Strike The Balance: Writing For Robots And Humans

Sam Martin-Ross

Perhaps you saw a news story in 2017 about Facebook’s Artificial Intelligence Research (FAIR) unit? The story is that the unit had to shutdown its AI experiment when the two robots they were using began communicating together in a new language no-one knew:


Bob: I can i i everything else
Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to
Bob: you i everything else
Alice: balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me


Whilst “objective” reporters created a story around a ‘creepy’, ‘the robots are going to get us one day’, angle. The reality was that the robots hadn’t gone AWOL, and were still operating within what the programmers had designed for them – although in an unplanned fashion.


The point here is that whilst they are designed by humans, a robot is not governed by the same semantic rules as us – unless they are designed to be. In the context of SEO, the above transcript shows in an exaggerated fashion, the difficulties faced when trying to produce work that is for a human reader, whilst also needing to communicate efficiently with search engine bots.
‘Know your audience’


The above phrase is drilled into every aspiring writer until it becomes a natural part of the writing process. The basic premise: understand the needs of your readers and produce content to satisfy what they want. When putting this into the context of SEO, a problem begins to arise, that being a dichotomy between the needs of search engines and the needs of users when interacting with a web page. In a perfect world, this shouldn’t be an issue, with the search engine needs being to satisfy the query (need) of the user. However, technology has yet to reach that seamless position.


With huge advances in search engine algorithms over recent years, the gap between reader and computer has begun to break down. However, as an SEO, negotiating between these two audiences is still well and truly embedded into our work in 2018.


In the past, horrifically written web pages stuffed with keywords could have helped sites succeed and bring in revenue. An overt SEO tactic that was the bread and butter for many professionals in the field. The goal was numbers focused rather than on the user. If enough people come to a site, then some of them will still convert despite the terrible UX.

The sophistication of search engines at this time, meant that to clearly target keywords and show what your website was about, some SEOs had to use phrasing that was unnatural and clearly not part of everyday human lexis. When really badly done, this would read only marginally better than Bob and Alice’s conversation above.


Fast forward to 2018 and, thankfully, practices within SEO have had to evolve. Algorithm updates like Panda created a huge shift in the result pages around what was judged as quality.


Search engines realised they are more likely to satisfy user queries by displaying websites that a reader can clearly navigate and extract information from easily.


Unfortunately, whilst the intelligence of search engines has improved exponentially, as an SEO, we still have to clearly state, in a more nuanced way than years previously, the information we are trying to rank for. We can’t completely refute SEO practices for stylistics, but we shouldn’t have to if planning is carefully thought out.


As an example, an imaginary client is an extremely stylish, minimalist interior designer. They want an empty homepage with only a single image on it. Here our role is to negotiate between the desired aesthetic and the need to provide information to search engines in order for them to help you back (by providing traffic). A single image on a homepage, in most cases, isn’t going to satisfy this and we’d usually recommend further information be included on the page.


Another example of this is when a brand never directly mentions the services they offer. This might sound ridiculous but is not uncommon in the Creative Industries. The meaning is inferred through nuance of language or images, and understood by a human reader. Unfortunately the search engines aren’t able to pick up on these subtleties. Here the importance of meta titles, headers and alt tags becomes apparent.


UX is increasingly becoming more and more important to SEO, particularly on mobile. Factors like site speed, mobile experience, and user signals (like people using click-to-call features) are all influencing rankings more than in the past. Below is a table, by no means exhaustive, of elements that are specifically targeted at search engines, users, and both. In the hazy middle ground of them is where the perfect SEO balance can be found.


For Search EnginesFor BothFor Humans
Meta title
Structured data
Accessible code
Latest code
Site structure and navigation
User Signals
Site speed
Mobile Experience
Design layout
Language and style