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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Writing to be found...Old words, new words, keywords and creating words...

I'll probably be the 289,087th blogger to reference Jakob Nielsen's August 28th recommendation to "Use Old Words when Writing for Findability," but Mr. Usability Guru brings up a few points worth pondering.

According to Nielsen, internet users are so search-oriented that writing in a way that will appease the Google gods is of primary importance. As he puts it, "use keywords that match users' search queries."

To Nielsen, this is an extension of the old writing maxim that one should always write for his or her audience. In an era where people rely on Page One of the SERP's to direct their cyber-travels, that means using the same words the target audience is using.

Among other recommendations, Nielsen advocates using recognized and common words instead of euphemisms, poetic reinterpretations, or insider jargon. One should write about a "bottle" instead of a "tubular glass storage device." It's "night," not "the hours of quiet and darkness," etc.

Additionally, he recommends resisting the urge to try to coin a new term. Although the upside of being a vocabulary-creator is tempting, he notes that people are unlikely to adopt your new invented word and that the space might be better used to echo their expectations.

Of course, Nielsen is right. He's really not positing a ground-breaking position here. Internet marketers have understood the importance of using keyword-rich content to massage good SERPs since the beginning of time, it seems.

However, the article is interesting because it isn't coming from some guy trying to peddle a product or to attract potential ad-clickers to an ostensibly "Google-friendly, content-rich site." It's coming from someone whose primary focus is on usability--not bottom line profit considerations.

It would seem as if we are entering an era where writing for the search engines and writing for the end-user is beginning to become one and the same thing. That could be a byproduct of search engine improvements. It might also be the outgrowth of search engine use having an impact on user habits. Either way, if you believe Nielsen, making it usable means making it Google-friendly.

My fear is that too many people will embrace the comments too tightly. The need for appropriate keyword use (especially in critical areas) does not have to trade off with quality writing. It is possible to use necessary keywords in adequate quantities while simultaneously offering a good (and non-redundant) reading experience. I worry that many webmasters will read the Nielsen piece and begin to worry about the use of synonyms, clever turns of phrase, etc. when that really isn't necessary.

What is necessary is to use a writer who has the skill to lace text with appropriate keywords at optimal intervals while still creating a readable, attractive, entertaining, and informative piece of writing.

I'm sure I've made that kind of statement before. I'm sure countless others have said the same thing while bemoaning horrible examples of "SEO writing" or while promoting their own talents.

Now I'm saying it all again, but for a different reason. Now that usability and SEO are going to merge in the eyes of some webmasters as a result of Nielsen's argument, it's important to remind everyone that usability, search engine optimization and quality writing can peacefully co-exist.

p.s. I also have to wonder about Nielsen's failure to mention the increasing reliance on social bookmarking networks as a means of discovering information. I think this growing trend will continue to displace search engine use in some quarters and that those who rely on a "folksonomic" alternative to search engine algorithms will continue to find themselves tickled by good writing regardless of keyword density. But that's another story altogether...

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