Is SEO Killing America?

Last week at the Tools of Change conference, Clay Johnson, author of the new book The Information Diet gave a keynote talk titled “Is SEO Killing America“. Sigh.  If you’ve been involved in search for any length of time, your first reaction may be, this again? Haven’t we done this before? Once or twice?

Clay Johnson

Clay’s a friend of mine and I’ve read his book (it’s quite good, by the way), so I knew both that he doesn’t really think that SEO is killing America and that he’s unaware just how much we’re all over this particular linkbait-y title.

And indeed his talk was not about how SEO is killing America. Instead, it was about two things:

  • As a culture, we want to be entertained and told that we are right. It’s much easier for news organizations to sell news that reaffirms our opinions than news that educates and challenges us.
  • News organizations need page views, so policies such as the “AOL Way” may sacrifice investigative journalism at the altar of popular search queries.

Clay’s talk (and his book) are mostly about the former, but my interest is in the latter. In his talk, Clay noted that we broadcast what we want by way of our searches and clicks. In turn, others see the content we’ve made popular in “most read” modules on news sites and content creators write more articles on popular topics based on search volume. The danger is that we don’t always seek out stuff that’s good for us and the more we look for what’s more fun to consume, the more that’s all that’s available.

He cited the “AOL Way” and the practice of using search data to determine traffic potential of topics and to decide what to write more about as an example of how the media’s focus on SEO may be an obstacle to the best possible news coverage.

For me, this argument is another variation of the “SEO is spam” argument. Spam is spam and lumping it in with solid search engine optimization processes doesn’t make it SEO. Creating content simply based on popular search terms isn’t SEO either. In my book Marketing in the Age of Google, I addressed this issue at length and wrote about how tactics of spammers were mislabeled as tactics of SEO, but that it may be too late to reclaim the term. There, I wrote:

Integrating a search acquisition strategy into a more comprehensive business strategy includes:

  • Using search data to build a comprehensive and effective product and content strategy.
  • Understanding searcher behavior and building searcher personas that maximize customer satisfaction and conversion.
  • Realizing the customer acquisition funnel often begins with the search box, not your web site.
  • Integrating organic search with other marketing efforts.
  • Ensuring technical architecture o the site can be properly crawled  and indexed by search engines so that it can be visible to searchers.

I have explored the search data issue in depth as it relates to journalism during my National Press Club workshops. At least three components are involved:

  • Search data is valuable for learning what your audience is interested in to help ensure you meet their needs.
  • It’s important for content creators (including journalists) to understand how to connect with searchers in order to gain maximum visibility.
  • Investigative journalism is vital, and search may not be the best initial channel for reaching readers.

 Using Search Data

As with nearly everything else in life, you can use search data for good or for evil. Take the Super Bowl start time, for instance. In 2011, the Huffington Post famously spammed the hell out of Google by creating an article that basically just repeated every variation of related search query. Not only did this article contain little useful information, but one wonders if Super Bowl viewers are really a key target audience for a supposed news site or if the point was more about page views that keeping the public informed on the issues of the day.

But with the latest Super Bowl in 2012, the NFL created a page specifically for those seeking out information about the game schedule. Although they were using the same search data, not only was the page useful, but it addressed the NFL’s target audience. The point was obviously not about simply page views but to engage with viewers and get them to interact with additional content on the site. I talked to John Cole, who recently joined to head up search and social media and is  responsible for this new tactic at He told me that user testing found that their target users found the information they were looking for regarding the game schedule much more quickly with the details they added to the pages. To me, this is a perfect use of search data: find out what your audience is looking for and answer their questions (making them happy and keeping them engaged with your brand).

The attempt of to simply maximize page views by creating pages about popular topics is not caused by the availability of search data. This type of reporting has existed since the beginning of time and the online medium simply provides new opportunities for creativity. For instance, when reading an article a few days ago, I came across the following set of headlines:

MIA Super Bowl

Why indeed did M.I.A flip the bird during the Super Bowl? When I clicked through to the page, I first encountered this:

MIA Super Bowl

Entertainment Weekly certainly is taking a page from HuffPo’s playbook by filing this story under as many keywords as possible. But what about the story itself? Do we find out why she did it?

MIA Super Bowl

Not exactly.

Being Visible To Your Target Audience

In the olden days of yore, the printed newspaper arrived at one’s door, and one flipped through the pages and skimmed through the headlines while drinking one’s morning coffee. Wearing a corset (or top hat depending on one’s fashion leanings). But things have changed. Now, when we want to news, we either go to an online source such as Google News or we search for exactly what we want to know. You can see this by checking search volume for  just about any news item. See for instance, search volume for [healthcare reform] queries:

Google Insights for Search

Not only should journalists use search data to make sure they’re answering all of the questions their readers have about a particular topic, but they should make sure they’re using the language of their readers so that when those readers seek out content, the news stories appear. (You can see how simply a spelling change can make all the difference in the world with different spelling guidelines for “Gaddafi”). It’s not spamming or killing America to make sure that your headline contains descriptive words that match how readers are searching for stories.

