This week’s decision by Politico‘s whip-smart Ben Smith to abandon the powerful political website he helped build to join Buzzfeed, a site known best as a haven for procrastinators looking for funny animal videos, is the most significant media news of 2011. Bigger than the NYTimes.com paywall. Bigger than Facebook’s “frictionless sharing”. Bigger than the rise of the tablet.
That’s because the hiring of Smith officially marks a decline to the most detestable media trend in memory: search-engine optimized content.
As a reader, nothing has been more agonizing to watch than the rise of writing created specifically to look good to search engines, engineered to be heavy on keywords and light on subtlety. The intention was not to necessarily create compelling narratives, but rather writing that Google machines could understand without difficulty.
Making Google the arbiter of what kind of media we would see gave us the easy-to-mock Demand Media and Associated Content, famous for high-ranking articles that said nothing at all. But the trend changed journalism at higher levels, too, encouraging newspaper editors to run banal, overly literal headlines rather than clever ones. (The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten skewered this trend last year in a must-read piece on the evils of SEO-driven journalism.)
Smith says that the decision to marry his hard-news background with the meme-creation machine of Buzzfeed is the start of something different and something better: rather than writing to impress computer algoritms, journalisms should be writing to encourage sharing on social networks such as Facebook. Here’s how he described it to Fast Company:
“We’re going to operate on the assumption that the main way readers get our stories is through sharing, and that we should be writing the sort of things people want to share,” he wrote back. “There’s a huge advantage organizing yourself around the distribution model that is actually how people get news.”
… “A lot of online journalism has been about gaming search engine algorithms–writing, in a way, for machines. Sharing is fundamentally about producing things people like.”
The fear, of course, is that a hyper-focus on what readers want (as opposed to what they need) encourages the creation of more Kardashian news and less journalism about, say, the death throes of the Euro. But those fears have always existed in journalism, and they’d exist with or without Facebook. Though I still have Filter Bubble fears, given a choice between what my friends like and what Google likes, I’ll stand with Smith.