An alternative to the digital dictator?

Followers of my social media feeds will recall that a couple of weeks ago I shared a quote I’d forgotten about from the late, great motoring writer Russell Bulgin, comparing the role of a freelance to that of a jobbing actor.

Discovering said quote encouraged me to read again the book documenting some of Bulgin’s finest work, published after his tragically early death from cancer in 2002 with proceeds going to the Royal Marsden Hospital where he had been treated.

Russell was just 43 when he died – I didn’t know him well, encountering him mostly, as with so many of my associates in this business, on car launches. We only ever shared a car once, a Vauxhall Omega, and I recall that we broke it, driving it back towards Glasgow airport with ominous noises coming from the rear end.

So having extracted the slim but packed tome from the bookcase in which it had slept undisturbed for a few years, last night I settled down for a good read. And as I again so enjoyed Bulgin’s writing, his ability, so eloquently summed up in a tribute by colleague Gavin Green, to like all great artists paint such grand pictures with so few words, a chilling realisation came over me. Bulgin would not have enjoyed writing for the Internet…

He passed away before ‘Online’ as a specific area of journalism really took off, before the emergence of a new phrase for the dictionaries, the ‘Blog’. To make Blogs possible we gained the Internet equivalent of the printed page, clever pieces of software called Content Management Systems (CMS), of which the best-known today is probably WordPress. And within each CMS rose a dictator that today affects the working life of myself and so many others on virtually a daily basis – SEO.

It’s all about the rankings…

For those of you who are unaware, SEO is Search Engine Optimisation, what the truly net-savvy would call ‘guidelines’ but which are virtually rules, governing the way one writes online copy. These rules help such copy to be more easily found, and therefore sit higher up, those pages always turned to when we want to find out anything on the net – basically Google, Google, and errr, Google…

CMS systems vary in the way they work but most are quite similar. While allowing you to produce and format your work, they also insist on telling you how SEO-friendly the finished prose is, and, guess what, how well the CMS thinks you have written a piece!

The big problem with SEO, I reckon, is that it turns everything formulaic. A typical motoring story, for example, will generally focus on a particular car – let’s say manufacturer Fandango is launching a new model dubbed the Night Out. As far as this correspondent understands (and my crash course on internet-friendly writing has come in the most recent year of a career stretching back more than 30 so I’m probably getting it all wrong…) CMS works around a ‘Focus Keyword’. This doesn’t have to be a single word but can be a phrase, and in our example would likely be ‘Fandango Night Out’.

The problem is, SEO then demands that you use the full focus keyword in the heading and often the first paragraph of your copy. And don’t think you can be witty and post a heading along the lines of ‘Fandango goes for Night Out’ – in the eyes of SEO, splitting up your focus keyword is a very serious crime. While the online journalist is being neutered, the headline writer is becoming a skill of the past…

Don’t believe me? Take a scan through any of the leading motoring news websites – the headings and first paragraphs of each story follow a disturbingly similar pattern…

Welcome back to journalist school...

Welcome back to journalist school…

As for readability – you might have been writing for years, you might have won every award going, but paste your copy into a CMS and it will instantly tell you that your sentences are too long, that you are using too many ‘passive words’, not enough ‘transition’ ones… It may tell you this in a friendly, patronising way – “Try writing fewer words…” but you are still being told.

Now this would all be very well if the admonishment was being dished out by a grizzled old sub-editor who had seen it all before, and who had read your copy, understood its context and where perhaps it could be sharpened up. But no, in the online universe, the quality or otherwise of the work you have slaved over is decided by nothing more, when one gets down to it, than a load of binary numbers…

Why print still matters

Thankfully I don’t think a truly great writer such as Bulgin would have had to endure such insults to his talent, to have some young digital geek tell him he needed to turn commas into full stops and flowing prose into staccato bullet points. Had he survived into today’s world he would have been the leading light on one of the top-level printed motoring titles, his words a major reason why readers bought each month’s issue.

The thing about print media is that it is a very good filter. On a print title, with one or two glaring exceptions, the truly good writers will rise to the top, while those that think they are brilliant wordsmiths but clearly aren’t will eventually get found out, and go and do something else.

The Internet isn’t like that. Anyone with a computer, even a phone, can in a very short time live out their dreams as a journalist, posting what they like with the only supposed quality monitor the dumbing-down exercise that is SEO. They don’t necessarily have to be able to write well – if they learn to follow the rule set laid down by SEO, they could very easily find themselves ranked on the online billboard of Google alongside or even above true talents such as a Bulgin.

This problem is not going to go away. As print titles slowly but surely decline in number while the Internet continues to mushroom, something is needed to sort the few grains of wheat from the millions, perhaps billions, of words of chaff added to the information superhighway each and every day. SEO is currently that sorter.

So am I a dinosaur, a throwback to the slowly dying print world, to even suggest that the direction we are going in is wrong? Or can there be a better way? Answers on a postcard please – yes, proper hard copy required, so that SEO can’t get at it…

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