Gaming the algorithm
(Image: Unsplash/ Federica Galli)

My first proper, paid job was in a form of writing I’d consider somewhat a bastardisation of writing itself.

I’m talking about search engine optimisation, or SEO, writing. It’s writing that walks the tricksy line between sentences humans like and sentences Google’s algorithm likes.

Anything designed by humans will (perhaps inevitably) be gamed by humans, and the Google algorithm is no exception. To appear first in the suggested results for, say, “cheap haircut Melbourne” is prime real estate — over 75% of people don’t click to page two of Google results for any search they enter. Each subsequent page is visited by fewer and fewer people, and then by the time you get to page five or six, pretty much no one’s looking at all. On the World Wide Web, it’s easy to be rendered invisible by sheer magnitude of alternatives.

It didn’t take long after the advent of the internet for arms races to erupt for dominance in the results of popular searches on Google. The Google algorithm ranks websites on, amongst other factors, “relevance” to users’ initial search terms, so marketers and SEO specialists worked to inject “relevance” artificially into the text of their clients’ websites.

For a robot, even one as sophisticated as Google’s, the metric of “relevance” is largely constructed numerically. If you Google the word “helicopter” then a website where the word helicopter appears 0 times is irrelevant, and a website where it appears 50 times is much more relevant.

The daily nuts and bolts of my first office job were reverse engineered from that metric. I’d come into work with my $1 coffee from 7-Eleven, sit down and write a website for a florist in Richmond, ensuring each page was full of the words “florist Richmond” so that when someone googled “florist Richmond”, this florist in Richmond appeared higher up than any other florists in Richmond.

It was a steep learning curve. Growing up as a bookish kid I had internalised the specialness of words; their magic properties. But now this job (and the internet generally) demanded I acknowledge an additional, mercenary purpose for the units of language. Online, sentences take on a dual function precisely because the internet is one big database — navigated through the function of search.

Sentences are not simply sentences, no. They become vehicles for keywords, so that people might find, load and read the sentence itself. Keywords occur actively, in the case of optimisation, and passively, in the case of everything else. When you upload words, any words, you consent for the net to alchemise them into keywords.

You may not personally care if Google likes your prose, your tweets, your digital chapbook, your Medium rant, your dormant LiveJournal, your piece for Wheeler Centre Notes; but care or not, Google still has its opinion on your work.

When I started this job I was a screenwriting student (a form where concision is particularly important), and was soon alarmed to see how elastic my sentences could be to hit my keyword quotas; how the length between capital-letter start and full-stop end could accommodate two, three, four keyword phrases at a time, on and on to occupy a paragraph unto itself, brevity to be avoided, not embraced, with the aid from commas, semicolons, parentheses and — lazily — hyphens in place of em dashes.

I was even more alarmed when I noticed such sentence elasticity seeping into my scripts, articles, prose.

If you do it 9–5, five days a week, SEO writing retrains your brain to see sentences as vehicles — rather than simply units of expression. And once sentences become vehicles they easily become clown cars, stretching the confines of capacity with an impossibly large number of somersaulting keyword jesters; run-on sentences runneth over.

Maybe this piece reads as an indictment of the form that paid my rent and fed my stomach for years. But it’s not. What’s the alternative; to be unseen, unread? The only border separating writing from journalling is a reader outside yourself. Journalling is not without therapeutic benefit, of course. But also (and this is a question I ask myself every time I sit down to write) — who cares?

If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a noise? Or, more pointedly, if you write the most beautiful prose in known history, but no one reads it — who cares?

You can write something in the best way it can be written, or in the way it’ll get seen by the most people. These two things never align fully, and almost all writing that hasn’t been lost to history (or page 76 of Google) relies on a compromise of the two.

A conversation between creativity and commerce defines all art, but it might be more apt to call this a conversation between creativity and visibility — and this is a conversation amplified on the database we call the internet.

Even without a commercial stake in whether your words are read or not, we all write to be seen, don’t we?

This is what I mean when I say SEO writing is a bastardisation of writing. It’s an overt compromise between writing and marketing. My first proper paid job taught me to accept the marketing inherent within all writing, and the compromise. Even if I still have trouble with full stops.

Rather than be paralysed by complete devotion to the idea of writing to perfection, I concede, in small ways, that writing must be found in order to exist. I push on, I compromise, I finish. I upload. Maybe there is writing that isn’t marketing itself, in one way or another.

But I sure haven’t read it.

This article was first published in “Full”, an edition of Notes from The Wheeler Centre.