For all of its virtues, the Internet has a serious issue when it comes to authenticity. While it does give everyone a voice that can be heard anywhere and everywhere, sometimes this freedom creates legitimacy out of false information. Do you believe everything you read on the Internet? Unfortunately, many people do, and this could produce seriously negative consequences.
Take this post from Gawker Media that shows just what could happen when the wrong information goes out onto the Internet. Spike Lee was justifiably angry over the Trayvon Martin shooting, but then he tweeted out George Zimmerman’s address to his 500,000 Twitter followers, which was then retweeted to millions more. The problem with this action, aside from the obvious ethical dilemma it creates? He got the wrong address.
The address, in reality, belonged to an elderly couple who, following the tweet, received a number of death threats and violent acts against their house. Lee, to his credit, did eventually settle to the tune of $10,000, but the elderly couple is still suffering. Sadly, this tweet is still getting out there without the disclaimer, so the couple sued Lee again for damages sustained after the original settlement.
While only time will tell whether the couple will get more money for the nightmare scenario they’ve been put through, it does go to show that too much information without any editorial process can be a dangerous thing. Spike Lee did not mean for this to happen, but he put the information out there, and those who are late to the game and have no knowledge of the lawsuit may still think that is Zimmerman’s real address.
So what’s the lesson that we have learned here? Besides the fact that Lee should spend more time making movies and less time tweeting and hanging out in MSG, it’s that the Internet is a powerful medium for information — information that people will believe with or without any authoritative punch behind it. Therefore, any business or organization should carefully scrutinize online branding for both awareness and PR purposes.
What does effective online branding include? In general, it could mean anything that builds positive awareness about your company — it could include a combination of press releases detailing new product lines or charitable initiatives, YouTube videos with the enhanced potential of going viral, or a strong social media presence that encourages collaboration and participation by fans.
The point is to get positive, correct information out there to offset any misinformed tweets or other pieces of unauthoritative, untrue information that tend to make their home on the Internet. Don’t believe the power of the Internet? Just ask Eddie Murphy how many times he’s supposedly died. For more information about building a stronger brand online, please download this White Paper.
During the first class of the first creative writing course I ever took, my teacher posited the question to us of what is the minimum word length a writer could write a story. I remembered that the “Cask of Amontillado” was really short, so I offered a guess of 500 words. Other classmates gave guesses of 300, 450, and 200. One courageous student said 20, but when he was asked to say a story in 20 words or less, he sunk into his seat and offered only a meager excuse of how he didn’t have his coffee yet. Admitting defeat, we deferred back to the teacher who wrote this on the board:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
Although it’s been disputed whether or not Hemingway actually wrote this short story, you have to admit that the single line is rather compelling. Immediately, you ask questions of whether or not there was a baby, if the baby died in childbirth, or if the baby just had too chubby of feet to fit into the shoes. Because of the ambiguity and structure of this sentence, a linguist would have a field day with this story.
For example, in linguistics, syntax usually refers to the order of the words in a sentence and how this affects the meaning. Notice that the writer chose to end with the phrase, never worn. By doing this, it intimates that there is shame on the part of person who says it because there is a slight pause with the comma, indicating hesitation.
Let’s say you wrote the sentence like this instead: Never worn baby shoes for sale! Here, never worn is right in the forefront, suggesting that the writer is proud of the fact that the shoes have never been worn and is using this as a selling point. Although both sentences feature the same six words, there are stark differences between the two. Yet each is a story on its own – just a very different one at that.
I described my first day in Creative Writing 101 not to illustrate why I got a C in the course, but rather to show the wondrous ability writers have to create meaning out of words, even if there are many restrictions put on them.
In SEO, this is no different; in fact, some content writers might argue that SEO puts so many restrictions on them, with character limits, tone and keywords, that it creates a sink or swim situation: Either you can choose to sink amidst the limitations put on you and write the same old story, or you can choose to swim with the current and deliver the best content that you can within those parameters (such as being asked to write a story in six words or less).
