Don’t write for SEO and social media marketing from the start…

That may seem an odd headline for someone who sells digital marketing alongside writing for the internet, but stay with me. I’ve just spent an hour or so reading through my 22-year-old copy of ‘Searching for Robert Johnson‘, a fairly short book by Peter Guralnick about the legendary early blues musician who was supposed to have gone to the crossroads at midnight and sold his soul to the devil to have become so talented, and who was then murdered at an early age, passing into myth and legend for songs like ‘Hellhound on my Trail‘.

Having been blessed with an obsession for music and reading in a just pre-internet age, I’m a big fan of all the Peter Guralnick books I’ve read and owned – he’s covered the history of the blues, soul, and country, as well as works about Sam Cooke, Robert Johnson and Elvis Presley (The Presley ones are the only ones I haven’t read). There’s a pretty good list on Amazon, and as a music writer I’ve read, re-read, and long admired, I wondered what he was doing at the moment – and thanks to Google, found some invaluable quotes on what makes his music writing so brilliant, especially when he writes with more succinct clarity than the likes of Lester Bangs, for example. And they explain why I believe that optimisation for SEO, tailoring content for social media etc all comes second to creating something really brilliant in the first place.

They’re from, Vanderbilt University’s student news website:

‘I started writing about music when I was probably about 20, and I started writing purely to tell – I was writing fiction, short stories novels, I still write fiction – but the nonfiction, I just wrote solely to tell people about this music that I thought was so great, it was almost entirely the blues, and I did it at a time when there were almost no outlets where you could even put down the name Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins, James Brown, it was such a thrill. I wrote these things telling people how great they were. It wasn’t for money, there was no money; it was just to tell people.

I’ve never written a single piece about anybody or anything that I haven’t chosen myself and hasn’t been out of my admiration for their work. It would be inconceivable for me to write something about a subject that I wasn’t totally invested in.

There have been growing debates about the need for PR and Marketing in technology – the suggestion is that by building something amazing, you remove the need for promotion, which I think is mistaken and disingenuous. A great product should be your focus as it makes Marketing, PR, Advertising etc all easier and ways to boost the natural interest.

And by the same token, SEO, targetting social media etc are all extremely useful, but they boost interest, links etc to great content and writing.

You can argue that plenty of truly great works have never achieved mainstream success, but that’s down to a number of factors, including marketing, timing, and luck. But those great works continue to endure, even if it’s in a small way.

Meanwhile there’s plenty of crap that has become amazingly popular due to well-oiled publicity efforts, but it’s always tended to result in fleeting success at best, despite the work and effort that’s gone into promotion.

And particularly if you’re trying to build a business around content, or by utilising content, it’s better to get a smaller number of truly passionate and evangelistic people who are likely to part with their money or attention on a longterm basis, than to hit a huge number of people who just pass through and move onto something else in seconds.

That’s why I suggest forgetting about SEO and marketing when you first start writing something. If not, you’ll spend hours or days in fear as you build up the worries about putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. And when you finally do, it’s likely to appear faked when you’re shoehorning in keywords and sticking on an irrelevant linkbait headline. Far better to create something incredibly powerful and optimise with a light touch. It’s why the need for copy editors and sub editors remains, but that need evolves into editors skilled in marketing and search engine optimisation alongside more traditional skills.

And it’s why I’m still enjoying, and recommending, music from the 1930s and books written about it which I first enjoyed as a pre-teen.

The magical power of great writing and insight

Sometimes the effect that great writing and content can have is almost magical, whether it’s due to what is on the page or screen, or due to the timing of it. For instance, having written about some of the different inputs that are helping me create better work, I fired up Tweetdeck today, and the first thing I saw was @Documentally tweeting a link to his own take on a same subject.

