Does SEO Spell the End for Evocative Titles?

When writing a blog, it is important to keep in mind Search Engine Optimisation (SEO).  The SEO of any blog dictates whether it will be discovered by ‘organic’ traffic, that is to say web surfers sticking random keywords into Google.

A crucial factor when thinking about SEO is the title that you assign to your blog.  This is because it is the keywords in the title, which rank highest with the algorithms that filter internet searches.

Popular keywords include things like ‘new’ and ‘sexy’ and ‘weather’ and ‘BBC’.  So, if you are writing a blog about a sexy new weather-reporter who has just started on the BBC, you are pretty much guaranteed an SEO success, as long as you include all of those words in your blog’s title.  The problem is, for anyone of a vaguely literary bent, that is kinda obvious, isn’t it?  I mean, where is the romance in a title like ‘Sexy New Weather-Reporter Starts at BBC’; surely, much preferable and less-PC would be something like ‘Warm Front Approaching from the South’?

But in a digital world dominated by SEO, it is never gonna rank.  Never gonna get found.  Never gonna get read.  And so, in the scramble for ‘shares’ and ‘likes’, all attempts at subtle literary word-play are lost, and boring, lowest common denominator predictability prosper.

I will give you another example: I once wrote a blog about a cross-Atlantic rower entitled ‘Sea-sickness, salt sores and sharks’.  If there was a Pulitzer for alliteration, I was already there, ready to accept my award.  Instead, what happened?  My title was pulled, and a Ronseal alternative replaced it; a title so tediously mundane that I can no longer recall it, but which did ‘exactly what it says on the can’ and so ranked high with SEO.

The same thing is happening in publishing.  I have previously written at my frustration at how some Gladys Mitchell titles are being rebranded; it is a trend that dates back a long way, with Death of a Delft Blue retitled by the bleeding and boringly obvious Death in Amsterdam by Severn House, way back in 1989.

Even the eternally-progressive Mudskipper Press are not immune from this disease: they retitled Edmond Rawson’s Big Fish to Death in Bora Bora, inspired more by economics than poetic licence.

In an age when the algorithm is king, what is a writer to do?  Stay true to literary integrity and not be read; or bow to commercial concerns and find an audience?

© Fergus Longfellow

Fergus Longfellow is a literary purist.

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