John Oliver and the abuse of a keyword

Comedian and political commentator John Oliver – now host of ‘Last Week Tonight’ across the pond abusing_keywords– has become the UK’s de facto international spokesperson for all things British. He’s also become an undercover SEO, having inadvertently identified some interesting points about the abuse of the keyword in the run up to the referendum.

He’s now at the top of his meteoric rise thanks to his limey sense of acerbic silliness. He provides  a liberal commentary on everything from international economics, to Donald Trump, to the refugee crisis. But, in the last episode before Britain went to the polls, he turned his hilarious ire to the EU referendum debate. In the process, he inadvertently highlighted a long-running problem in content marketing today: keyword manipulation.

In his skit, he cites a Leave campaign resource called ‘Brexit: The Movie’; a feature-length fumble through the looking glass of a Brexiteer mind-set.

“Here is regulated EU man waking from his regulated slumber to start his regulated day”, the movie begins. “You wouldn’t think you’d need a law for pillowcases, the EU has five. But, that’s nothing. The pillow inside is subject to 109 separate EU laws” the narrator continues, aided by overlays of the supposed ‘pillow regulations’ in an inscrutable font size.

Oliver, in his impish way, has the text blown up to a legible size. He finds that of the 10 regulations displayed on-screen, at least three are about completely different products, therefore undermining the thrust of this movie scene. Here’s what they ACTUALLY referred to:

  • One regulation is about the classification of breakfast cereals (“cereals… cut into pillow shapes”)
  • Another is about a merger between two companies that manufacture parts for cars (“pillow ball joints”)
  • The third references a pillow-shaped foot pump used for blowing up inflatable items

What does this tell us about keyword manipulation?

It is clear that in order to come up with 109 ‘pillow regulations’, the Leave campaign performed a keyword search on the word ‘pillow’ and referenced all instances of it, irrespective of the relevance to actual pillows.

In this instance, the manipulation of the ‘pillow’ keyword had nothing to do with trying to cheat Google’s algorithm. However, it serves as an allegory for countless websites that have attempted to crowbar keywords divorced from context into their sites with the aim of fooling Google into giving their pages a higher-than-deserved ranking.

Google knows it. Any copywriter worth their salt knows it. But, too many are still quick to forget; a content strategy based on keyword manipulation is ultimately futile.

In 2013, the search giant released a new update called Hummingbird. This put pay to the general misuse of metadata and the worst of keyword stuffing. Google is getting better and better at understanding user intent. It now judges whether a website’s content responds to that intent or merely seeks to repeat a narrow set of keywords throughout the text.

Abusing keywords in your strategy won’t just earn you a penalty from Google. It will put off your real life visitors who will wade through irrelevant content only to find that your answer doesn’t match their question.

The onus should instead be on the creation of content that provides useful information on a range of relevant topics. It is important to know what your main keywords are, and feature them in your copy. But you must include a range of semantically-related terms as well.

Ultimately, you must write copy that offers genuine value to the user. If you find yourself in a position where you are compromising this in order to force keywords into your content, then you are straying into the dangerous territory of keyword abuse. Remember: a pillow-shaped cereal is not a pillow!