SEO and the ethical implications of keyword searches

Recent discussion has lead some media aficionados to question the legitimacy of the AP standard in online writing, instead opting for an SEO standard. All the talk about SEO has caused many journalists to supplant quality writing with keyword, or popular search writing.

SEO, or Search Engine Optimization connects web writing with keyword trends, applied frequently by journalists looking for more web traffic. Consider this from OJR’s Robert Niles from an April 2010 story:

“SEO provides the key to reaching an audience not motivated by existing print brands, including younger readers and readers outside a publication’s traditional search area – folks who might not know to seek out a newspaper website, but who would nevertheless be interested in its content.”

But when asked to consider the ethical implications of SEO, the most important question to ask is, what does SEO have to do with ethics?

Valid question.
Ground Zero Controversy

Poynter identifies one particular story that dominated the news two years ago – the infamous “Ground Zero Mosque” headlines that involved an Islamic Mosque being built two blocks from the former World Trade Center site.

Poynter points out an erroneous search term that began to dominate the online news community. “Ground Zero Mosque” became an instant hit, not because it is accurate, but because the media began to use it more and more when it became popular in online searches.

In the article, Kelly McBride says, “Accurate or not, people are searching for the term ‘ground zero mosque.’ So if you want to reach people who are looking for information, you have to use that term.”

The very way in which this search term picked up steam is exactly what Stephen Colbert astutely identifies. McBride again connects Colbert’s observation with real-world examples.

“Steven Colbert frequently points out that if you repeat something loudly and often enough, people will believe it’s true,” she says. “There are numerous polls of late that bear this out, including the persistent rumor that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States and that he’s a Muslim.”

The problem lies with the presentation and fact checking of the content we post as journalists, however. This problem is not new. “Sadly, loud and short have always beaten careful and accurate in journalism,” Scott Rosenberg, co-founder of Salon pointed out.

He went on to say, “Even such negative repetition reinforces the subliminal message [that it is a mosque at ground zero]. This sort of framing is very difficult to wriggle out of anywhere, not just on Google.”

The Ethical Dilemma

“It may be inaccurate, but if that’s what the public is searching for, then using it speaks to what they seek,” Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land, explained in the Poynter story.

News organizations have begun to write stories based more on SEO and popular keywords at the expense of great writing, says Malcom Coles.

This kind of reporting is unethical to a degree. As journalists, we act as gatekeepers for the audience. We are supposed to execute accurate and well-though out reporting based on fact and newsworthiness. Since when did we begin to write based on what is popular?

By focusing only on what Google tells us is trending right now, we limit ourselves to aggregators. We aren’t providing anything new to the conversation, but simply adding our two cents in based on a couple of keywords.

I’m not saying that journalists do not do any accurate or investigative reporting anymore, I’m saying that writing based on keywords is done with the idea of getting more readership.

Is it right to use the wrong keywords in a story because everyone else does or is it wrong because it’s inaccurate? Either your story gets bumped to the third page of search results by using the correct terminology, or you join the crowd and use those trending keywords to push your story to the top of the search page.

9 thoughts on “SEO and the ethical implications of keyword searches

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