Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Curse of the Keywords

I’ve been forced by a search engine optimization (SEO) project at work to confront the hegemony of keywords. These insidious locutions are words and phrases that function as hallowed text in the Google era. The magical incantations are elevated by their statistical, not semantic, character.

It might seem an irrelevant complaint, audio and video having their way so handily with print/type/text in cyberspace.

But some of us like to write and read, and SEO lobotomizes us. “Optimization” turns syntax, semantics, and grammar into stuffing to tuck in around keywords, the precious cargo. SEO stupidizes language for the convenience of computer collation. Keywords are language turds; too many make prose stink.

For example, if, while writing normal prose, you have to refer to a subject repeatedly, you have to be creative. You paint the thing with various brushes; you use indirection to bring out nuances. You tap your mental thesaurus.

But no more, at least not online. Now, you're supposed to keep repeating those keywords, the exact words, repeating and repeating them. Rote repetition is a good thing to do. Gotta drive up that keyword density.

In the shadow, or service, of SEO, writing converges on the literary stylings of a fifth grader or a newly enrolled student of English-as-a-second-language. Pursuing the grail of a high search engine ranking necessarily constricts vocabulary and discourages metaphors, similies, analogies, examples, and probably every other kind of literary device that makes reading enjoyable.

And, while we’re assessing the damage, let’s anticipate the passing of those humble servants, the pronouns. They deserve our respects for many centuries of reliable service. But those services are no longer needed. Here lies an obsolete part of speech, R.I.P.

The economy of SEO is clear. SEO makes it easier to exploit offshore labor in the manufacturing of text. The next step seems obvious: entirely computer-generated prose. Input a list of keywords and let the SEO Wizard go to town, writing prose for its mate, the indexing spider. Computers writing for computers.

No wonder the kids gravitate toward audio and video. The next generation likely will regard readers of written English as we regard readers of hieroglyphics.

(So, dear God, please tell me, why don’t browsers have a read-aloud function? If Adobe can put it into Acrobat, why can’t Mozilla put it into Firefox?)