Charlie Sheen, Lady Gaga & the quest for search engine optimization

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Forgive me — Charlie Sheen, and Lady Gaga, too — if this blog makes no sense.

It’s not supposed to. (Do Charlie Sheen and Lady Gaga always make sense themselves?).  You see, I’m selling out. Forgetting that blogging is for fun, a chance to think things through or to share stories. From now on,  I’m in it for the search engine optimization game.

Actually, until last night, I by choice knew next to nothing about search engine optimization. But next week, I’m doing some writing coaching at a major university near here.  And so I’ve started reading about it.

A web editor there wants to talk to me about search engine optimization. My first thought was, but I’m a writing coach. My next: I guess I’d better do more than nod if I want to get paid.

And so, I’m reading and reaching out.  I’m curious — Charlie Sheen and Lady Gaga. What do you think?  What does Hollywood think?  What does Sarah Palin think?  (Since I’m in California and he has been back in the news again lately, I guess I should add, what does Arnold Schwarzenegger think?)

In case you, like me, have lived under the illusion that news is about good stories and compelling information, it probably helps to read this definition of search engine optimization,  compliments of the Poynter Institute web site:

A suite of techniques for improving how a website ranks on search engines such as Google. SEO is often divided into “white hat” techniques, which (to simplify) try to boost ranking by improving the quality of a website, and “black hat” techniques, which try to trick search engines into thinking a page is of higher quality than it actually is.

I’m into trickery myself (black hats look way cooler than white). One semi-legitimate trick apparently, which would take lots of help from friends, is to get others to link to a story — for example, one talking about the shady financial practices of a political candidate you oppose.

Another is to sprinkle a story’s headline, lead and key words with whatever topic is hot. I think Charlie Sheen and Lady Gaga would agree.

In truth, I’m still pretty clueless.  But I have read enough to know that, as is my norm, I’m about three years behind the curve. Here, nonetheless, is the gist of what I’ve gleaned so far.

Some of this search engine mumbo-jumbo makes journalistic sense.  Good headlines always have built off key words. It becomes that much more important when a local paper’s headline might be read across the world.

Someone, for example, writing a headline for the recent Joplin, Mo., tornado wouldn’t get many online readers with a headline like this: ‘Nothing’s left but the tree stumps.’

Sure, it’s catchy. But unless you’re in Joplin, you’d have little idea what the headline writer is referring to.  So it does help to keep your reader in mind.

I’m guessing (as I’m sure  Charlie Sheen and Lady Gaga do on occasion as well) that all those whirring formulas out there in the world of cyberspace probably would give better play to the headline if it had keywords such as “Joplin tornado” or “Killer tornado” and “Joplin” (as in :”Killer tornado cuts 6-mile swath through Joplin, Mo.”)

In other words, some aspects of SEO (I love acronyms no one understands .. don’t you, Charlie Sheen and Lady Gaga?)  don’t compromise good journalism, even if they make it a tad duller.  They simply assure that stories with clear, direct headlines built off a story’s key words will get picked up by search engines more easily and placed more prominently on sites that aggregate news.

That’s important, not only for news organizations, but for bloggers, educational institutions, businesses, and anyone else who hopes to get a message out, who wants to record more “eyeballs” on stories and — just maybe — influence minds as well as draw ads.

The bigger problem comes when people — Charlie Sheen or Lady Gaga, for example — decide they are going to game the system by stuffing in hot words or phrases just for the sake of improving story ranking.  Now I teach ethics. So I want to assure Charlie Sheen, Lady Gaga and anyone else that I wouldn’t do anything like that. Still, in the name of science, it might make an interesting experiment.

Did I mention to you that I’m thinking of going shark fishing this summer? I hope to see a killer shark, like the one in Jaws and JawsII, but only when Charlie Sheen and Lady Gaga are safely out of the water.

Gee. I wonder if this will be my most clicked post ever. … Sigh.

One more thought.  Twitter, which I said no thanks to last month, is starting to look more attractive to me. It’s based on the notion that people instead of robots will spread news around the world. Though I don’t personally want to spend hours on Twitter either, I’m sort of glad for newsies that it’s become other people’s obsession.

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About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at www.jerrylanson.com. My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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