Aside from a refusal to acknowledge the concept of privacy, and an endemic prurient obsession with women and their bodies, the thing you most associate with the British press is its sense of humour. It’s why we find a national newspaper screaming “Zip Me Up Before You Go Go” when revealing a closeted pop star had been busted for “lewd behaviour” in a public toilet or “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea?” in the face of the very real threat of a despot with nuclear weapons at his disposal. The great British headline has long had a love affair with the humble pun, the best and worst of which are remembered for generations, but now this remarkable wizardry is dying out and, like most victims, it knows its killer.
The way we consume content is changing, and as every writer, whether breaking a scandal or compiling a list of Kim Kardashian quotes, will tell you: while content is king, there’s a more powerful overlord. SEO.
Print's slow march towards death and online's frenetic boom-bust-boom-bust rollercoaster of survival means there are fewer essential destinations for readers; we are flirtatious, disloyal. Political ties to news and long-standing affection for certain columnists notwithstanding, we'll read whatever, by whoever, as long as we can find it, and SEO is only too happy to guide us.
"While content is king, there’s a more powerful overlord – SEO"
SEO, or search engine optimisation, is every writer’s nemesis, a shapeshifting, rulebook-loving fun-sponge that takes your beautiful words and rearranges them – not to make them more compelling to read, but easier to find.
Anyone mentioning “the good old days”, usually either misses having it better at the expense of others, or romanticises the past because they feel increasingly detached from the here and now. But ask any writer what life was like before SEO moved in next door, planted leylandii and built a conservatory overlooking their back garden, and their eyes will moisten.
SEO has slaughtered many sacred cows during its rocketing importance to website traffic over the last 15 years or so. While its purpose is valid, supposedly filtering out noise to find information tailored to our needs, it’s also helped crush nuance, playfulness, and punning. Content is king, yes, but keywords rule the world. The need for associated phrases – for example, Madonna is no longer just Madonna these days but "Into The Groove hitmaker Madonna” – nudges from the word count writing that might make a reader look deeper into a story, get them thinking. It assumes a reader is either dimwitted, amnesiac or too lazy to take a brief shlep into their mind palace to figure it out for themselves.
Because pieces must contain words a reader might search for, rather than those in the writer’s head, there’s little room to be arch or clever, unless you’re a big name. When readers do miraculously arrive at your page, it’s best to assume they have no sense of humour or irony whatsoever, and be alarmingly direct. I’ve often written a sly dig or subtle joke and hastily rethought it, to head off a slew of comments like “I didn’t get it” or “Can’t believe you missed that out”. Satirical articles, their whole raison d’être being just observant enough that someone might believe they’re true, often have to be signposted as satire, using the helpful tags or disclaimers SEO loves so much. The internet makes us crave the obvious in real life too – we've no time for anything else.
"What happens next will surprise you? Challenge accepted"
One friend who works at a magazine for teenagers – they still exist – tells me: “We can’t be cheeky or subtly funny any more. Readers don’t like it; they think you’re being nasty, so our jokes are tamer and more obvious. We can’t rely on them having the background knowledge to ‘get’ it.”
SEO creates a world of content where nobody likes to be caught out. Puntastic or attention-grabbing headlines, still surviving in print, have given way to overlong statements of fact. There are very few surprises behind the drab headline – unless it's teased with "and the results will shock you" and other overfamiliar clickbait siren song. Headlines deciding how you should feel is nothing new – remember the Mirror’s “Ban This Sick Stunt” when Britpop-era Pulp unwittingly included instructions on how to make a speed wrap in their CD artwork – but they’re definitely more prescriptive. “What happens next will surprise you”? Challenge accepted.
Consider one of my favourite print headlines ever, from the Sun, no less: ”Mucca chucksa cuppa water over Macca's lawyer Shacka”. Any ideas? Here’s how the Daily Record reported the same tale online: “Heather Mills Threw Water Over Paul McCartney's Lawyer In Courtroom Tantrum”. Ignoring the tasteless rebranding of Heather Mills as “Lady Mucca”, this depiction of her ruck with Fiona Shackleton (Shacka) is artistry. Beautiful. If there’s one reason print must survive, it’s for puns, good and bad – SEO doesn't like them cluttering up the place.
As SEO favours fact over opinion, you’d think it would be easy to do, but thankfully for the careers of most writers, it’s tricky to get right – but that’s “right” in the sense of satisfying bots or algorithms rather than the people reading you.