Search Engine Optimization: That Stuff Works!

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In the past, I have joked about the utter lack of search engine optimization on this site.* It was true! There was none! Since launching Lost Caws, I've made very weak attempts to market this site and no attempt to make it more palatable to search engines. The reasons for this are...complicated, but a recent change of heart provided an interesting lesson.

A Search Engine Optimization Explanation

When I started this site, the blog itself was intended as little more than a writing outlet, and in that endeavor it's been successful. I've written hundreds of posts and hundreds of thousands of words on this site across myriad topics including urbanism, science, pop culture, and my own fiction. I've done this for the practice, not (necessarily) to attract an audience.

Along the way, some of the things I've written have occasionally gotten some small spike of attention from audience outside the dedicated few who read here mostly in support of my desire to write. So far this has been both accidental and coincidental. I've never known precisely what makes them "take off," relatively speaking, especially considering the absence of search engine optimization to make them more visible beyond this site.

For example, the post that's gotten the most hits on this site is this one about how professional athletes are not overpaid. I've made no effort to promote this post in any special way, and not surprisingly it got very little traction at first. But at this point it's getting several hits every day. This is likely due to the relative staying power of professional sports as a topic of interest and, more specifically, that athlete salaries are something of a controversial topic. Beyond that post, the biggest surges of traffic have largely occurred when some outside source such as my brother, a writer whose book I wrote about, or an organization I like amplified my post in some way when I specifically drew their attention to it.

SEO: A Cheat Code for the Internet

At the end of last week, I decided to make a concerted effort to improve the search engine optimization of Lost Caws. Because why not? The purpose of this site may primarily be as a personal writing outlet, but I'm also not trying to keep it a secret.

Basically the idea with SEO is that you structure both your site and the content on it in a way that Google and other search engines will rank it favorably for searches. To do this, I've been using a great WordPress plugin by a company called Squirrly. It's got a nice, slick UI and it coaches you through the steps you need to take to make your posts more visible online. In some ways doing this can feel sort like cheating, as though writing good content matters less than ticking a list of attributes that Google and Bing's bots will like as they crawl the web.

Maybe that's true, but here's what happened in my case. A few weeks ago now I wrote this post about the crisis in Flint, MI, and like most of what I write it got little attention at the time. But unlike many posts I write, this one actually had some chance of being interesting and relevant to people beyond my usual sphere. For that reason, I chose the Flint post as my first target to optimize.

It worked. Way better than I could have expected.

Blowin' Up (Relatively)

Within a day or two of fully optimizing that post and making some tweaks to the site in general, the Flint post drew more hits in one day than anything else I've written before. This is in spite of it being a few weeks old and without me, say, posting new tweets or Facebook statuses to promote it. It now has the second most traffic of any post I've written after that pro athlete one.

This was staggering to me. Even as someone who understood the relative importance of search engine optimization for getting one's content to as wide an audience as possible, I absolutely did not expect the surge in attention this post received. It's been kinda nice! In fact, I'm excited to share that the Flint post was picked up by Strong Towns as their weekly featured member blog post. Here it is on their site. I've been a huge supporter of Strong Towns for some time (Founders Circle FTW!), so this is pretty cool for me.

There is absolutely no way this would have happened without SEO, I'm certain of that. And though I said above that the light traffic here has never really bothered me, sometimes I have things to say that I think are worth reaching a bigger audience–particularly when it comes to my writing on urbanism. I'm not going to shy away from that anymore. Let's see where that leads.

[jetpack_subscription_form title="Subscribe to Lost Caws via email" subscribe_text="If you're curious where this new SEO-optimized version of Lost Caws leads, sign up! I expect there'll be a lot more urbanism writing going forward, but now it will have the catchy jargon that algorithms find delicious. Maybe." subscribe_button="Sign Me Up"]


*For those who are wondering what I'm talking about, here's Wikipedia's entry on SEO.