Philip K. Dick, Author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Photo Credit: Wikimedia)

Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which inspired the film Blade Runner, follows Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter tasked with “retiring” rogue androids. Interestingly, throughout the novel, it is not always clear to the reader whether a certain character is an android or a human. In an indirect manner, the book forces you, the reader, to question what distinguishes human beings from other animals and from robots. What makes a human being distinctly human? Is it the capacity for emotion? Empathy? Intelligence? Love? The novel also raises the question: Would you know it if you were talking to a machine? Or, more to the point, would you know it if you’d become a machine?

In this short post, I want to persuade you not to act like a machine. In particular, I want to dissuade you from unreflectively engaging in a thoroughly machinelike practice: SEO. If you’ve never heard the term before, “SEO” stands for Search Engine Optimization and refers to the practice of attempting to improve a website’s rankings in a search engine such as Google. So, for example, your website may currently appear on page five of a search engine ranking page, and you may want it to rank higher. As the thinking goes, if you can get your site on page one, you will get more traffic and therefore more leads and sales.

Historically, people have tried a whole host of techniques for advancing their sites up to the top of the search engine ranking pages: building links back to their site from other sites, writing “content” with particular keywords in it, etc. Some of these techniques were more ethical than others. For a period of time, I myself practiced SEO in an attempt to improve clients’ positions in search engines. In my estimation, a lot of people may still practice SEO and use the lingo of SEO because they sincerely want to drive traffic to a site.

However, I want to mention a few things here that a well-intentioned, yet misplaced focus on SEO misses.

The Human Element

First and foremost, a focus on SEO can obscure the human element in writing a page or building a website. Who are you writing to and what for? Why does what you’re saying matter? Will the person on the other end of the line understand you? Will they be compelled to act? Will they be persuaded? If all you care about is SEO, you may miss these absolutely crucial questions. You begin to communicate directly to a machine, and in turn, you begin to communicate like a machine. You may end up writing something that looks good to a robot (i.e., an algorithm) but terrible to a human being. Good authors and speakers always adapt their messages to their audiences. Period. If you write with only SEO in mind, you may only adapt your message to a machine. And unless a machine is willing to pay for your product or service, you may be out of luck.

The Significance of Form

Second, SEO tends to place an undue emphasis on “content,” another term that gets tossed around but which people never really feel compelled to define. What is “content,” anyway? Is it the same thing as “information”? And, in that case, what is “information”? What seemed quite obvious suddenly gets blurry once you start to probe at it. Rather than offer you an extended definition of “content,” I’ll give you an analogy, instead. Content is like meat that you can cook in a number of different ways. Form, the correlate of content, is how you cook it. Form is how you say what you say, which the art of rhetoric has studied in a systematic way for more than two millennia. As Richard Lanham might suggest, content is “stuff,” while form is “fluff.” Believe it or not, both matter.

I’m not saying to abandon SEO altogether. You ask, “How much SEO should I do, then?” My answer: the minimum. Submit your site to Google’s Webmaster Tools and make sure that the search engines can crawl it. Write good “meta” descriptions and titles so that your content appears A-OK in the search engine landing pages. Beyond that, I would not recommend investing a ton of time and money in SEO. Let Google do their job so you can do yours. Instead, invest more time and money writing compelling copy that teaches, delights, and moves (Cicero 357). Remember, you’re writing for human beings, not robots.

Lastly, I’m not saying that content does not matter, either. You cannot have a book, a website, a movie, etc. without content. If you want to sculpt, you’ll need clay. I’m simply suggesting that the practice of SEO implies a host of terms, including “content” and “content marketing,” which merit critical attention. As Marshall McLuhan explains in Media and Formal Cause, rhetoricians do not change what people think but how people think (126). That’s what I want you to do. Transform how people think. Don’t add more “information,” “content,” or “stuff” to the already overwhelming digital ocean of data. Simply put, put some order into the chaos. You can’t do that if you remain transfixed on “SEO” and “content.”

Looking for a good book to read? Check out Richard Lanham’s Economics of Attention, which argues for the importance of rhetoric in an age of information. Looking for an editor or copywriter to give your content some form? Contact me here.

In-text citations come from the following texts: McLuhan, Marshall, and Eric McLuhan. Media and Formal Cause. NeoPoiesis Press, LLC., 2011. Cicero. On Invention. Best Kind of Orator. Topics. Translated by H.M. Hubbell. Loeb Classical Library, 1949. I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

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