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If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

Were that traditional Zen koan updated to apply to Internet journalism, it might ask instead: if a piece is posted to the Internet and nobody searches for it, is it a real story?

Whatever medium journalistic copy is initially designed to fit, chances are that sooner or later it will end up on the world wide web where it will attract not only a potentially larger audience but also an immortality of sorts, thanks to the prevalence of various caching tools. But it will only attract that readership if those readers know where to look for it. And with well over a hundred billion websites out there, there’s a lot of competition for eyeballs.

So how will that fashionista find your masterpiece on Burlap Sacks: the Hot New Look For Spring anyway? Well, the answer is she won’t – unless when she types keywords into a search engine query box, your story is one of her results. And for this to happen, your story needs to be optimised to fit her search terms.

Let’s look for a moment at how search engines work. A search engine is basically just a computer programme that uses algorithms to search for patterns within Internet content. The precise mathematical formula varies from search engine to search engine, but is generally based upon some weighted ratio of invisible coding like metatags and keywords to the position of elements on the webpage itself. Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) then is the science of fine-tuning your webpages to increase their relevance to the bots and spiders scouring the Web on these search engines’ behalf.

Choosing the right set of keywords is still the front line of attack in any successful SEO strategy. And it’s not enough for designated keywords to be stuck inside invisible webpage headers; they must work synergistically with the visible content on a page.

And here’s where the difficulty lies for everyone who prides themselves on the quality and originality of their writing. Bots and spiders don’t understand style, subtlety, wordplay, irony, humour or any of the other features that distinguish good writing from more utilitarian text. Bots and spiders understand repetition and position.

The fallout is already being felt. Clever headlines, once the forte of hard-hitting journalism, are falling out of favour on the Internet, replaced by one-liners that summarise stories in the most literal of terms.

Of course, the medium has always defined the message to some extent. Today’s traditions were yesterday’s innovations. So-called “pyramiding,” for example – the practice of embedding critical facts in a story’s first paragraph – actually came about when correspondents started using telegraphs to send stories to newspaper offices. At that time it was a cost cutting measure, rather than an editorial norm – as, it could be argued, it is today.

Similarly, the strategies web-savvy journalists adapt to make their copy more search-engine friendly may become the standards of excellence of tomorrow’s journalism.

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