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Blog // Productivity
March 5, 2022

Share Cropping In The SEO Wasteland

Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is part of running any website. But it can be very challenging and very nearly caused me to give up. Here’s what happened.

This blog peaked, in terms of daily visitors, around 2011–2013. There was a similar peak around 2005–2007. In the last couple of years, visitors have been up but nowhere near close to those two golden seasons.

Of course, numbers aren’t everything.

Actually, that’s trite bullshit. I wouldn’t do this if there were none of you out there willing to read these words. Blogging (or writing articles online, if you’d prefer to call it that) is a public act. We write because we have something to say.

From the early days of blogging, more than 20 years ago, this has been a communitarian act. We aren’t just sharing our experiences; we’re sharing as a way to find connection with and encourage each other.

The relationship benefits us both.

SEO And The Dynamics Of Discovery

What’s surprising, when I think back to those peaks, is how little time I spent wondering how people would “find” this blog. Of course, the digital landscape was different then.

Blogs were the place to find reviews, commentary and original writing before the advent of online video, podcasts, newsletters and social media.

Meanwhile, bloggers encouraged their readers to check out other similar blogs or articles they liked. Backlinks drove actual readers to your blog.

Things started to change as blogging became more commercial. High-profile bloggers became less generous with links. And then social media pulled a lot of people’s attention away. It was easier for most people to share their ideas on Facebook or Twitter than go through the hassle of hosting a blog. YouTube was better for a lot of creators wanting to share educational or how-to content, or who simply wanted to share their lives and perspectives. And podcasts quickly became popular as a place to discuss interests, hobbies or culture.

But discovery of, or at least holding on to, your audience, still wasn’t a critical problem, thanks in part to RSS and compliant social media algorithms. Then Google closed down Reader, and the social media algorithms became greedier, promoting native content over posts that linked to other sites, like blogs.

Back in 2014–15, the bloggers I spoke to regularly were all concerned about falling readership. Things had changed, and old strategies didn’t work.

Entering The SEO Wasteland

Not all blogs died. Some articles were getting traction and flooding social media feeds. They often had catchy titles and were written in easy-to-digest chunks. “Five mistakes every…”, “Ten ways to…”, and “3 Things You Should Always…”

Yes, we’d entered the age of clickbait and listicles.

The dynamics of discovery shifted from community, sharing and subscription to search and virality.

The game of SEO became more important. I call it a game because that’s what it is. You try to guess what Google wants before they’ll show your site to people performing searches. But you don’t know. No one outside Google does. Everyone is guessing, perhaps making good guesses, but still playing the game, as Google’s behavior changes and shifts.

The recommendations for SEO cover everything from how you name your site to how articles and headings are formatted, the number of words between each heading, the style of writing – and, most important of all, keywords, or the words and phrases you use to describe your subject.

This has led to a tremendous amount of sameness and standardization in online content, what Casey Newton, the founder and editor of Platformer, calls the “SEO wasteland”. Years before this, author Hugh Macleod and others had written about digital sharecropping and what we used to call the blogosphere being turned into “content” against which Google could share ads with Google in control of who saw what.

My Misguided Obsession With SEO

I had no desire to sharecrop in the wasteland by writing clickbait or listicles. But I still had a problem. I’d relied on this blog as a greeting card, of sorts, an introduction. It generated a lot of opportunities, personal and professional.

This was important as I moved every few years – from India to Hong Kong, then Singapore, and later to Japan. One of my favourite quotes is from choreographer Twyla Tharp: “The best predictor of who we will become is the books we read and the people we meet.”

Given our digital age, I’ve come to think of this as “We become what we consume and create and how we connect.”

But if new readers are not finding the blog, then this dynamic of meeting people and connecting starts to break down.

It became clear I needed to do something about SEO, but what that something was remained elusive. So many of the articles about SEO are really a pretext to a grift. They’re a way for someone to sell you something.

