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 Chandler 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.


A Mayan Apocalypse Playlist

end of the worldIn breathless anticipation of the Mayan Apocalypse Friday (I know, I know, but why let facts get in the way of fun) I thought I would perform a much needed public duty of sorts in offering an end of the world playlist . . . a handful of songs both apropos and, well, hell, catchy with which to watch the Rough Beast slouch in. . .  so, if you’re not on your way to the Mayan city of Tikal for a first hand view fire up the iPod and sing along as the Pale Horse arrives . . .

This is the Day, by The The:  The lyrics say it all and you have to love a punk/progressive/alternative rock group with an accordion lead:

The calendar, on your wall, is ticking the days off . . .

THIS IS THE DAY — Your life will surely change.

Mad World, Gary Jules(remake of a Tears for Fears song) Great tone for the apocalypse, great end of it all mood . . .

No tomorrow, no tomorrow
And I find it kinda funny
I find it kinda sad
The dreams in which I’m dying
Are the best I’ve ever had

Crazy,  Seal This is included more as a survival guide on the off chance the Mayan Apocalypse isn’t all that efficient .

. .Miracles will happen as we trip

But we’re never gonna survive unless

We get a little crazy
No we’re never gonna survive unless
We are a little
Crazy crazy crazy
 Oh baby, oh baby
Then it fell apart, it fell apart
Oh baby, oh baby
Then it fell apart, it fell apart
Oh baby, oh baby
Then it fell apart, it fell apart
…Like it always does, always does
– Kinda says it all
 Obvious, but must be included, Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door – a million versions to pick from, though I find Warren Zevron’s one of the best and certainly the most poignant, and REM’s It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I feel Fine) – although if any of us are left on 12/22, REM’s Losing My Religion may be more apropos.
Back to the less obvious:
Come On Up to the House, Tom Waits This is, actually, too perfect:
Well the moon is broken
And the sky is cracked
Come on up to the house . . .
Under the Milkyway, The Church, for a cosmic approach; Chris Isaak’s Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing, for those looking to place blame and guilt  (um, all of us?); OMC’s How Bizarre as a general comment on the day, week, month, year, decade, century(s)(?); Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows,  
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows 
On to a slightly more upbeat song with Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky, Another Bob Dylan song provides the perfect state of mind while we’re watching mountains spinning off into space:

. . . People are crazy
and times are strange,
I’m locked in tight,
I’m out of range,
I used to care,
Depending how things go down – the Mayans have been frustratingly mute on the means of destruction – Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising may well work:
Can’t see nothin’ in front of me
Can’t see nothin’ coming up behind
I make my way through this darkness
I can’t feel nothing but this chain that binds me
Lost track of how far I’ve gone
How far I’ve gone, how high I’ve climbed
For pure literalness there’s Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes Man on Fire; for a touch of philosophy Johnny Cash singing Springsteen’s Further On Up On the Road . . .; for a touch of hope as the four Horsemen swing by – Leonard Cohen’s Waiting for a Miracle.
Come to think of it, when we’re all here Saturday, how about a solemn chorus of Cohen’s Hallelujah (Rufus Wainwright version?)
Enjoy the day, talk to you Saturday – the best thing about being a naysayer is if I’m wrong, no one will ever know.  But I’m not, we’ve got a way to go before we fulfill William Blake’s vision (below).  The music will still be there as well.