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SEO: why content must be readable, not just findable

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Have you ever seen ITV’s dramatisations of the Hornblower stories? Even if you’re not a sucker for tales of naval derring-do, these yarns are exceptionally well told and filmed. And if you do like your quarterdecks bloody, your victuals salty and your Frenchmen insolent, then these are certainly the tales for you.

That’s the view I arrived at the other evening, after watching the first of the series on ITV’s website. I was so impressed that I breezed into my local library and set about searching for copies of the original novels by C.S. Forester.

Now, before I get started, I’d better point out that I’m new to the area. I’m not used to the quirks and foibles of this particular library. And I only had 15 minutes to spare.

But if I came away with one thing – and it certainly wasn’t a book – it was a reminder of how far electronic search has come over the last decade.

Remember how search used to be?
Maybe it’s because I was pushed for time, or possibly because I’d spent five or six minutes reading the spines of dreadful large-print romance titles as I waited for the catalogue terminal to boot up, but I somehow lost focus. Some wiring in my brain went awry and I got E.M. Forster and C.S. Forester jumbled up into a single entity. I ran a search for titles by C.S. Forster who – if ever he existed – didn’t publish any books that were subsequently acquired by Essex Libraries.  

It struck me that, if I’d made the same mistake on Google, I’d still have found what I was looking for. Not only would fuzzy logic have turned up plenty of pages about C.S. Forester, but I’d also find material by people across the world who had made the same idiotic typing mistake as me. (And sure enough, tapping ‘cs forster’ into Google takes you straight to Barnes & Noble’s website. It’s nice to know I’m not alone).

Anyway, I backtracked and typed in ‘Hornblower’. I got plenty of results then, but every time I clicked on one I discovered the book in question was kept at Harlow. So I decided to look at the Dewey numbers for the series, so I could use them find the right shelves. They weren’t listed. In despair, I noted the books were shelved under ‘Adventure’, and hunted out the relevant section. No Hornblower.

I gave up. I’ll get them second hand from Abebooks.co.uk instead.

Making the readable findable
I don’t think anyone would deny that well-known, good quality content is easy to find via a search engine. And that’s lucky for us, because we tend to find a search engine we like and then stick to it (don’t believe me? Just type in “search engine loyalty” into Google, Yahoo, Bing or whichever rival you prefer).

Relying on a single search method isn’t new, of course. I remember sitting in a university lecture about 15 years ago, delivered by the brilliant Scottish poet Robert Crawford (I say brilliant because, before he’d ever set eyes on me, he wrote on one of my class tests that I had “the makings of a clear, sharp writer.” I don’t need much praise to get me through two decades, no matter how wrong he might actually have been).

Anyway, to cut to the chase, Dr Crawford asked how many of the 200 or so first-year students who were in the room had actually used the library’s page catalogue. Mine was one of about three hands that went up.

I’ll give you a bit of context. The University Library was, comparatively speaking, very well stocked. Between 1710 and 1836 it had been a copyright library, meaning its holdings of antiquarian books was enormous. However, the electronic catalogue only indexed books published after about 1972 (I forget the exact date). Anything earlier than that could be found only in the vast bound indexes, into which were pasted handwritten and typewritten entries – in very many cases, a joy to read themselves.

So what?
Amazingly, there is a point to all this. The people who relied on the electronic indexes could easily find books that were of excellent quality. But unless they used the paper catalogues, they would only ever unearth a small proportion of the material that was relevant to their search.

You get the same problem when you rely on only one search engine. You are at the mercy of the way that search facility operates, and what it deems worthy of giving prominence. It’s not usually a problem when it comes to the mainstream stuff – you’ll always find your Hornblower – but there’s bound to be a wealth of quality content that you’re simply never going to find.

And the big change is?
If you don’t find a book in a library catalogue, it doesn’t change the quality of that book. But, for the first time I can think of, an indexing system itself can have a detrimental effect on content.

Think about it. Imagine if C.S. Forester were a young writer today, and he was trying to publish tales of maritime daring on the web, he’d be sorely tempted to tamper with his text to get better search engine rankings.

Say, for example, he’d just penned this phrase (it’s spoken by Napoleon in ‘Hornblower During a Crisis’):

Death is nothing, but to live defeated and without glory is to die every day.

He’d probably get out his red marker and start adding in a few words that would appeal to his intended audience of naval and maritime history enthusiasts and memorabilia collectors. After a sprinking of targeted keywords it could end up looking like this:

“Death is nothing,” said Napoleon Bonaparte, surrounded by men in naval uniforms that would later count among some of the most collectable naval memorabilia available to enthusiasts of the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars. “But,” he continued as the sun glinted off the uniform buttons, naval medals and 18th-century cutlasses of his sailors, “to live defeated and without glory is to die every day.”

And there’s the rub. Lots more people would find the content, but far fewer of them would want to read it. Partly because the quality of the writing was shoddier, but also because it was starting to read like so many other things out there on the web. And if your content is dull and reads exactly like the competition’s, you’re not got to get the best results from your visitors – no matter how easily they find you.

So how do I make content readable as well as findable?

I’m all for compromise. Search engines need to find your stuff. That’s why I’ve put SEO in this title – I know it’ll pick up the right sort of visitors.

But in my next post, I’m going to take you through some of the SEO tricks that have shaped people’s content to the extent that they are now very, very boring. And I’ll be starting with:

10 REASONS WHY TOP 10 LISTS ARE A TURN-OFF

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