SEO is a great tool for journalists. It lets you see what your readers are actually reading and respond to that. It also lets readers choose what they want to read, through surfing the web, as opposed to being told what to read.

In a Blog post by the Nieman Lab they argue that journalists need to start seeing SEO as something to become fluent in and even appreciate. The writer, Nikki Usher, says this reader driven format doesn’t mean that journalists only write exactly what is trending in SEO feeds. But rather, let these guide journalists in finding what is relevant to people and writing stories that talk about what is important about those trends.

If people are searching for Lady Gaga, writing a story about her draws more readers. But as seen in this article by Color Lines, this doesn’t mean we have to write like a tabloid.  Journalists can still write about issues that are important.

For those worried about the judgment of the crowd (just don’t forget you are part of the crowd, with a mind and needs of your own): The New York Times said that they don’t use web metrics to drive their newsroom. They say their judgment is what people come for and the crowd won’t influence them. They do however use SEO to decide which direction to take the New York Times’ blogs.

The other side of this double-edged sword is that SEO is not humane unless we make it so. In this article by Poynter about the Muslim Center near Ground Zero, we see the failures in technology. It can only do what people tell it to do.

We have a situation where to have a story read journalists must say something false, and in some views racist. At first I thought, why don’t we have Google redirect people to the more ethical stories when they type ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ into a search engine?

But I quickly left that idea lying in the dust. Censorship is unethical, and that is exactly what Google would be doing by redirecting people. So what do we do?

I don’t have a definitive answer. I think that SEO is an important tool in giving readers voices in ways they previously couldn’t access. I also think that, like with any tool, we need to ask ourselves as journalists how can I use this as ethically as possible. We need to avoid situations like what happened with the Muslim Center near Ground Zero, before it becomes an issue.

The audience may guide us, but we can also guide them. If from the start journalists had used different terminology to describe the Muslim Center, people would have to search for something else when seeking articles about this particular issue.

All the power doesn’t lie in the keyboards of the audience. Just like any relationship it is a give and take between readers and journalists. Journalists just need to learn how to work with this new relationship.