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Writing for the machine

January 12, 2007

Last April, I wrote about how reporters and editors are beginning to craft headlines with an eye to scoring highly in search results. "Where does it end?" I asked. "Certainly not with headlines. Search engines don't stop there, so why should journalists? Why not stuff the first couple of paragraphs with search-engine-friendly terms? Hell, why not just gin up your own algorithm for giving stories an SEO tweak before they run?"

Needless to say, it's happening. And quickly. Jimmy Guterman points to an article in today's Wall Street Journal about how search-engine optimization is increasingly influencing what newspapers publish and how reporters write. After describing how British newspapers are buying AdWords keywords to promote particular articles. the author, Aaron Patrick, writes,

Many papers are also tailoring their Web sites to attract Google's news site, which has links to thousands of news articles. The Times of London, owned by New York-based News Corp., is training journalists to write in a way that makes their articles more likely to appear among Google's unpaid search results. "You make sure key phrases and topic words are embedded in the top paragraph and headlines," says Zach Leonard, the paper's digital-media publisher.

All writers have some kind of reader in mind when they put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. In the past, the ideal reader tended to be a human being. In the future, it seems, it will be an algorithm.


Very interesting perspective Nick. It is really amazing to see how our world has changed -- and will keep changing -- to reach the next possible boundary that we never imagine possible before.

To imagine how one day "what we know" and "what we read" will be "indirectly determined" and "strongly influenced" ... by a machine (and its underlying algorithm)??!!!! Wow!!! That's pretty "scarry".

Our live will change forever because of that. A "balanced site" where what we read is being selected, filtered and recommended by "human-hand" would also be required (a.k.a the next "digg", etc). The problem is ... before that person can really digg it to other people's attention, they also happen to "search & discover" such information based on the result of the machine's search!!... a.k.a: based on what the machine "allow" us to read!!! *sigh* What a unique different world we are all really about to live in. Somekind of "balanced solution" perhaps one day would be found ... or at least: would need to be found. :-)

Posted by: Arvino Mudjiarto [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 12, 2007 01:12 PM

Arvino, It's largely, but not strictly the case that search engine results filter what we read. Tools like RSS readers allow us to subscribe to authors and editors we trust. Google Reader let's anyone be an editor, sharing a published list of stories that match his or her own editorial point of view. I didn't come to this site because because Nick's headline and lede paragraph popped up in Google. I came here because I'm interested in finding out what Nick has to say.

Posted by: Mickeleh [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 12, 2007 02:59 PM

Having worked in television for 3 decades where content is specifically produced to attract eyeballs "by any means necessary", it is not surprising that the emergence of "text content" ratings have emerged and "writing for the machine" is on the rise.

One need not wonder where all this leads. It is self evident.

mike whatley
altadena, ca

Posted by: Mike Whatley [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 12, 2007 04:26 PM

Yes Mickeleh, I sincere think you're right. :-) Blogs, RSS reader, etc is a great tool to balanced "the view and perspective of the machine".

If we can make "discovering" these great sites even simpler, easier and faster than what we have today ... perhaps the world would be better.

More and more people would be able to discover Nick's great site (and other people's great site) quickly and easily. Once people discover it, they can RSS, bookmark, subscribe to it. Great idea then travel faster everyday, which makes the whole world perspective better after all.

We just perhaps need something -- a mechanism, a software, or a "more sophisticated" tagging-and-CASTING mechanism -- which is far better, simpler, more intuitive and more powerful than "Web 2.0 social tagging mechanism" that we have today.

As for the machine's algorithmic filter, perspective and opinion, ... I still believe it can indeed help us a lot and greatly in many other cases when we need them. That's why we also still all love Google also after all. Cheers,

Posted by: Arvino Mudjiarto [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 12, 2007 10:17 PM

You write as if newspaper journalism has ever been something other than the newspaper business, where wordsmiths plied their trade free from all commercial taint. Nonsense; for hundreds of years, newspapers have engineered their writing and their presentation to attract eyeballs: they've tailored their first paragraphs, they've increased the size of their headlines, they've hired orphans to shout in the street and sell papers. They've just gotten so exceptionally out of practice in a one-newspaper-per-town world, that it's taken them 15 years to figure out how to do it in a new medium.

Posted by: EzraBall [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 13, 2007 10:55 AM

Wrote a response here.

Posted by: bya [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 13, 2007 05:17 PM

Web sites have three audiences; the marketing dept (or whomever controls what they want you to say), the customers/readers, and the search engines. If you don't satisfy all three it just isn't going to work over the long haul.

Posted by: Craig Danuloff [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 13, 2007 08:41 PM

'Writing for machines' is a serious misconception among many journalist. This is really more about speaking the same language as your potential audience – pull journalism. For writers who already have an audience, you can afford to write in your own language, but, if you want to attract new readers, you need to talk their language.

Posted by: Nilhan [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 14, 2007 08:36 AM

A good example of this is headlines. Headlines in print and headlines online work in very different ways. A workable headline in print (next to a picture of an instantly recognisable celeb) would be "What the hell is she doing now?"
Online, separated from the article in a 'recent stories' list, this means precisely nothing.
So you're not writing for a machine. The machine doesn't care what your headline is. You're writing for a reader, who won't read your article if the headline doesn't make sense, or if he/she can't find it through Google.

Posted by: tom [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 19, 2007 09:36 AM

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