In my day job I blog about technology and popular culture at Forbes.com. A couple of days ago I read a piece in TechCrunch written by a putative expert on SEO, or search engine optimization, which is a set of practices aimed at increasing traffic to given web sites. (It's based on the idea that the sites which turn up at the top of Google searches are the ones with the most incoming links, so you want to encourage people, by a number of means, to link to your site. As an example, one might pepper one's content with hot-button words like "iPad," "sex," or "naked pictures of Cat Deeley," regardless of whether those search terms actually have much to do with the subject at hand.) The author of this post, a venture capital guy named Ryan Spoon, used a variety of jargony nonsense words in his TechCrunch post, and this seemed to me emblematic of a broader problem with SEO -- that it's a con, and an insidious one at that, because it has the end effect of driving down the editorial quality of online content. So I decided to to blog about it. You can read the original post here.
Unsurprisingly, this made some SEO professionals very cross with me. Some of them made good points in rebuttal; some of them didn't. The response that just made me sigh, though, came from a self-described "SEO expert" who chose to identify himself as "bigpoppa22." (For the record, I posted my Forbes piece under my real name, which is "Bill Barol," with no numbers.) Among other things, he didn't care for the headline of my post: SEX, FREE iPAD, NAKED PICTURES OF CAT DEELEY, 8 WAYS TO LOSE WEIGHT RIGHT THIS SECOND AND LEARN FRENCH WHILE YOU SLEEP. I thought it was a reasonable piece of satire under the circumstances. To be on the safe side, though, I took the extra step of including a picture of Cat Deeley (fully clothed) and captioned it "This is Cat Deeley. There is nothing about her in this post." I figured, Well, that ought to make it clear: It's a joke, see?
No such luck. Mr. Poppa22 was extremely stern in his disapproval:
I also find it ironic that you used keywords that are completely irrelevant to the purpose of your article in the title in order to attract more readers. A cheap tactic that is indicative of your lack of journalistic integrity.
Now you have read something by an SEO expert that speaks comprehensible English
I run up against readers like this from time to time. They not only don't get the joke; they militantly don't get the joke, and are very very angry with you. The natural temptation is to face-palm yourself and mutter Jesus, buddy, it was a joke, but this is a fruitless road to go down because there has never been, in the history of jokes, a single one that got funnier after you had to explain it. The recipient of the explanation will either fail to buy it (in which case you're right back where you started) or be embarrassed (in which case he'll dig in his heels). You can't win this one. So what did I do? I directed a polite reply back his way to the effect that gee, it was satire, and I was sorry he didn't get it, and I'd try to do better and make it clearer next time.
So what's to be learned here? Nothing much I didn't already know: A certain percentage of people who comment on Internet posts tends to be very very angry with you. But the episode did reinforce one lesson I've learned before, and it's useful to keep it in mind as I continue to search for ways to promote THANKS FOR KILLING ME online, and to grasp for a voice and a tone in that promotion: Satire is what closes on Saturday night, and on the Internet it's always Saturday night.