The Onion has been one of my go-to websites for years. I can’t think of a single site on the internet that can leave me giggling like a mad man, week in and week out. And although their headlines, stories, and news skew towards the completely ridiculous, they more often than not raise very legitimate points through their satire.
And although they tend to focus on political and cultural stories, they’ll occasionally touch on some biting media criticism. (See their hilarious issue dedicated to living through the five stages of grief for not winning a Pulitzer for an excellent example.) But in today’s world, it isn’t possible to discuss the media without touching on SEO.
So last week, they released an article titled “This Article Generating Thousands of Dollars in Ad Revenue Simply by Mentioning New iPad”. In the indirect manner that is the Onion’s specialty, the article is a pretty devastating critique of modern media business models. And although it doesn’t mention the phrase ‘search engine optimization’, it does raise issues of how certain people try to use (and abuse) SEO.
As the headline suggests, the point that the article is making is that simply mentioning a high-profile and popular term in a headline can drive traffic (and thus higher ad revenue) to news sites. In the text of the article itself, the criticism runs deeper: because the only thing that matters for the business model is using the words “new iPad” in the headline, the rest of the article can be total fluff. So unimportant is the actual content that the author is fine with concluding the piece with: “At press time, new iPad, new iPad, new iPad, new iPad, new iPad, new iPad, new iPad, new iPad, new iPad, new iPad”.
The article is a great critique of sites called ‘content farms'; places like eHow that solely exist to attract search traffic for trending terms and grab some ad dollars along the way. Thanks to their business models, these sites care only about maximizing the traffic they get, and have little to no incentive to actually create content that is of use to anyone.
To be blunt, I hate these sites. I think that they are polluting the web, and making it harder for users to find any valuable content. And even worse, their continued existence is tarnishing the reputation of search engine optimization.
I’ll be the first to admit that the people who run these sites are absolute masters of SEO; they have a knack for knowing what people will be searching for, and how to show up in search results for those terms. If they didn’t have these skills, their sites wouldn’t be successful, and I wouldn’t be writing about them.
But just because they have been successful at SEO doesn’t mean that they should be emulated. Nor does it mean that their particular brand of ‘forget about the user SEO’ is all that search engine optimization can be. And most importantly, their models should most certainly not be followed by any site that is relying on anything other than ad revenue.
This is all to say that there are many different purposes for doing SEO. Frankly, some of these border on get-rich-quick schemes. Too often, I’ve seen people try to use SEO solely to ‘get rankings’ or to increase traffic. Which is good enough if the goal of the site is simply to get people to click on advertisements.
But this is only a small part of what SEO actually is and can be. For sites that are looking for deep engagement, churning out fluff pieces rarely serves any purpose whatsoever. The real goal of legitimate SEO isn’t to increase traffic or ad revenue, but rather to help sites connect with engaged and active audiences. For most sites on the web, the best marketing goal is to help people who want to find a product; be it information, an ecommerce page, or a lead form. It’s about connecting people, not tricking search engines.