We read a lot online. Well, we start reading a lot of articles and blogs online but according to data from marketing firms, we often don’t finish what we start. In fact, the average web user will leave a page, or “bounce” in marketing speak, within the first four paragraphs.
The most common explanation for these bounce rates is that people on the internet have very short attention spans and don’t always “engage” (more marketing speak) with what they’re scrolling through.
It’s food for thought. So for those bouncers among us, let me give you the condensed version of this article now, so you stay engaged.
Is SEO Changing the Way we Read and Write Online?
Still here? Let’s continue then.
If we have short attention spans when it comes to web use, it’s reasonable to assume that we don’t want to spend a lot of time going through pages 2–10 of the Google results. We’re far more likely to choose from the first few hits displayed when we make a search. Are those first results the best sources of information or are they simply SEO optimised to perfection?
If the latter is true, there’s a very real concern that SEO is dictating what we read and what we don’t.
At this point, it’s handy to ask:
What Is SEO?
Search engine optimisation, or SEO, is a method which aims to generate the best possible search engine rankings for a web page or piece of content published online.
To achieve this, writers and digital marketing agencies utilise primary and secondary keywords. Keywords are terms, phrases, and even short sentences that consist of what people actually search for. So it could be something like “best hotel Vienna” or “pain in lower back”.
Have you ever been reading online and suddenly come across a phrase that was grammatically unsound in a piece of writing that otherwise had excellent spelling and grammar? There’s a high chance that was a keyword.
Keywords are just one part of the equation though. SEO marketers also gear their content so that it is rewarded by search engines in other ways. Above and beyond providing valuable content to readers, this involves writing that consists of short and easily scannable sentences, an uncomplicated style, and ample use of headings and subheadings.
Let’s take the popular SEO plug-in Yoast as an example. Yoast rules dictate no more than 300 words of text without a subheading, no paragraph longer than four lines, sentences no longer than twenty words, and a carefully constructed keyword density rating.
The preferred reading age is a 7th to 9th grade level. The passive voice is discouraged, as are adverbs, frequent use of adjectives, and multiple clauses.
The Dumbing Down of Content
As we saw above, search-engine-friendly content is simple, easy to read, easy to understand, and never too taxing on the reader. Several phrases and reiterations of that same phrase are repeated at regular intervals throughout the text. Just in case the reader — who, of course, is assumed to read at an 8th-grade level — forgot what they were reading about. Short attention spans after all.
It’s not much of a stretch to make the charge that we are dumbing down the internet. All writers who put their keyboards to use for content writing are guilty of it. I’m guilty of it too. Not all clients allow me creative freedom and the chance to use long sentences and multiple clauses (thanks Alexandra!) [You're welcome. I love your style. xxx]
But here’s the strange bit, my own style has started to change. It’s become more SEO-friendly without any effort on my behalf. Now, I might do this for a job, but whether you’re a writer or not, we’re all absorbing information from the net. We’re all subjected to the new rules which dictate what and how we read.
It’s easy to imagine that the changes brought about by SEO are affecting everyone’s taste, and everyone’s preference when it comes to style. Are we homogenising writing? This is an interesting question which is closely related to the homogenisation of online culture as a result of rising global connectivity.
Answers to this question aren’t readily available (even on Google) but as the academic field of digital literacies grows and gains prominence, which it must, there will surely be debates surrounding our changing reading-and-writing mores and the style of writing which is taking over the net.
The style and formatting preferred for web writing make it easy for the reader to skim through the content, getting a basic understanding of the general gist without having to pay much attention. This is affecting both online and offline reading patterns, to the point that the Guardian has declared skim reading “the new normal”.
The knock-on effect of this is that we aren’t really grasping the complexity of what we read and we aren’t critically engaging. Perhaps we too will become as dumbed down as the content we read online.
But are our new reading patterns purely a result of our hindered-by-technology attention spans or are SEO’s rules and style guidelines to blame?
The Chicken or the Egg?
In many ways, the SEO versus style and content debate is kind of like the chicken and egg scenario. It’s impossible to ascertain if SEO practices are driving the change or if changing reading habits are responsible.
More likely, a complex interrelationship between the two is making us adjust our expectations of a text and the way we approach it. As digital marketing and marketers become even savvier than they are now — and trust me, they’re pretty crafty when it comes to gaining exposure and minimising bouncers — the new, preferred style for online content is likely to continue gaining momentum. Until the next big shift, that is.
That this current style is affecting the way we read both offline and online, is, in this web writer’s opinion, a crying shame.
What do you think? We’d love to hear your opinion so please leave us a comment below.