The power of great content has also been hitting me from various angles this weekend, thanks to the often-documented genius of two great writers – Arthur C Clarke and Cory Doctorow. As I went through a pile of old books for sorting, filing or selling, I fell into re-reading Childhood’s End, which was originally written by Clarke in 1952, although my version has a re-written foreword and first chapter from 1990. Considering the book was partly inspired by the site of barrage balloons over London during World World 2, imagine the power of seeing the following, particularly at the same time as reading the latest UK issue of Wired, which features this article by Steven Levy on artificial intelligence, and leads with the application of AI to sorting in warehouses.

“The average working week was now about twenty hours – but those twenty hours were no sinecure. There was little work left of a routine, mechanical nature. Men’s minds were too valuable to waste on tasks that a few thousand transistors, some photo electric cells, and a cubic metre of printed circuits could perfor. There were factories that ran for weeks without being visited by a single human being. Men were needed for trouble-shooting, for making decisions, for planning new enterprises. The robots did the rest”

As Steven Levy notes, AI was being looked at in the 1950’s, and the eventual direction of the current successful AI is different to the original plans of replicating the human brain. But even so, that almost 60-year-old paragraph from Clarke can’t fail to resonate. And as someone with a young child and a corresponding diet of animated films, this also really stood out.

“The hundred years since the time of Disney had still left much undone in this most flexible of mediums. On the purely realistic side, results could be produced indistinguishable from actual photography – much to the contempt of those who were developing the cartoon along abstract lines.”

Again, not necessarily something that was inconceivable in the 50s, but something that is hitting us now with the likes of Avatar, or the massive leaps in videogame cinematics over the last 10-20 years.
On the platform, reading

Present day technology and predictions:

But what of the present day? Someone once wrote that the way to predict what technology would arrive was to read popular science-fiction, because that hugely influences the interests and passions of the geeks who go on to make it a reality…

Well, I’ve recently given my father two Cory Doctorow books (Available as free downloads from Cory’s site, or via the likes of Amazon in dead tree format), and I’ve also bought one for my partner, and as she rarely reads any geeky things I put in front of her, I bribed her with some chocolate to give it a try…


Remember, at this point, that my family all believe I have what my good friend @pjeedai refers to as a ‘Chandler Job‘. They understand I work on a computer, and at some point, I’m able to pay some bills and buy food for another month.

Having read Little Brother, I now have a partner who not only enjoyed the book, but is slightly more interested in what it is I do, and what I’m passionate about. And I can now mention cryptography without her eyes glazing over completely.

But the biggest and best surprise of all has been buying my dad copies of ‘Makers‘ and ‘For The Win‘. Having spent years trying to bridge the gap between his talents at practical stuff – in addition to working as an electrician, he’s also a dab hand with cars, and a talented artist – and my supposed skills at writing and ephemeral digital stuff such as social media and gaming, one of my big joys was hearing him talk about 3D Printing after reading Makers, and seeing some of the ways in which it’s immensely inspiring, disruptive and important. Hence why my plan to purchase a Makerbot is increasingly important.

I thought ‘For The Win’ would be riskier – it’s a more alien subject, as it deals with unionisation of gamers in virtual worlds – but as someone who has experienced unions and working practices in the real world for his whole life, I figured he might find it interesting. But the biggest personal thing for me is that I’ve been talking about gaming, virtual worlds and virtual economies to people for years, and my dad never really got what the hell I was talking about. Until I spoke to him on the phone last night, and he said that now he understood all the gaming stuff I’d been telling him about – and started asking me a few questions about it.

With great writing comes great effects:

Without diving into the world of literary semiotics, there’s a whole world of meaning and significance which come the person ‘consuming’ content, rather than those creating it, regardless of their original artistic intent. And that’s something which can reach and affect people after decades, or hundreds of years, in deeply personal and moving ways, or in ways that can inspire movements. It’s also something which you can occasionally lose sight of, particularly in an age of search engines, content farms, and corporate content.

Never forget that by investing time and effort in crafting something to the best of your ability, that you may get back far, far more than you put into it!