SEOing the death of Robin Williams isn’t evil. It’s the equivalent of shouting “READ ALL ABAHT IT”

There’s a tweet doing the rounds exposing an internal email that makes pretty grim reading about trying to SEO the death of Robin Williams.

I can understand why people are repulsed by it.

But I think blaming SEO is a misguided reaction.

As I’ve said many times, there is no robot or computer in the world compelling people in news organisations to make decisions. All decisions about SEO are taken by humans. And all the decisions you take in a news organisation reflect your editorial values.

“Buzzy” may have been a horrible phrase to use in an internal memo about the recent death of a star, but the reason those words and phrases are “buzzy” is not because some evil SEO person or computer made them up.

As my friend Chris Moran at the Guardian always says, search requests don’t arrive out of thin air – “Somebody, a human being, enters a query”

“Dead” and “Death” and “Suicide” are “buzzy” because that is what human beings type into their phones and laptops when they want to find out about Robin Williams. Google Trends will tell you that straight away.

I always think part of the backlash against SEO is partially a collective news industry nostalgia for how things were. For a time when you signed off for the day, and didn’t have to sell your articles yourself.

Journalists used to be completely removed from this process. You’d file your copy, a sub would construct the headline, and then somebody would stand on a street corner shouting “READ ALL ABAHT IT – GRUESOME MURDER – PICTURE EXCLUSIVE” and the journalist would go home happily ignorant of that part of the sales process.

SEO is sales for your content.

If you don’t want it read, fine.

Newsagent posters screaming “Shock Hollywood death” work for that medium.

A massive picture of the face of the person we have lost with their birth-death years works for print.

But people won’t find your stuff online with headlines like that, because that’s not how people look for them.

SEO isn’t making anybody a better or worse person. And it doesn’t make any story happier or sadder. SEO is a web production tool to get people to read your story. Nothing more. Nothing less.

And given the way most print media blithely ignore the guidelines about reporting suicide, maybe the choice of words in some SEOd headlines isn’t the bigger battle here.