This doesn’t only help news stories appear for the right searches but helps click through on those headlines on news sites and aggregators.

What About Investigative Journalism

Investigative journalism is trickier. No one is searching for information about the topic at hand until the story breaks, but how to get the news out there in the first place?  Certainly, this type of journalism is tougher to disseminate.  It was easier in yonder days of yore with the printed paper and the doorstep and the corsets and the like.  It can seem like a lot less trouble to just write stories that you already know people are searching for information about. I asked Clay how he recommended journalists go about getting readers for stories no one was searching for and he told me:

“I think the best asset an investigative journalist can have is a strong social network. But let’s not also forget that journalists usually come with a distribution point baked in. People still do read the paper. People go to”

And he pointed out that these stories can drive search interest. What the media chooses to cover and the words they use to describe events have direct impact on what people search for and how they search. Once a breaking story hits, people do in fact begin searching for more information about it.

So perhaps, in fact, SEO isn’t killing America but can instead keep America informed.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Consumer | Features: Analysis | Search & Society: General | Top News


About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. She built Google Webmaster Central and went on to found software and consulting company Nine By Blue and create Blueprint Search Analytics< which she later sold. Her book, Marketing in the Age of Google, (updated edition, May 2012) provides a foundation for incorporating search strategy into organizations of all levels. Follow her on Twitter at @vanessafox.

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  • Mark Collier

    Great post. I disagree that in the modern age that investigative journalism will falter due to SEO/search engines. I do admit that investigative journalistic pieces probably won’t do well in Google.

    These types of articles are extremely popular on social networking and other sites within an industry perhaps providing even more valuable page views.

    Sure investigative journalism has taken a nose dive in the last decade but isn’t that more to do with the journalist’s focus on the “easy” pageviews vs. doing great research and getting the hard earned social media traffic.

    I expect that this idea will filter down and there will be a resurgence in investigative journalism benefiting from the social media share.

  • Jonathan Hochman

    Like all else, the key is balance. There needs to be at least some investigative journalism, or else media turns into an echo chamber.

  • Gyi Tsakalakis

    Sounds similar to issues presented in the filter bubble:

    The truth is, this isn’t unique to search or the web in general. In fact, this type of “filtering” has been going on for a very long time. Surrounding yourself with people similar to you, is part of our psychology, albeit, a part that we should strive to work against:

    Ultimately, the responsibility falls on information consumers.

    In any event, it’s very interesting subject matter as the nature and extent of our connections is dramatically accelerated via the social web.

  • Vanessa Fox

    Mark, your comment is exactly what I was trying to say in the article. I think we agree entirely. :)

  • Jeff Ferguson

    You know what’s killing America? Yellow Journalism tactics like that presentation’s headline. Please file that one away with things like “The Death of…” and other similar headlines.

    I have total respect for the information presented and think both he and you have some valid points, but it is made cheap by the use of such promotional tactics.

  • Bharati

    Hi Vanessa,

    I would also like to highlight the fact that “SEO IS NOT SPAM” in fact good SEO contributes to the larger objectives of the web eco system making it a better place.

    The search and web ecosystem revolves around the people who publish content, people who index content and people who search for content. We all who use the internet fall in atleast one of the categories and we can in our own little way help the web by focusing on what way we can contribute to the web rather than only putting the blame on the search engines for not giving us quality search results.

    The algorithms built by the search engines are not built in a vacuum or as a result of somebody’s imagination but by working on what would be the best practices based on past experience , research and detailed study of human behavior and indexing bottle necks so that quality results can be churned out for the searchers.

    Anyone connected to the digital marketing world is aware of the fact that SEO though a marketing strategy is very different from other online marketing strategies. SEO has the same objectives as marketing but the path followed by genuine SEOs to start reaping the benefits of SEO for a client is very creative, different and also involves the ethics.

