By José Balido
SEO! Key words! Links! Backtracks! As we wind up the first decade of the 21st century, public relations copywriting plunges ever deeper into a jargon-strewn digital thicket that has become a crucial part of doing the job for our clients and ourselves. I have always taken pride on crafting crisp and effective copy no matter who the audience, but as search engine optimization increasingly thrust its technical demands upon me, I started to worry: would writing for machines lead to a stunting of imagination and expression, reducing all copy to a clunky, mechanical pastiche?
After all, I’ve been a professional writer for nearly a quarter of a century, and for most of that time my work on the journalistic side of the equation always had one overarching element in common, something so obvious at the time that it wasn’t even worth mentioning: my words were meant for the eyes, intellects and esthetic sensibilities of those whimsical, fickle creatures called human beings.
How the world has changed! These days, when writing PR or marketing copy, I also need to catch the figurative “eye” of the search engine bots and algorithms that relentlessly prowl the vastness of the Internet. The smooth integration of key words and phrases into copy that will also please the human eye is, of course, no mean feat, but to my relief, I have found that, especially in the proverbial right hands, one doesn’t have to squeeze the juice out of the other.
I was reminded of this recently while reading, of all things, Shakespeare’s love sonnets. Like any other art form with rigorous technical rules – the complex contrapuntal interplays of Baroque music, for example – the constraints of iambic pentameter, or in our case the need to work certain key words in, challenge us to produce an even better poem or marketing copy.
Bottom line: good content and good digital technique can complement each other, rather than work at cross purposes. Ultimately, we still need to write to interest and please human beings (and as time goes on, not only will those algorithms grow to reflect that need better and better, but alternate models will arise, such as Wikipedia’s promising new Wikia search engine, now in beta). Thus, while penning my prose, I refer regularly to a keyword generator such as Google AdWords Keyword Tool, tweaking the copy as needed while always keeping grace and readability front and center. Sometimes it does take a little more work than others, but the rewards – both in terms of positive reader response and the writer’s own satisfaction – are the very model of optimization.