New Orleans Item newspaper news room, circa 1900 (from Wikimedia Commons)

As more and more science writing is done specifically for the web, the way science writers pen their stories is subtly and not-so-subtly changing. Writers are becoming increasingly conscious of search engine optimisation (SEO) and social media optimisation (SMO) for instance. And they are taking those into account as they write. Is this affecting science writing online for the better or worse? And does it matter at all?

Matt Shipman has an interesting interview with Wil Reynolds, a founder of internet agency SEER Interactive, on his SciLogs.com blog [full disclosure: I am the Community Manager of SciLogs.com]. In the interview, Reynolds gives some advice to writers as to how they can use SEO to ultimately get more eyeballs.

Reynolds makes sure to make mention that SEO should not alter your writing however: “As a writer, I would say never put words where they don’t belong just for SEO.” Instead, Reynolds advises writers to look for and cover topics which have the potential to do well on search engines.

Of course, this in itself is a problem. By only focusing on topics that can do well on search engines, writers will disproportionately cover the sensational topics and those that are regularly in the news, such as climate change for example. Other equally important issues may not be picked up. All in all this leads to amplifying a filter bubble of sorts.

But as SEO and SMO become more prevalent in online writing, it is naïve to not expect writers to accommodate these practices in their writings. Numerous online publications for instance already A/B test various titles per article. Others use one title for social media promotion and a different one that is specifically search engine-optimised on their website.

While altering titles may not be that big of a deal, it is only the beginning. Frequently linking to articles or blog posts from one’s own publication is an SEO tactic that’s widely used. Writing a lede filled with SEO-friendly words is another. And I wouldn’t be surprised if a few social media editors are drafting new SEO guidelines for journalists to incorporate in their writings right now.

My point is that SEO and SMO are obviously changing online writing. And it’s happening right now. Is it a good or bad thing? I don’t think it can be polarised as such. All writers want to be read and if SEO and SMO are done right, writers will likely get more readers. But abusing those strategies at the detriment of the writing is not the way to go because content should always be king.

The question then is: can writers do good SEO and SMO without compromising the quality of their writing? Can you? Upcoming science writers should also think about how adequate use of SEO and SMO can promulgate science communication to the masses. Do share your thoughts and your SEO and SMO strategies in the comment section.