice, the place erupted. And that was it. Everyone remembers that 20 seconds and nothing else. The exchange effected the election as much as the Playoff Bowl effected the NFL Championship game – not at all.

images-1The Playoff Bowl occurred in what’s considered almost the primitive days of the NFL. The Bentsen-Quayle debate occured in the primitive days of cable TV news. The news wasn’t really a 24/7 thing then, many people first read about the debate in newspapers.

Mostly, though, no one had been subjected to weeks of appearances by campaign ‘surrogates’ on news shows hour after hour after hour to regurgitate and spin and regurgitate the spin for their bosses.

The VP debate isn’t a debate between two governors, it’s a debate between two more surrogates. We have as much chance hearing something different, or hearing their own opinions on anything, as the winner of the Playoff Bowl did being invited to play the NFL champs.

And, barring an otherwise memorable but ultimately impotent soundbite, VP Debate’s share the fate of the ten years of Playoff Bowl games – the NFL erased them from history years ago. That’s right, according to the NFL, they never happened. The outcomes, stats, everything, no longer officially exist.

So instead of wasting ninety minutes of my life with Hillary/Trump stand-ins I’m going to catch dial up a movie from the late ’60s. Maybe something with a Dandy Don Meredith cameo.


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.