When I applied for funding for the course I am now doing, I was assigned a contact person at the Arbeitsagentur who sent me a very long form to fill in (we’re talking ‘Please use additional pages for your answer if required’-long here, people). I diligently filled in the form extolling the countless virtues in learning programming, particularly for someone who graduated in two subjects which are about as much use in Germany as an MSc in Surfboard Repair. I also diligently found and printed out a minimum of ten job ads which were asking for the skills I would be learning in the course, and I sent all that in in a large manila envelope. Shortly after, Frau Vogt informed me that, since I had once in my previous job been tossed the nominal title of ‘Office Manager’ alongside my other job roles as a vague acknowledgement that I knew how to fix the office internet, I was now considered experienced enough to pursue a career in office administration and would therefore not be receiving any funding. I protested that office administration is not a career but rather a chronic disease, but she refused to give in on the subject and signed off the phone call with the brusque icy-coldness of the entirety of German bureaucracy. So, being both pissed off and stupid, I decided to do the damn course anyway and try to pay the rent by working freelance in my spare time.
My newest ‘client’ (which sounds so wrong – I feel like it’s not right to have ‘clients’ without also having several pinstripe suits) is a company which develops websites for small businesses who can’t figure out how to use Squarespace. People like plumbers, plasterers or sticky bun shops come to this company wanting a website, the company build a template and come to me wanting a bunch of wordy bits to go inside it. Easy pees. Except for it’s really not as easy pees as it sounds. Because of SEO.
For anyone not familiar with the idea, SEO is Search Engine Optimisation and it is essentially the practice of designing your website in such a way that search engines (you know, like Yahoo and Altavista and Bing) naturally happen upon your site as one of the first when someone searches for a specific thing. In the beginning days of the internet that was as simple as doing stuff like shoving some invisible text on your website somewhere that said ‘boobs xxx sexy porn money’ and hoping that all the randy creeps on the Internet might get distracted from their raunch-hunt and click on your bookshop website when it pops up during a search for red-hot babes. The search engines (you know, like AOL search and Ask Jeeves) soon got wise to that and started building ever more complex code into their search mechanisms to make sure that all the content on your website was of a consistent theme (i.e. no more click-baiting by hiding references to vaginas in your restaurant menu), and that the search results brought up the websites which would be most helpful to the searchers, not the companies, when the ‘Go!’ button is clicked.
SEO went through several stages. The beginning stage was a time so simple that SEO was barely even an unfurling zygote in the motherly womb of misunderstood business jargon. Every website would have a ‘meta’ section where you could just shove in any descriptive content you wanted the search engines to look at without it displaying on the screen. Also, website text was divided into a totally arbitrary heirarchy of headlines, and the headlines which were most important were scanned first. So the search engines would just have a quick shufty in the meta information and the headlines and if they found something that was similar to the search term, they’d herd you into the search results.Of course, human beings got wise to this and started to fill the meta information with all kinds of sneaky tricks to attract the search engine’s attention, and the headline-pecking-order-thing wasn’t really working particularly well, so the main search engine – yes, I’ll say it, GOOGLE – made the meta information defunct and developed even more tricksy search algorithms which are really quite astonishingly clever. We’ll never know exactly what they are and how they work though, because to prevent people exploiting the system like they used to, Google keep them so secret that whenever they do make an announcement about their search engine mechanics, the world watches in wide-eyed silence as if it were a space launch.
Anyhew, this has all brought us to a point where SEO is about being not quite sure what Google wants and rather developing hunches about what is the best practice, then milking that best practice dry until your website copy sounds as janky and unnatural as Microsoft Sam. BUT. The clients are invested in their website, and want it looking and sounding good. And that is where I now come in.
