One of the first things you’ll come across after starting a website is the wonderful world of search engine optimization. In essence it’s the idea of making your website more appealing to search engines by following certain sets of guidelines in the hopes of getting your site higher up in the search ranks. Whilst I won’t go as far to call it black magic (search engines are by definition deterministic) there’s still enough mystery about how search engines work for the snake oil peddlers to work their craft in this field. If you see any of those “Mum makes $70/hour online! Find out how today.” type of ads on websites I can almost guarantee they’re some kind of SEO based idea that more than likely ends up being a scam or fails to deliver on any one of their promises.
This is not to say that I don’t employ SEO techniques on this site though, far from it. I run a couple WordPress plugins to make my site easier for search engines to crawl so that my posts appear in Google no more than 5 minutes after they’ve been posted. Additionally many of my articles have been written in such a way as to ensure that they’re more favourable to certain search terms. Indeed I’m guilty of writing articles specifically for people who land on my blog with certain search terms, mostly because I know how frustrating it can be trying to find something so simple yet be lead up the garden path repeatedly by countless blogs.
Those SEO experts amongst you would also point out that this blog is not the only one running on The Refined Geek domain, in fact there’s 26 more of them! Why would anyone have these if not in an attempt to try and boost the primary site search listings? Well I can’t deny that they’re part of an experiment I started over a year ago to see how one particular SEO technique faired, mostly to see if a blog that’s automated (read: none of the articles on them are written by me) could garner a higher readership than one from a genuine person. The result was mixed as for the longest time none of them attracted more than a casual passer by but at the beginning of the year at least 4 of them soared past this blog in terms of readership. More recently however this blog has overtaken them yet again and whilst no hard evidence of the cause (the experiment has been woefully unscientific) I believe it’s because Google has figured out how to track down blogs of this nature and is beginning to punish them in the search results.
However whilst I might be doing quite a bit of SEO based work there are some techniques I just can’t make myself do. Take for instance Tim Ferriss’ (of Four Hour Work Week fame) guide to writing titles for articles that will get you retweeted:
Into trapeze or German techno? Our starting headlines might be “How to Perform 5 Tricks on the Flying Trapeze” or “German Techno 101.” That’s just a starting point. Then we expand to what your wider circle of friends or co-workers might be interested in. For example:
“How German Techno Can Make You a Better Agile Programmer”
“5 Principles of Flying Trapeze for Better Hiring Decisions”
See how that works? This recipe works, and it’s a plug-and-play format for getting started, and getting traffic.
Once you’ve had a bit of practice, it’s oftentimes easier — and more scalable — to imitate what works elsewhere.
In essence this one of the more classic SEO techniques of putting the search term you’re targetting at the start or early in the title of the blog post. I’m guilty of doing this too, most notably with my most visited posts in the forms of game reviews. However those kinds of titles actually suit the articles that follow them since they first tell you what I’m going to be talking about usually followed by a somewhat whimsical statement that reflects my overall feelings about the game¹. Ferriss’ idea of creating these kinds of titles for posts, whilst nothing new to the SEOs out there, still managed to rub me the wrong way.
I won’t lie that getting people to read your blog is the main reason why a lot of us bloggers do what we do. For many of us the main source of readers are search engines so it makes sense to try and sculpt your posts in a way that will push them up the rankings. For this site the breakdown is about 41% from search engines, 47% from referrals and the remaining 12% coming from bookmarks or typing the address into the bar. Still writing just for the purposes of running up the search rankings never feels quite right as the titles always feel sub-par and don’t match my style. I will admit that they are quite effective but that doesn’t stop it from feeling like selling out.
I guess my feelings stem from the idea that the title is just that, barely even a begging to the actual content. An article or post should really stand on its own with its success being determined by the content not by the way in which its title was crafted. Unfortunately while search engines continue to value titles over content this kind of behaviour will continue. Sure you can still be creative within the bounds of certain rules but for myself it still just doesn’t sit right and I’ll continue writing just the way I’ve always done.
¹I often wonder if anyone picked up on this as no one ever commented on them. People have commented on some of my other post titles though (usually when I’m trolling). I’ll bet you’ll notice now! 😛