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Keywords Mean Speaking Your Readers’ Language

A post in SquidU dismissed keyword research in this way:

Keyword research is for writers who are not interested in what they write, they are interested to collect traffic and then the money by selling things. So they skim the net for keywords and if they think the keywords can bring profit they use them and start to write about the topic.

Unsurprisingly, this elicited some strong responses. I understand the point the author was trying to make — content farms have shown the worst of keyword research, and really DO follow the approach described above — but that’s not how keyword research should work, nor does it have to.

As a poet, writer, and sometime student of languages (BA and MA in classics), I have been fascinated by the concept of keywords, the use of words as signposts to to help people find what they’re looking for in a nearly infinite sea of words, the web. It’s a powerful new use of words whose potential we’re still figuring out. In some ways it reminds me of the moment in cultural evolution when writing itself began to play a major role, when knowledge was no longer limited to what you could memorize and repeat in rhyme. The storytellers were appalled that oral traditions were dying, but writing unlocked a new potential of language which was not possible before.

The thing that fascinates me about keywords is that they are at the same time distilling a whole page down to a phrase which like a yantra, and on the other hand, they are words which function not simply as units of meaning, but as functional links, like the parts of a chromosome which are not there simply to contain genetic information but which serve to buffer the chromosome from damage or otherwise serve in a functional, utilitarian way. Keywords are like the labels on file folders. You reach for them to find what’s contained inside.

Keywords have been much on my mind these last few years. The final chapter of my abandoned dissertation was going to discuss keywords. Therefore, I wrote an impassioned rebuttal to the claim that writers who use keywords don’t care about their writing:

Keyword research is understanding what language people use to talk about the topic you are interested in, and speaking their language.

For example, I started a tutorial many years ago on graphics layout. But apparently I’m the only person who uses that term to describe what I was talking about, so the tutorial got no traffic. Once i learned keyword research, I realized that most people who found my tutorial want to know “how do I align images?” Accordingly, I reworded my tutorial to suit the question they were asking, which my page solved. It now gets about 950 visits a week because I am speaking their language better than I was before. Does that cheapen the utility of the tutorial, just because I figured out what phrase people use to look for the information contained in it?

The fine art of using keywords is like writing poetry. Nobody in their right minds would criticize Shakespeare for using a sonnet format. It’s a limitation, a constraint, but it in no way cheapens his writing or forces him to avoid meaningful expressions.

A common exercise in poetry or fiction writing is to take a few vocabulary prompts and incorporate them into a poem or story. Keyword writing for the web is like that.

Another example is essay or research writing, in which you have to use thesis statements, logical transitions, and footnotes. Would you say someone doing that did not care about their writing? Obviously, it’s imposing artificial structure on writing. So is that really so bad?

The web is a new form of communication, EditionH. Just like sonnets, novels, essays and research papers, it has certain requirements, certain modes, and certain conventions.

The web is, in its most fundamental form, a web of words and links. HTML is a way to hard-code those synaptic links between webpages. But keywords are another form of linkage. They allow people to bypass the infinite web of link to link to link, and jump directly to the content they want, need, and are looking for. You can refuse to provide the keys to doing that, if you wish, just as you can choose to try and submit an academic paper without a thesis statement, or publish a book with no title. People should care what’s in the book, after all…why should the title matter? But people may have a hard time finding your title-less book.

Please don’t mock those who work within the web’s keyword paradigm as not caring about what we write. We care a lot. I care about having my words read. I care about having the people who are looking for the answers I have to offer finding the answers they’re looking for.  I care about being explicit, specific, and meaningful, even if I sometimes achieve that goal imperfectly. I care about using not only the words that communicate meaning to me, but finding the common language, the words my readers use which communicate meaning to them.


One Comment

  1. Flynn says:

    Poetry exercises! Exactly. It’s that, and a mix of (for me) scientific writing. In my assignments I have to use the right words and names, even if I’m not particularly familiar with THAT name. And I have to add it into my writing and still have it make sense, and read nicely.

    It’s not writing FOR a word, it’s fine tuning your writing using the words.

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