Back in J School, we were taught ye olde “inverted pyramid” model of news writing. Put the important bits up top and continue downward with decreasing relevance to the bottom. That way, whomever was doing paste-up could trim from the bottom if your piece didn’t fit or wasn’t going to jump.
This was before the web offered us an infinite canvas on which to paint our portraits of humanity, which is ironic since we use so little of it. A couple hundred words is apparently where the human attention span begins to wane. Somebody tested it – a gig so boring, I could only imagine that their attention waned first and they cut the test short to go watch paint dry somewhere.
Between newspaper gigs, I once did a tour of duty at a city-based blog factory that was known both for its systematic degradation of the language and its uncanny ability to build vast readerships on the shallowest of concepts. The relationship between the content makers and the content consumers could be succinctly summed by Ben Kenobi: “Who’s more foolish – the fool or the fool who follows him?”
At the blog, we had a procedure based on appeasing both search engine robots and our readers, who were in search of the diverting snark we mutually pretended was news. All coverage began, not with the question “what’s happening?” but “what’s trending?”
There are a number of ways to gauge this – the most useful being an upstream gander at what the other guys are doing. Of course, there are also online tools for this, but it’s faster to just look at the competition. Then, take one of their leads, reduce it to a “keyword phrase” and paste it into your keyword search tool. This tells you what terms real people are putting into search engines. Because real people seldom type a whole, grammatically correct query into a search, their search strings tend to be jacked: “shoes monkey pinch.”
And those jacked search strings become our headlines – give the people what they’re looking for, literally.
We wrote the headlines first. Then we ginned up a couple hundred words of pith and parody whilst paying attention to “keyword density,” which means we repeated the elements of the search term over and over in the verbiage of the piece (it tells the robots that the piece is truly reflective of the search term), then we break up that crap with some eye candy (provocative imagery does best) and more headlines.
These additional headlines also serve a purpose. On the code side of these pieces, what we used to call “dropheads” are called “H2 tags,” meaning they’re specially coded as secondary headlines to add greater oomph in the eyes of the search engines for relevance. For the H2, we use “related keyword searches” in the off chance we might hit upon another string of randomness that struck a reader’s fancy.
Then, despite the fact that the piece is barely longer than a personal ad, we break it up with a jump to another page. By doing this, we effectively double the amount of impressions the advertising injected all over the page will get, since it’s paid for in units of a thousand impressions, as well as the fabled “click thru.”
It wasn’t really writing. It was a kind of video game with words. Such was the disintegration of my industry, not to mention my career. And I sucked at video games.
This is why I remain eternally grateful to the 140-year-old institution known colloquially as the I-T. They let us write in English while we still can. We can make crossword puzzles for robots later.
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Daedalus Howell is search-engine-optimized at DHowell.com.