Thursday, March 11, 2010


We've gotten used to seeing ads that are targeted directly at us. When we use Google to search the web we see text ads related to the content of our search. When we use Google's Gmail online mail system, as many of us now do for business as well as personal email, we see ads generated from the content of our own messages. Ten years ago that would have seemed creepy; now it seems like nothing.

There's another kind of targeting going on, one that looks not at you and me as individuals, but at what we can call, for want of a better term, human nature. Of course, that's pretty much the definition of marketing - but this is a closer and more scientific look than ever, using MRI scans.

That's right, magnetic resonance imaging. Psychologist Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, is talking about what he and Gregory S. Burns call "neuromarketing." "The most promising application of neuroimaging methods to marketing," they say, "may come before a product is even released — when it is just an idea being developed."

So, no more sitting around a conference table shooting around ideas on what might make a product appealing to this type of person or that type of person. No more guesswork. Now we'll design and position the product based on intricate knowledge of our map of the human brain. Not limited to designing products, the analysis could lend itself to "gauging people's reactions to food, entertainment, buildings and more," say the researchers.

Presented with a product or service developed this way, we wouldn't likely know that. We'd just find the product appealing, because it was designed to be. It would fit us, like a puzzle piece precisely cut to interlock perfectly with its neighbor.

Here's the downside I can see: we're already hardwired to be attracted to things that are bad for us (or for society, or both). Things like sweets; addictive drugs like opiates, painkillers, sleep medications, crack; even underage sex partners. Making it even easier for marketers to appeal to our natural (including our baser) instincts could well push us even harder towards things people want to sell us even though we ought not to have them or do them.

The upside? Positive goals could be aimed at in the same way: for example, getting people to eat healthy foods that they normally would find less appealing than unhealthy ones, or designing an energy-efficient light source with a "warmer," more pleasant color.

The possibilities are almost as myriad as the neurons in our brains. The question is, how much more manipulation do we want to accept?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

William Shawn Never Had To Worry About SEO

That's right—the legendary editor of the New Yorker surely had plenty of concerns, from circulation and fact-checking to ornery writers and deadlines. But whether Google would find, index, and prioritize the articles he published wasn't one of them.

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a slippery thing. Google and other search engines zealously and jealously guard their search algorithms so people can't game them. Yet a whole industry has arisen around trying to do just that, and whether you avail yourself of such professional services or not, you have to think seriously about SEO if you want your website to appear near the top in a list of search results.

In a world where we're all under the SEO yoke, marketing people and editorial folks have to work together more closely than ever before. We've left the age of articles and stories behind, and entered the era of "content." The impersonality of that word is enough to show what's going on: with written "content," imagination has become subject to a new slavemaster, the search term. While writers have always had to submit to editorial decisions about how their work is cut, augmented, twisted, and (sometimes in the writer's view) demolished, that dynamic has generally centered around one of two factors:

1. Good English (as the editor understands it)

2. Style (the editor's struggle to preserve #1 above while retaining the author's "voice")

Now we must add a third: making sure the essential SEO term or terms are in the right spots in the text itself, whether it's an article, a product description page, a mission statement, a blog entry, or what have you. Is the term in the title? Is it in the first sentence? Should it be at the end too? How many times is too many times? (You don't want to get penalized for overloading.) How do we get it just right? And while doing so, how do we get it smoothly into the text? Turning our "content" awkward or even garbled won't get us anywhere—there's no use getting people to your site if when they get there, they find it reads like a monkey wrote it (or a machine).

This column can't give you the answers, because no one can (however much they think they can charge you for advice). But coming up with some answers which work for you is essential. So is adhering to the practices you establish, and so is testing, adjusting, and keeping up with current thinking on SEO.

Old William Shawn doesn't know what he's missing. Lucky him.