Times Online SEO

Quite a few journalists are still a bit suspicious of the idea of “search engine optimisation”. They may have been told, in one or two hasty training sessions, that their glorious, pun-laden print headlines had to make way for boring, literal headlines and standfirsts full of “keywords” attractive to users of search engines.

Of course,”keywords” are words people interested in the content of the article would likely use when searching for the content of the article, and not words people are just likely to type into Google — like poker, viagra, Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears naked.

As Shane Richmond pointed out in BJR a few months ago, this misunderstanding of SEO, hilariously perpetuated by Charlie Brooker, is why many journalists are uncomfortable with the idea of SEO.

Others, it seems, can’t resist the temptation to shoehorn some tangential celebrity angle into a story for the supposed benefit of Google.

Take the column by India Knight from today’s Sunday Times, as reproduced on Times Online. Let’s ignore the merits of Knight’s argument — there are few, I’m afraid — and focus on the standfirst:

Tech-savvy youngsters routinely watch films such as Woody Allen’s new movie Vicky Cristina Barcelona, starring Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, without paying

The film does in fact feature in the column, but it is merely used as a passing example of the trend Knight claims to identify and condemn: Young people today illegally downloading movies off the Interwebs that those not part of “generation freeload” pay their hard-earned money to consume.

Neither the film’s title nor its stars are mentioned in the copy, and the argument would be unchanged if the example were rewritten to mentioned some other current release. (A true SEO ninja would have chosen Watchmen, of course.)

It’s surprising to see this sort of thing in the Times, which has taken SEO very seriously for quite a few years now, but it’s a subtle example of Charlie Brooker’s poker-viagra-Britney-Spears school of SEO that journalists are right to be suspicious of.

The correct approach would have been to load the standfirst with real keywords: ones used frequently in the long-running debate about the social consequences of media piracy that India Knight was contributing to. Of course, that’s not as sexy as “Penelope Cruz”.