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Shakespeare Was Wrong About SEO

Updated: Nov 27, 2022

If you’ve ever used “SEO” as a marketer or struggled to drive traffic to your website as a business owner, you really need to know that Shakespeare was wrong.

I’ll get to why that’s important and how it's affecting your business in just a bit. But before we go there, we need a quick look at the research on behavioural economics and what it tells us about how human beings respond to language. (Bear with me, all this has very real relevance to your marketing effort and ROI, I promise.)

Consider, for instance, the fact that several studies (1, 2, 3) have found that what a game is called dramatically affects how people play it. It turns out that people are twice as likely to behave cooperatively if a game is called “Community”, as opposed to being called “the Wall Street game”, even if the rules, instructions, and game design are exactly identical in both cases.

Or another study (by the renowned Cialdini), which showed that at a national park, using a sign that reads, “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the park,” is far more effective than one that reads, “Please leave petrified wood in the park”. (So much for positive messages being better.)

Or yet other studies (1, 2) that found that people were far less likely to cheat for monetary gain if the instructions say, “Please don’t be a cheater”, instead of, “Please don’t cheat”.

The point is:

Word choice matters.

Shakespeare waxed poetic about names not making a difference, but science tells us that he was wrong.

Of course, advertising copywriters have always known this. Nobody would ever try to sell roses rebranded as “inedible, fragrant, chromatic cabbages”, no matter how sweet those roses smell.

So, what does all this have to do with SEO?

Well, as I was saying at the beginning of this post: if you’ve ever struggled to drive organic traffic to a website — there’s a good chance that the problem is with the term you’re using: Search Engine Optimisation.

Inherent to the term, “SEO”, is the idea that in order to achieve content marketing success and drive abundant organic traffic to your website, the thing that you need to be optimising for, is search engines.

And therein lies the problem.

Image of a Google search results page in the style of ancient papyrus
SEO is an obsolete paradigm

It’s understandable where the term comes from. In the early days of search engines, site owners had to tell search engines what each webpage was about, through the use of meta tags and keywords.

In those days, if your pages didn’t have the right tags — i.e., if they weren’t optimised for search engines — your pages would suffer in terms of their visibility in search results. In that context, it made perfect sense to use the term “SEO”, because that’s exactly and entirely what the process was about.

But this is the internet we’re talking about. We’ve come a long way from the HTML-table Frankenstein-monster webpages of the 90s, and from the primitive search engines that crawled them. (If you don’t remember using AltaVista, DogPile, and InfoSeek, you’re probably too young to know what I’m talking about.)

Search engines no longer work that way, and they haven’t worked that way for a long time now.

Today, there are hundreds of factors that search engines consider when indexing and ranking the web. All the on-page, off-page, and technical attributes of your site / content, only form a subset of the sum total of those ranking factors.

In this context, search engines are really NOT what you should be trying to optimise for. It’s no exaggeration to say that untold amounts of time and effort, and vast sums of money, have been wasted by obsessing with this “optimise for search engines” mindset. Including, quite possibly, thousands of your marketing dollars.

So, what should you be doing instead?

Well, start thinking in terms of optimising your pages and content for your intended users. Instead of trying to game search engines by paying for links, buying guest posts, spamming other website owners, and so on, focus on creating content that is genuinely useful, and tools and resources that actually help people, and participating in your industry in ways that build real value.

Optimise for your readers. Not search engines.

Google themselves have been saying this for years now. But most of us haven't really been listening.

Perhaps we should stop calling it Search Engine Optimisation, and instead call it what it actually is: Reader Experience Optimisation.

That sounds gimmicky, I know. I roll my eyes at gimmicks as much as you do.

But, hey: if a name change can actually make a tangible difference to your marketing ROI and business success, what have you got to lose?

After all... what’s in a name?

PS: If you’re saying, “Yeah, yeah, so what does “REO” actually involve, wiseguy?” I’m glad you asked. Stay tuned for future posts for more on that, and tonnes of actionable content marketing stratagems.

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