Back in the not-so-distant but oh-so-naive days of the internet — you know, pre-Google, pre-social media — writing for the Web was so much simpler.
Back then, a writer wrote for a reader, just as he had for centuries, whether what he wrote was copied in calligraphy by monks or printed with an early Gutenberg press.  For eons, the truest measure of the writer’s skill was in how well he or she was able to retain his or her unique voice while still communicating a message effectively.
Nowadays, there’s a third party in the transaction:  the search engine. Today, when a writer writes for publication — which almost always finds itself on the Web, in one form or another — it’s no longer sufficient to ask, “Did the reader understand what I was trying to communicate?” or “Was my message clear?” or “Was I persuasive?”
Today, the writer must also ask, “Will what I’ve written get picked up by a search engine?”
Unfortunately, search engines and humans don’t read or process information in the same way.  True, the geniuses behind Google and Bing and the next killer search engine are constantly refining and developing their tools.  These engineers and programmers are actively engaged in trying to better understand how humans think, what they are thinking, and how they put those thoughts into words, phrases and questions — all in order to provide the best search-engine answers possible.
But what gets attention — of humans or of the observing angels of search-engine programs — is not always the same stuff that makes a point, wins an argument or states a case.  As the saying goes, you can lead the horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.  In other words, you can get the reader to the webpage, but if the content sucks, he won’t stick around for long.  (And he may come away from it thinking it’s pretty darn unprofessional.)
Here’s an example, which will probably get me in trouble with my SEO (search-engine optimization) friends for oversimplifying:  generally speaking, using lots of key words early in a document or a webpage is more likely to make it appear higher up in search results.  (Above the fold, as we used to say in the salad days of print publishing, circa 1998.)  On the other hand, reading an opening paragraph or two of a few key words repeated over and over again in slightly different variations is clunky at worst, bad poetry at best.
So what is a writer to do?
Today, the measure of a Web writer’s skill is not just in how well he retains his voice while communicating effectively.  Persuasion, information and entertainment value are only half of the equation.  The measure of a Web writer also depends on how well he pleases the observing angels of the search engine.  Today’s writer must be able to bring the horse to water and get it to drink — deeply enough that he knows he’s just tasted the fresh stuff.
In other words, a writer must create content that rises to the top of search engine results and keeps the reader on the webpage after he or she has clicked on the link in the Google results window.  A difficult balance, yes — but not an insurmountable task… and definitely something worth considering the next time you’re writing… well, just about anything.
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