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The Rhetoric of Search Engine Optimization: The Attention Economy


Did you know that we have left the Age of the Information Economy behind and are now well into the Age of the Attention Economy? What does this mean? It means that if you rely upon the Internet to conduct your business, the age of putting up a web site and getting instant results are long gone. Now you must clamor for the attention of web surfers, your prospective visitors and customers, who are lured by the frantic actions of the billions of pages currently indexed on the web. To give you some perspective, Google alone indexes over 7 billion pages. Therefore, to survive means to grab people’s attention and you do that by using good digital rhetorical skills.

Now there’s a scary word – rhetoric. In my case, rhetoric was a terms the nuns used to throw around in regards to the essays we wrote in English class. You know, the reading, writing, and rhetoric thing? Go back now to first year high school English; remember the purpose of an essay? It is to grab your reader’s attention and persuade her to adopt your point of view, to agree with your argument. And that is what rhetoric is all about: rhetoric can be defined as the art of persuasion: of using words, either verbal or written, to catch attention and persuade readers to think, do, or believe what you want them to think, do or believe.

Mechanical Rhetoric

Now let’s apply this concept to search engine optimization. The first challenge is to grab your readers’ attention. How do you do that? One big way you do that is by ranking high in the search engines, because then, when a user enters a relevant keyword term, your site will come up as one of the (hopefully) top 10 web sites!

Okay, so working backward, how do you rank high? First, you fill your site with good, solid, well-written content. You offer value to visitors. The search engines measure your content and score it according to its value to users. In other words, you use the skills of good rhetoric, which includes the skillful, artful, and meaningful use of words.

Second, you select keywords that your users are most likely to use to search for what you offer on your site. The trick here is to select keywords that are likely to be used, but that won’t draw a big number of web sites in a keyword search. Here’s where you need to work with an SEO expert, or employ the use of special keyword software.

Third, you have a lot of quality sites that link to your site. These links are viewed as “votes” for your web site, and the “better” the site in the search engines’ eyes, the higher the value assigned to your site. The search engines look at the quality of the content on sites linking to yours, as well as their relevance to your site.

Fourth, you need to design your site in a search-engine friendly way. How do you do that? First, don’t use Flash. You know those sites that have that introductory page where it says “Click to skip?” Well, the search engine crawler may not get beyond that page and therefore may not index your web site. Also, avoid using JavaScript. Same thing there, the search engines get lost in the complex code it generates and that’s the end of their crawl on your site. Second, make sure all your internal links are working, and make them text links that contain your keywords. Third, if you use image maps or pull down menus for navigation, make sure you also have textual navigation on the same page. Fourth, pay careful attention to the content of your Title tag, Description tag, Header tags, and body text. As for your Keyword tag, Google doesn’t even look at it, but make sure you still have it contain all your site’s important keywords. Also, make sure you use your keywords in each of these in a relevant, normal way. Some webmasters make the mistake of loading these tags with keywords in a manipulative, phony way: the search engines can see right through this tactic and will penalize your site accordingly. Also, in your body text, bullets, italics, and bold are weighted more heavily, and if possible, use your keywords here as well.

The items we’ve discussed above comprise the mechanical aspects of SEO rhetoric for your site. Now let’s talk about textual rhetoric.

Textual Rhetoric

The all-important, coveted visitors to your site are always just a click away from moving on to some other site they find more interesting, so you have to try and keep them with you until you accomplish your rhetorical goal! Wow, there’s a term of academic gobbledy gook. Seriously, if you go back to our definition of rhetoric, it is to persuade or convince someone to accept your argument. Well, your argument is whatever the objectives are for your site. Are you attempting to sell something? Get leads? Pass on information? Deflect telephone calls away from your customer service department? The first step in creating good web site rhetoric is to define your purpose as specifically as possible.

Now the question becomes, who is your user? Do you have demographic data: age, schooling level, location, job, hair color? Find out as much as you can about who your web site is geared to: if you sell men’s work pants, then your audience is going to be mostly male, over age 18, blue collar, located in anywhere, USA, middle class, etc. So, with these two pieces of data: your purpose (to sell workpants) and a description of your target audience, you’re ready to rock and roll in crafting your web site text.

Let’s look at some general rules for web text that apply to all readers. First, the screen carries approximately 1/3 the amount of information and text that an 8 ½ x 11 inch piece of paper holds. Second, people don’t like to read text in long paragraphs on the screen; they prefer short paragraphs and sentences, bullets, headers, and graphics (but don’t put text in the graphics because the search engines can’t read it). Also, reading speed is decreased by 30 %. Third, avoid scrolling: a good rule of thumb is 250 – 300 words per screen. Fourth, write in a style that is clear, concise, and easily scanned. Fifth, use your keywords, but use them accurately and with relevance.

Okay, so now back to your purpose: make it obvious and clear what you want your readers to do – your rhetorical point! Here are some possibilities of what you might want them to do:

  • Call
  • Check order status
  • Download free software
  • Find information
  • Give feedback
  • Join
  • Purchase a product or service
  • Request something

Then, make it easy for them to get to:

  • How they purchase by credit card
  • Any forms they need
  • Your contact information: email, phone, address, etc.

So, there you have it, some stuff you can put in your arsenal to get started. Remember: having a successful web site means doing some advance planning and following guidelines that have been proven to work. So, get out there, work hard, and go get ’em!!


Source by Mary Anne Donovan

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