Overhead photo of a man with too many devices, likely sponging free WiFi from the coffee shop he uses as an office.

Google Says, “You Should Have Listened To Neil Hedley”

Okay, that’s not exactly a direct quote. But I saw the recent Google announcements sending SEO aficionados into their latest algorithmic tailspin from miles away. I made a point of saying so here and in other places. Maybe you just didn’t know me back then. Maybe you just kinda dismissed me as being too “old school” to be relevant where things like SEO were concerned. It’s okay. No grudges here. As often as I can, I try to be a judgment-free zone.

Here’s an audio version of this article for your dining and dancing pleasure.

The reality is there are two reasons you should have listened to me. Actually, that doubles my justifications for saying “nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah.” I’ll cover them both here. And heck, I’ll even offer a solution.

Nyah Nyah Part One

Here’s the deal: About a year ago, I ran a test with the market leader in Artificial Intelligence copywriting. I told them nothing about the test. I created the test to be as organic as possible. What’s more, I wanted the unvarnished version of the results an average user could expect.

I shared the results in the second episode of this podcast in a piece called “On Podcast Advertising“. Maybe podcast listeners prefer host-read ads because the copy being generated for pre-produced ads is just really bad copy. Maybe because – no offense – your podcast isn’t the SuperBowl, the advertiser didn’t put their best writer on it. Or worse, they got an AI engine to write it. So they abdicated their responsibility to produce great copy. No effort to try and counter the built-in trust factor of the host-read ad.

Specifically, I fed all the information I could find about Time magazine into the market-leading AI copywriting bot. The AI gave options for the length and the tone of the copy that was to be generated. I specified it was for a radio commercial, and hit the drop-down box to create something it described as “witty”. Afterward, I compared what I got back against a series of commercials that ran in the 1970s for Time. Those spots were created by the legendary team of Dick Orkin and Bert Berdis.

The Results

Time credits the Dick & Bert spots for having built the brand. If you go back to the episode of the podcast I’m talking about, you’ll hear one of them. They’re hilarious. They take the same comedic energy that made a classic out of the Abbott & Costello bit “Who’s On First” and turned it into effective, memorable advertising.

On the other hand, the AI’s version of “witty” was nothing short of painful. It was the same feeling I get watching standup comics bomb. Not witty, not even mildly amusing. Know why? Because artificial intelligence bots can’t write funny. An AI can write something derivative. But they can’t create original and funny. It’s just not in the programming.

Not only that, the copy the AI created was just plain bad copy. The AI left a dozen gaping holes my first-year copywriting students would have spotted on their first day. The market leader in AI copywriting gave me, despite my best efforts, a terrible piece of advertising.

Oh, but guess what? I fed the copy into a tool that checked it for proper Search Engine Optimization? Well the SEO checker thought it was perfectly fine.

It’s not rocket science to see where that’s leading us. Poorly written copy – that the SEO gurus will prop up as being effective – because it checks off all their boxes.

Google Agrees With Me

The truth is, they have all along. They just didn’t think they needed to say so. Google couldn’t have envisioned a scenario where people forgot who actually consumes things. The truth is, your computer has never purchased anything. Furthermore, it’s never actually read anything. Yes, it has scanned the text on everything. But your computer has never been moved by something it read. Google never laughed at something funny, cried at something sad, or got angry about something.

I pointed that out here in a piece called “The One Thing That’s Killing Your Writing“. There, it was about how no one ever became a fan of Diana Ross & The Supremes because of SEO. At best, SEO might have helped someone find Diana Ross & The Supremes if they’d never heard of them before. Maybe, if they’d Googled “best Motown group of all time”. That’s not the heavy lifting, though. Because people read articles. People listen to Motown. And people decide whether to buy things.

As a result, on August 18, Google finally addressed the elephant in the room. They released new guidance in an article called, “More content by people, for people in Search” (emphasis mine). The TL;DR version: Stop writing for search engines. Stop using AI to write for search engines. Start writing for people. And start using people to do that writing. Among the most relevant chunks:

We know people don’t find content helpful if it seems like it was designed to attract clicks rather than inform readers. So starting next week for English users globally, we’re rolling out a series of improvements to Search to make it easier for people to find helpful content made by, and for, people.