I’m not suggesting all SEO services are scams. But the sales pitches do generally play on your insecurities, on your fear of making mistakes, on the self-doubt that comes from seeing your traffic fall, and on your ignorance of what Google wants from your site.

The Misadventure

The period 2015–17 was a bumpy transition for me. I loved living in Tokyo. I was proud of the book I’d recently self-published. But it hadn’t sold as well as I’d hoped. I was a little lost professionally, trying to shift to doing mainly photography. And I was struggling with anxiety.

A new website (the design you’re currently looking at) hadn’t solved much. I spent many nights reading articles about SEO and just got more and more confused. After making a few enquiries, I settled on working with an SEO agency in Melbourne.

They started by doing an “audit”, which sounds like a medical check-up but is more like a mechanic surveying your car for every potential repair they can charge you for without a clear sense of which are essential and which are just wear-and-tear you can live with.

They said this site had “potential” and “great content”. But they recommended I focus on writing about only one niche, photography, and focus on only one location, like Tokyo, or Japan. Basically, I should just have a template for all my blogposts, so they are kind of same, just different photos and subjects, but all photography in the same part of the world.

I tried some of their suggestions. But those articles did worse than my regular writing. And writing that way, even thinking that way, felt crushing and destructive.

All the while, my self-doubt grew. I gave up on the strategy. Instead, I wrote on topics which interested me and saw a modest but welcome growth in readers.

That was a costly lesson. What SEO companies and SEO in general can offer works on two levels.

First, there’s a basic level of fixing technical problems with your site. I describe that as SEO minimalism.

Second, there are the benefits of hyper-specialisation. SEO can work great if you’re a plumber in Luton, or an interior decorator in Raleigh. Google loves a specific service in a fixed location.

But if you’re writing to a broad audience, or on a wide range of subjects to people in several locations, then there’s a limit to what playing the SEO game can do for you.

The Internet’s Weird Anti-Globalism

My younger, techno-utopian self believed the internet would give us a borderless world. If you think back to the ʼ90s, to the rise of globalism, to the way digital technology upended every form of publication, that dream of a borderless world perhaps wasn’t as crazy as it now seems. I hear faint echoes of that utopianism in some of the arguments people make today for cryptocurrencies, Web3, or NFTs.

The truly odd thing, though, is how much the internet breaks this globalism by design. The algorithms want to serve you local content. Websites want to localise. Social media sites want to feed you local content and focus on your attention on what’s trending in your city. These actions reinforce boundaries rather than making them disappear. Even Amazon, once the great globaliser, now seems to want you to buy from your local Amazon store.

I first bought books from Amazon as a student at a provincial theological college in Australia. Back then, the internet opened up the world for me when my desire to explore was far greater than my bank balance would allow.

The internet doesn’t feel big anymore. It feels smaller. YouTube wants to keep showing me the same videos from the same creators. Twitter feeds me the same accounts over and over. Trying to teach the algorithms what I want feels harder than training a stubborn cat.

Welcoming SEO Minimalism

So, what can you do? Well, there are some SEO jobs that every blogger should consider. These are the health-of-your-site type issues. A brief list would include:

  • Install an SEO plugin
  • Learn to use headings (H1, H2, H3)
  • Include relevant links to other articles in your posts
  • Ensure your site navigation and menus work well
  • Avoid using really large images
  • Use a mobile-friendly design
  • Fix broken links
  • Add tags and snippets
  • Make sure your site is crawlable and indexable
  • If the last suggestion makes your head spin, then maybe it’s a sign you’ve already reached a limit. If not, then this post is as comprehensive a list of SEO recommendations as I would suggest exploring.

    But I don’t want to give you the impression I “fixed” all this. I didn’t. This site has over 17 years of articles, and plenty of them still have problems. And, I don’t write for one niche, or start with trending topics, or keywords. I’ve just learnt to accept the situation for what it is: a problem that won’t easily resolve itself for writers like me.

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