Let’s think of it like this. Everybody knows that I know no religion other than tomato ketchup. Tomato ketchup is my favourite comfort food, a joy and a blessing to this fair world. But, like, it would be weird to just sit down with a spoon and a plateful of tommy K. I’d have to contrive some kind of plausible ketchup vehicle in order to enjoy the world’s greatest condiment at the end of a hard day. I dunno, let’s say a baked potato. Great. But a baked potato still isn’t really a full dinner, so we have to throw something else onto the plate to make it look believable: how about a bit of salad? Well, that’s ok, but hang on a minute – if we add scrambled eggs in there we not only round out the meal BUT ALSO provide a secondary foil for more ketchup! And instead of that salad, let’s throw some baked beans in – they’re basically just beans in slightly fancy ketchup! Nice! So you might see me walk to my dining table with a plateful of potato, eggs and beans – a totally bog-standard website **cough cough I mean dinner cough cough analogy** while me, the search engine, sees ‘KETCHUP VEHICLE / KETCHUP VEHICLE / KETCHUP ITERATION’. And I’m like BOOM, that is a GOOD DINNER, and you’re like what the heck why is she getting so excited about eggs and potato. And that’s what writing for SEO is basically about: constructing and fleshing out text elements while trying to make it as unnoticeable as possible that you’re trying to squeeze in all the keywords and SEO fodder as many times as possible at the same time.
And it’s not easy. Take, for example, a fashion shop. The fashion shop wants a basic website with one webpage talking about women’s clothes, one about shoes and accessories, and one about contact details and other information. But the SEO guys decide that the keyphrase for the first webpage should be ‘women’s lingerie’. Also, you have to keep mentioning the location of the establishment, which in this case is Ufton Nervet, because it’s a preposterous town name which sounds like a species of vole. So you are faced with a situation where you have to write a buzzline and some snappy paragraphs going ‘Come to us for the finest women’s lingerie in Ufton Nervet! Our Ufton Nervet flagship store has all the women’s lingerie you could possibly desire! If you are a woman, and based in Ufton Nervet, well have we got the women’s lingerie for you!!’. All the while, remember, this is the women’s clothes webpage, so the text starts to sound a little freaky-deaky for anyone who clicked over to this page expecting to read about nice shirts and straight-leg trousers. But hey – maybe they linger on the page and read a bit more and eventually visit the store out of morbid curiosity; maybe they actually subconsciously did need some new pants. The customer, the company and my company all get what they want. And for me, it’s a hilarious writing challenge which helps me earn my ketchup money, so that’s good too.
For the last week or so, I’ve been on holiday, so I haven’t been writing. Instead, I’ve been slowly melting into a congealed mass because good Lord is it hot in Berlin at the moment. It reminds me of my recent visit to Cornwall with my mum, when we went to pay homage at the gilded altar of HRH Rick Stein. I’m not a fan of The Steinerator, but we couldn’t not try his restaurant, and when we glanced at the menu we saw ‘white gazpacho’ and thought ‘what a lovely delicate starter to cool us on this hot Cornish eve’. What we got was two buckets of garlic paste with green grapes in. It was completely inedible and the waitress who took away our almost-full bowls seemed to agree. And it filled me with righteous soup-rage, because chilled soups are so wondrous when they are done right, and this soup here deserves to be crowned the true White Gazpacho – even though it is actually a German – Eastern European Cucumber and Yogurt soup. Make this one now, and when you go to Cornwall just get the fish & chips instead.
German white gazpacho
1 large cucumber
1 500g pot of yogurt (not Greek, which is too tart for this mellow soup)
1 lemon, juiced
1/2 tsp celery salt
1 tentative grind of black pepper
1/2 a red onion
small bunch of fresh mint
small bunch of fresh parsley
1/2 tsp sugar
4/5 ice cubes
old ciabatta or baguette
1 clove garlic, crushed
1. Stir a heaped teaspoon of salt into a small cupful of water. Finely chop the red onion and pop the pieces into the salt water – this will make the onion much less pungent so that it just delivers an aromatic tang.
2. Get your biggest mixing bowl in the entire house and set a grater in the middle of it. Grate the cucumber into the bowl, being careful to save all the liquid that is released as you grate.
3. Throw the yogurt, ice cubes, black pepper and celery salt into the mixing bowl with the grated cucumber and stir together.
4. Finely chop the herbs and stir those in, then add the sugar, half the lemon juice and half the drained onion. Taste, then add more lemon juice, sugar and/or onion until it’s as you prefer it. At this point you could whiz it all in the blender but I like it as it is.
5. Heat up the olly oil, then toast cubes of the stale bread in it with the garlic and some more salt. Seriously you guys, this is a soup which DEMANDS croutons – big, crunchy, craggy ones.
6. By now the ice should have completely melted, but you can chill it further in the fridge if you have the time, then serve it with the croutons on top.
Take that, Rick Stein.