Danny Sullivan, Google’s Public Liaison for Search

Nyah Nyah Part Two

Given the above statement from Google, you had to expect some consternation. Who am I kidding – there was a meltdown. Turns out tons of people on the internet who were branding themselves as copywriters were actually just algorithm hackers. I know that can be difficult to hear, especially for people who’ve been forced to backspace over their professed skill set. Now, Google has made it clear: Write something that inspires a reaction in humans, you’re a copywriter. Write something that ranks high on search engines, you’re a coder. Although you can make an easy argument for combining the two skills. If your piece of inspiring writing also manages to rank well, you’ve found the sweet spot.

Here Comes The Metaphor

If you’ve been listening to this show for a while, you know I’m a fan of credulity-stretching metaphors. Here comes an easy one. You write a love song on the guitar that makes people overwhelmed with emotion. Elton John calls you. He wants to record it. But he asks you to tweak it for piano. Further, Elton asks you to transpose the song to the key of F so it’s easier to reach the high notes. You still wrote a beautiful song, and it’s still going to overwhelm people. All you did was take your beautiful piece of writing and make some small changes that didn’t alter the impact.

Alternately, you could decide you want to write something in the key of F. You make it five minutes long, because someone told you that 300 seconds was the sweet spot for a hit song. You add the word “love” eighteen times over the course of the five minutes. Put in a couple of key changes for variety. Ask a celebrity for a collaboration on the second verse. And make sure the title really nails what’s in the content of the song. The rest doesn’t matter so much, as long as it checks off those boxes.

Now… which of those two are you seriously going to want played at your best friend’s wedding?

What The Future Holds

Would it surprise you to find that my rather stark assessment is actually sugar-coating it?

Meet Braveen Kumar. He’s a writer and Fractional B2B Content Marketer who works mostly with Software-as-a-Service companies. He just published a terrific piece called, “I Spent 5+ Hours Pushing the Limits of an AI Writer (It Was Terrifying)“. You’ll find a similar experiment to the one I used for Time magazine. However, he went into a ton of depth investigating exactly what an AI writer can do, and what it can’t.

At the end of it, he arrives at a stark conclusion.

After spending over 5 hours testing an AI writer, I can confidently say the bottom 30% of writers are probably screwed.

Braveen Kumar

In addition, there’s this gem:

It sounds harsh, but if you’re the kind of writer who can be easily replaced by an AI, you’re not a Writer, you’re a Typer.

Braveen Kumar

The Solution

You might infer from all I’ve said, a belief that I think SEO copywriters have no skill. That’s untrue. It’s just a different skill set than the copywriting I place value on. And now, it seems, the copywriting that Google places value on, too. For the reasons I outlined before (about Diana Ross), I’m far more interested in provoking responses from people. If you’re selling something and wrote copy that impressed a search engine, great. You still have to get a response from the human before you’re making a sale. Creating search engine copy that was terrific but doesn’t work on the human means I’ve achieved nothing.

If the writing on the wall has left you uncertain how to avoid falling into that “bottom 30%”, there’s an easy fix. It’s a shift of focus. It’s less about tricking the bots, and more about connecting with other humans. The bottom line is, there’s far more power in influencing people than in influencing a search engine. Staying away from that power is, to me, a mysterious choice. Your search engine results won’t convince me to love a certain restaurant. At best, they can alert me to the existence of it. Likewise, your Google ranking isn’t going to make me vote for a certain candidate (unless I’m an idiot). Instead, the best it can hope for is to alert me to information that might influence me. And no amount of search engine juice will convince me that Hudson Hawk is a good movie.

Maybe I Can Help Directly

If you need a hand with changing the focus of your writing to make it more powerful and inspiring for the ones who actually matter, I can help. Keep an eye or an ear on this space for something we’ve put together that I promise you will make you a better writer. And you’ll get that result without massive investments of time and money. We’ll be unveiling the details two episodes from now on this very show.

Finally, The Caveat

There is absolutely one scenario where Google’s tweaks, and Braveen Kumar’s assessment, should be cause for concern.

If your business model is built on tricking people to come to your derivative, robot-driven website so you can blast them with a hundred ads, then yes. Be worried. Because the gravy train you’ve been riding by making the Internet suck more, is very likely nearing its end, to make room for people who have figured out there’s a difference between creating and hacking.

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