Don’t fall victim to the tyranny of SEO

Heed my warning - for those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it

Like frosted tips and flared jeans, there are some trends that we should collectively be glad to leave behind. Over the last year, however, I’ve been seeing some developments in the world of podcasting that represent worrying parallels with some of the mistakes that web content has made in the past, and that have contributed to its ongoing decline. 

Discovery is a perennial problem for creators, so it's understandable that they'll take any edge they can get - and one of the tools that is becoming increasingly talked about is search engine optimisation, or SEO. 

For the uninitiated, SEO basically refers to the practice of constructing your content in such a way that it’s more likely to pop up in search engine results. In most cases, this means Google search (although it can also apply to other platforms), and there are a variety of levers that one can pull to improve your Google ranking. 

These range from straightforward measures, like making sure you’re using clear, descriptive titles that are based on the needs of your audience, to more arcane strategies exploiting loopholes in its algorithm, and there’s a whole industry dedicated to trying to divine what Google responds best to.

Semrush is one of the most popular tools within that industry, allowing SEO professionals to measure search rankings, track the technical factors that contribute to search performance, and track the popularity of various keywords. Podcast hosting platform Disctopia recently announced an integration with this platform, which will allow podcasters to extract keywords directly from their episode transcripts for use in Semrush, in order to track and optimise their search performance.

Now don’t get me wrong, SEO can be a powerful and beneficial tool when used responsibly - we use many of the principles of SEO on PodPod. Google is still one of the most powerful discovery platforms in the world, so it’s unwise to ignore it entirely. However, there’s also a dark side to SEO: one that involves slavishly adapting every aspect of the content to suit the perceived desires of the algorithm, rather than focusing on what users actually want.

In pursuit of greater search visibility - which means more traffic, and more revenue from ads - the actual user experience can often end up being sacrificed along the way. For an example of this, look at tech journalism - a world I’m intimately familiar with and which has largely fallen victim to this same scourge. 

If you’ve tried to look for consumer electronics buying advice recently, you’ll likely have noticed that Google’s search results are dominated by best-of lists stuffed with keywords like ‘best’, ‘top’, ‘rated’, ‘tested’ and ‘budget’. While most of these pages are created by dedicated professional writers - and I should know, as I’ve written more than a few in my time - they’re so focused on search rankings that actually reading them is often a chore, frankly. 

My worry is that, as podcasters and publishers continue to chase greater visibility, this thinking will begin to creep into the content of episodes. There’s nothing wrong with making sure that your episode title and description contain a few choice keywords that are relevant to the topic (and in fact, it’s something that most podcasts could benefit from doing), but as keyword analysis based on automatic transcription becomes more widespread, the temptation for podcasters to similarly pepper their actual speech with words and phrases which they know rank well in search, or that are popular with advertisers, may prove too great to resist.

The end result of this - as we’ve seen with written content - is an industry that focuses more on what algorithms are looking for than on authentic, well-made content that will resonate with a specific audience. It’s also a fallacy, as search traffic is transitory; once those users find the answer to their question, they’ll move on. Building a sustained audience takes time, and is a process of incremental gains based on quality content.

There’s no silver bullet for podcast success, and while tools like SEO may provide a boost in visibility, podcasters would be strongly advised to avoid becoming reliant on it, lest they fall victim to the monkey-paw curse that befell online content. The best way to build (and maintain) a good audience is to make the best-quality content that you can, and let the right people come to you.