    Last year had written a post on the aspects Of The Website Which Help The Web Eco System And The Website on:

    The web and the internet are a global phenomenon and sooner or later this will be discussed at a global level and maybe a few years from now the post will be titled : ” Is SEO Killing The world “

  • davidmelamed

    I think there is a chicken and egg issue here. Search queries and search volume come from somewhere and usually from what we see and hear in our daily lives, of which news media is a major contributing factor. While using trending keywords or other keyword research might make sense in targeting traffic out there on a broader level, I think it is not different than monitoring other media outlets to see what stories they are covering, or staying on top of breaking stories…

    I think SEO is just a tool in a much broader toolbox, of which many people miss out on the point that the content they create is the chicken, and the search volume that content creates is the egg. chasing other people’s “eggs” so that you can hatch a chicken seems like a very shortsighted and short term solution to get the traction you need before your chickens are laying all sorts of eggs…

    I would love to see some concrete studies done on where search behavior and volume comes from.. i think it will be very enlightening. Companies need to realize there is a reason zappos gets searched 2.5x more than shoes, or cnn gets searched 3x more than news.

    It is because what we see and hear influence what we search, not vice versa.

  • SBM

    For the big media companies choosing to use the popular stories to stay relevant and stay on top of the search engines that would be the logic thing to do, but there is a big user base of internet users and we all are interested in different things so any story will have a fighting chance on getting to a lot of eyeballs you just have to know SEO to get your post or article in front of those eyes So it is not hurting America it is more likely connecting users to the most relevant content that users want to see. I got some good Seo articles on my website

  • Lauren Singletary

    I agree with many on this forum, SEO is not spam. The SEO industry as a whole helps Google achieve their missionto “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Google, Bing, Yahoo and all the other engines have crowd sourced the heavy lifting to SEO industry. We market information and knowledge be it scholarly, trivial or commercial. As I read Vanessa’s article I too was reminded of the “Filter Bubble” Ted Talk (Thank you for sharing that Gyi!). Ultimately the gift of Search is the ability to satisfy curiosity. Luckily for the human race, curiosity is insatiable. We find answers and new questions based on those answers. Raising public awareness has always been a function of the fourth estate. And we will need it now more than ever because with the marketing power of Google & Facebook and how precisely they can target and individual with information customized to their interest based on what they say (Facebook) and what they do (Search Engines), Journalist will have to shake us out of our information reverie to share things that are urgent and vital. I don’t begrudge the media oulets luring me in with fluff articles as long as they persist in raising my awareness to other important matters in the world.

  • Daniel

    What’s interesting is that TOC is a digital publishing conference, and many publishers aren’t embracing SEO as much as they need to.

    About a month ago, I presented on SEO to digital publishers at the other big publishing conference (Digital Book World Conference) about how to use keyword research (and other aspects of SEO) in the publishing process…and my approach was to encourage the publishing community to take advantage of keyword research as “market research” when deciding what to publish, how to title your books/ebooks, how to write product descriptions, etc. Furthermore, I suggested that executives at publishing houses use tools like Google Insights/Trends to dig deep into their markets and find growing topics to put more resources toward. Will they listen? Time will tell…but I think they will eventually. Still very hard for the “print world” to grasp SEO. For example, try teaching an print editor how to do SEO. Even with one-on-one training, it takes weeks.

    What many publishers don’t realize is that they have incredible, free market research tools at their fingertips (Google AdWords, SEOBook, Wordtracker, etc.). Let’s face it, a large portion of publishing has always been about producing content that aligns with consumer interest. It might be a matter of changing one or two words in your title, and when you get all those juicy links to your Amazon product page from all your hard PR work, you could be ranking #1 in search engines for a popular “how to” phrase, or some other popular phrase.

    There’s nothing more frustrating (in the search world) than not finding the right content for your search query…and quite frankly…I think it’s a POSITIVE to incorporate SEO into the publishing world. There’s always room for publishing forward-thinking content that doesn’t involve keyword research, but not so much as it would suggest ignoring SEO. The big publishing houses could learn a lot from bloggers (especially those here at SE Land!).

  • Art

    Should not all site that is getting traffic from a search engine need to pay for that service.

    Why give out links to only sites that are lucky enough in there seo efforts. What a game.

    Everyone should be using the same system to get traffic. Pay.

  • WDThom

    Before I became an SEO, I was a journalist for a small-town paper. The powers that be decided all headlines on the website had to be “keyword rich,” so we would have to spend a good bit of time adjusting them before updating the website.

    It was a pain, and did nothing to serve our readers.

  • Daniel

    WDThom, a more important approach for local journalism (which is not evergreen, location-agnostic content) would be to ensure you’re feeding your content to Google News via your sitemap. However, there are certainly evergreen topics that you could write about/pages you could build to drive more traffic from the local market. By driving more traffic, you’re benefiting your readers since you’re increasing the size of your community (thus revenue) and ability to provide more helpful services. Did you ever look at the analytics for the site when you were writing for the paper? How are your an SEO now if you didn’t believe keyword-rich titles were valuable back then? Doesn’t make sense to me, but perhaps I’m missing something.

  • Ketan Raval

    what I believe is that you did search in google “seo is” … and wrote an article related from google’s suggested long queries :) 

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