NYT, HuffPo Still Don't Get SEO

August 7, 2019

On Wednesday, Jill Whalen (@jillwhalen) shared a link to a "stupid" article in the New York Times by someone who "has no clue what SEO is."

Stupid NYT article

The NYT isn't the opposite of hard-hitting journalism with integrity (that's the Huffington Post) but it's often surprisingly crappy. So I was quick to click and see just how stupid the piece was.

The verdict? Fairly stupid. It's all about headline writing for SEO, but it's hard to tell if the author (David Carr) really doesn't understand SEO and keyword optimization or just thinks he's being funny. The headline on the article is "Taylor Momsen Did Not Write this Headline." Why this headline, on a piece that has nothing to do with Taylor Momsen? Here's why:

Don’t know who Taylor Momsen is? Neither do I, beyond that she is the mean one on “Gossip Girl.” But Facebook knows her well, Twitter loves her, and she and Google have been hooking up, like, forever.

One more fact about Ms. Momsen: she has nothing to do with this column, let alone the headline. But her very name is a prized key word online — just the thing to push my column to the top of Google rankings.

Did this dumb trick work? Turns out, yes: I Googled "taylor momsen" and there it is, right on page 2.

Taylor Momsen SERP

So all you have to do to get high rankings and hella traffic is stick popular, irrelevant keywords in your headlines?

Ehhh … not exactly. Here are a just a few reasons why it doesn't really work that way:

  • The vast majority of sites don't have anywhere near the authority of the NYT domain. They have little chance of ranking on a competitive, high-volume keyword even if their content is fully optimized for that keyword.
  • This article may rank for the keyword today, but will it rank for Taylor Momsen searches next week? Next month? I doubt it—it's just not relevant enough. Almost no one looking for information on Taylor Momsen is going to click a result with that headline and meta description.
  • Relevance over time is generally proven out by links—natural links are the result of people linking to something they consider useful or entertaining. If the keyword isn't relevant to the content, people aren't going to link to it with that keyword in the anchor text (unless they're consciously trying to trick spiders).

A funny side effect of this "optimization"—a couple of stories about the "SEO" in the NYT article are ranking on the first page of "News" results for "Taylor Momsen," but not the NYT piece itself. (This reminds me of the silly Wired piece on Mike Siwek.)

One more quibble with the article: "Headlines in newspapers and magazines were once written with readers in mind, to be clever or catchy or evocative. Now headlines are just there to get the search engines to notice," Carr writes. Well, no, not really. Search engines are a factor but SEO copywriters are also thinking of the readers—when they scan headlines in Google they're probably not looking for the cleverest one, they're looking for the one that most directly addresses their needs. Grabbing those readers often means giving up a little cleverness in favor of clarity. (In print, the assumption was that readers were already holding the paper, and reading whatever you served up; you weren't competing against thousands of other articles covering the same subject matter.)

The headline in question ("Taylor Momsen Did Not Write This Headline"), for example, really tells me nothing about the content of the article. If I saw it in the Google results for "Taylor Momsen," I wouldn't click. And if I saw it in the results for "SEO headlines" or "keyword-optimized headlines," I wouldn't click either. It really doesn't speak to any audience. So much for clever.

Guess Who Also Sucks? The Huffington Post

Speaking of SEO marketing for dummies … also this week, I clicked on a link to a story about Adam Wheeler, a Harvard kid who just got busted for faking his way through college. This is what I see when the page loads:

The Huffington Post Sucks

WHAT is this CRAP? All the tags push the actual article below the fold. If you're going to "optimize" your page by dumping a hundred auto-generated tags on it, can't you at least put them at the bottom of the page? I mean, seriously, HuffPo. Your spam is showing. The best thing I can say about these tags is that none of them include the keyword "Taylor Momsen."

Have a great weekend, all.

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream's Director of Content and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.

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