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

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

alice

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

dickens

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

huckfinn

It breaks my heart that Huck Finn gets a yellow.

king

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

yeats

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

mobydick

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

pynchon

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.

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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.