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If You Think Your Audience Is an Algorithm, You’re Doing it Wrong

If You Think Your Audience Is an Algorithm, You’re Doing it Wrong


One of the first things I learned in journalism school, and later honed in my PR career, was the concept of knowing one’s audience. For example, when writing for the general “newspaper-reading” public, you need to make sure your text is crafted at no more than an eleventh-grade reading level. And while writing an article in a journalism class, if you throw-in a bunch of heavy-duty words, you’ll get crucified by the professor. In the business world, if you don’t understand your audience, you can develop marketing material that goes over your audience’s collective head, or worse, insults them. Remember, your audience comprises people who you want to educate, connect with, and persuade.

Yet as communicators, in recent years, we have drifted. Our emphasis has shifted away from people and instead focused on the computer algorithms created by search engines. We write website copy over-burdened with search terms, and we worry more about keyword density than meaning and message. We write copy of a length and depth that we think pleases Google, rather than what our readers want. And we endure seemingly endless meetings trying to divine what terms prospects will plug-in to search boxes, in addition to spending millions of dollars trying to drive people to our sites. This has evolved into a problem.

Believe me, we are all in the same boat. I still cringe, thinking about the keyword dense copy I had on my site until fairly recently. “As a Miami public relations firm meeting the needs of Miami businesses with a Miami public relations solution . . .” Gag me! What the hell was I thinking? Well, I wasn’t writing for people; I was writing for an algorithm at the behest of an SEO expert. (In retrospect, it’s even worse, because I consider myself a professional communicator. That copy was crap.)

As I have said many times, the folks at Google are way smarter than us, and the Google mission is to direct people to the information they are seeking. They have figured out that people want what they want and do not want to be driven somewhere else.

From a communications and marketing standpoint, this means it’s time to move on. We need to give up trying to outsmart Google and start writing and presenting meaningful content to our audience, which, remember, is made up of people, not computers. Meaningful content will get found, be appreciated, and ultimately further your business mission.

Google knows this too and is leading the charge. Fairly recent updates to its search process have sent many companies scrambling to replace web traffic. The old tricks aren’t working, and all roads are pointing to brand building and authentic communications. A recent article in Entrepreneur explains it better than I can.

Now, I’m not saying that publishing good content eliminates the need for search engine optimization. That craft still exists, and you still need SEO-friendly content. All those meta tags and descriptions are not for naught, but they are less important than you thought. And for companies that have a mass-market audience, I highly recommend consulting with experts who are regularly analyzing the ins and outs of search, the Google algorithm updates, and the finer points of SEO.

But if you are in a small, niche business, then you’d better be thinking about authentic, interesting, and worthwhile content, and forget about teaching to the algorithm test.

It’s important to note that I’m not just talking about SEO and being found online. Storytelling and compelling visuals, as well as attention-getting video, all need to be considered as we weave our marketing tales. We can never forget that our audience is made up of people—sometimes smart, oftentimes fallible, and frequently unpredictable, but people, nonetheless. They are the ones who click, who make stories go viral, and who ultimately reach into their wallets and make purchases. An algorithm will never be your customer, so don’t make it your audience.


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  1. Bingo John! We shifted our release writing guidance to clients late last year. Write for humans and be visual. How refreshing it was for so many in our industry when Google began to reward solid, old-school, straght-up good, clear writing. I’m as guilty as the next person of using jargon.

    Speaking of visuals, we started down this path 15 years ago. I must share this really cool new tool that advances the visual angle and uses a new technology called ThingLink: Picture Capsule example: http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20140925005190/en/Mood-Media-Launches-Streaming-Music-Solution-Business (mouse across the image).

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Mike. Old school making a comeback! Who would have imagined two eternally youthful guys (and you of your considerable age) would be saying that. Thanks, as always.

  2. NIce post John. The funny thing about Google is that algorithm stuff is updated literally all the time. As soon as an article is published about google, it’s out of date. Google Authorship was all the rage…poof! Gone!

    Hard and fast rules won’t work with SEO anymore, I think we’re in a semi-fluid state to succeed absent PPC. The keyword stuffing is long gone…indeed it is about good content…more importantly content that people are searching for (that can be good or bad). So in the end, we do need to think about keywords/phrases, but in a natural way….not sure there’s any other way for them to match content. Note that Google provides sports scores without us having to visit NFL.com or our favorite team website or ESPN.com. I wonder if Google had their way, if they’d just provide the answers and eliminate the links to our sites and blogs altogether….guess we aren’t there yet (hah). I think the rules are really created to corral the content to their liking rather than ours.

    1. Thanks, Tom. Very interesting points. This could be prescient: “I wonder if Google had their way, if they’d just provide the answers and eliminate the links to our sites and blogs altogether.”


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