Optimizing your content for search engines? Where do you draw the line?

Robin Williams

The world was recently shocked at Robin Williams’ sudden death. As the news spread over the web everybody was searching for it. People wanted to know more about the actor, his depression, all his work and actually what led him to commit suicide, if at all he committed suicide. There was news of his daughter Zelda Williams quitting Twitter and Instagram because of the horrible treatment meted out to her by the notorious Internet trolls. Web-based newspapers and blogs were vying for the top search engine positions for terms like “Robin Williams dead at 63”. One of the news editors at New York Daily actually sent advisory to its writers and editors on which words and expressions to use in the headlines and when to scale up and scale down these words and expressions like “Robin Williams”, “dead”, “suicide”, etc. Here is how the internal email goes (the link above is the source):

From: Everett, Cristina

Date: August 12, 2014 at 5:33:00 PM EDT

To: WebEditors

Subject: ENTERTAINMENT handoff!

NOTES ON ROBIN WILLIAMS STORIES/HEDES!!

Thank you to everyone who did a great story [sic] with keeping our stories SEO strong with the * Robin Williams dead at 63 * header for the first 24 hours. Starting tomorrow morning, we can scale back on the robot talk (meaning no death header) just as long as the stories continue to *start* with his full name and include buzzy search words like *death, dead, suicide, etc.*

If you look at the comment thread in the above-linked short blog entry, you will get some interesting perspectives. Some people are cynical, and some say, well, what’s the choice? Aren’t people searching for these terms? If a renowned celebrity dies, and people are going to search about his or her death, the circumstances and other such bits of information and if you want to be found for such information, why not optimize your titles and content accordingly? What if your entire business model depends on such optimization?

Providing optimized content is my business. If one of my clients were running such an online news portal, would I indulge in such “tactics”? Yes I will. Of course I won’t advise my client to use SEO spam and create scores of meaningless pages talking on and on about the same thing (why Robin Williams committed suicide, for instance), but if a major news is breaking and if it matters that this news be found on the search engines, and considering the fact that many people are going to use “tactics” to make sure that their webpages and blog posts appear at the top, if expressions like “Robin Williams” and “suicide” are relevant to my story, I won’t shy away from using them. Yes, a death has occurred, yes, it is a terrible tragedy, but if covering that tragedy is my business, I need to SEO my content accordingly, too bad. Someone gives a nice example in the comments section that it’s like accusing a coffin seller of making a profit if lots of people suddenly die. What’s the attitude behind the above-mentioned advisory? Nobody knows, and that’s a different issue.

If content creators and publishers have to use SEO “tactics” like these, there is some problem in the way search engine rankings work and people who create truly high-quality content often worry about this. Content that truly deserves to get higher rankings never shows up on the first page just because the people who can follow the “tactics” have an edge even while creating lousy content.

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