If you do choose to swim, here are two things to consider that deal with linguistics:
• Don’t try to write a new story – it’ll never happen. The key in creating good content is saying the same story in a new and interesting way. In SEO, you’re writing content that is geared towards specific keywords and themes, but is there a way to write that content that will spark readers’ interests? Can you play around with word choice to derive more meaning out of those keywords, rather than just writing the same old boring content that will never get picked up by anyone? Given the fact that we use a computer screen to read pages and are, therefore, conditioned to scroll up and down and glance, can you layout and edit down your content in a way that will spark meaning within seconds in order to get the message across? It’s cliché, but how you write the story is what matters.
• Computers don’t exactly understand context. In linguistics, the ability to use context, place, intent and other factors is called pragmatics. Computers can infer meaning through latent semantic indexing, but this is no guarantee. Think of the movie, Terminator 2 when John Connor teaches the Terminator how to speak like a human. The Terminator doesn’t understand slang or sarcasm. However, by becoming more human as he stays with John and Sara, he infers the meaning of what is being said and uses phrases like “Hasta La Vista, Baby” correctly. By understanding the targeted reader of your content, you can use phrases and terms that coincide with their contextual understanding of things to connect with them and create engaging content.
By considering linguistics and rising to the occasion of working within limitations that SEO demands, you can certainly create interesting and shareable content that others will actually find compelling.
Let me ask you a question: How long would you read this blog post if it was written in one sentence – just a sprawling maze of stream of consciousness, statistics, industry jargon and analysis that led nowhere and had no real clear message or idea of whom the author was writing for? And even worse, there were no pictures!
I’m assuming not very far, so don’t worry, I’m not going to do that to you. However, in relation to that question, I will discuss one of the biggest issues I find when reviewing sites, both professionally and on my free time: disastrous web copy. Web copy can quickly welcome or deter potential customers, so it’s important to take your content seriously and invest your time and money in producing the best content available.
You might already be asking, what does good content even mean? To examine this question, it’s often advantageous to look to the past experts – for the purposes of this blog, I’ll use George Orwell. Although George Orwell never saw a computer or surfed the web, he knew how to effectively convey his message and deliver a good story to the reader. Besides his numerous novels and news features, Orwell’s greatest contribution to writing might be his essay for writers, “Politics and the English Language.”
In this, Orwell offers five rules that can certainly can and should apply to your own web writing. Let’s take a look at the original rules and then modernize them to make them relevant to your business or organization’s content.
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print: When Orwell wrote this, he was referring to dead metaphors, metaphors with meanings that differ from original intent. Writing with dead metaphors could confuse the reader who doesn’t have knowledge of the intended meaning of the metaphor. In regard to web copy, make sure to use examples and allusions that are universally known, so the correct message is conveyed to the reader.
- Never use a long word when a short one will do: Knowing seven syllable words is great for the SATs and dinner parties, but it will do you little good in regard to web copy. The general rule of thumb is to write web copy at an eighth grade level. While the actual sophistication of the diction used will depend on the target audience and industry served, you should try and make your copy understandable to the general public.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, cut it out: A long piece of copy can be intimidating to a visitor of your page. Remember your consternation when I posed that question about writing this entire blog post in one sentence? While you do want enough content on the page for search engines to crawl your site, you don’t want to overwhelm the reader with content, so they’re exhausted. Format matters here too. Using shorter sentences, lists instead of paragraphs and playing around with bolding and fonts can make your content more approachable.
- Never use the passive when you can use the active: Passive voice often sounds awkward to the reader. When describing your products, philosophy and anything else related to your business or organization, try to structure it in a way that sounds sensible and correct to the reader. Not sure how to do this yourself? Read it out loud. If you’re reading your own writing or copy that you commissioned from a professional SEO and you’re stumbling a lot or need to backtrack, something is wrong.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent: This fits in line with the second rule. For example, let’s say you have a home improvement e-commerce website. If your copy is inundated with technical terms and construction industry jargon, you might confuse or intimidate some visitors who are unfamiliar with the terms. While not always possible, if you can simplify your web copy, do so to attract a larger audience.
Of course, George Orwell follows this up with a sixth rule that says these rules can be broken to avoid bad writing, but these rules go to show that good writing is good writing at any age. Use Orwell’s rules in your own web copy or hire those who know how to get the correct message and branding you want for your business or organization.