THE BLOG
10/10/2014 09:18 am ET Updated Dec 10, 2014

If You Think Your Audience Is an Algorithm, You're Doing It Wrong

One of the first things I learned in journalism school, and later honed in my PR career, was the concept of knowing one's audience. For example, when writing for the general "newspaper-reading" public, you need to make sure your text is crafted at no more than an eleventh-grade reading level. And while writing an article in a journalism class, if you throw-in a bunch of heavy-duty words, you'll get crucified by the professor. In the business world, if you don't understand your audience, you can develop marketing material that goes over your audience's collective head, or worse, insults them. Remember, your audience comprises people who you want to educate, connect with, and persuade.

Yet as communicators, in recent years, we have drifted. Our emphasis has shifted away from people and instead focused on the computer algorithms created by search engines. We write website copy over-burdened with search terms, and we worry more about keyword density than meaning and message. We write copy of a length and depth that we think pleases Google, rather than what our readers want. And we endure seemingly endless meetings trying to divine what terms prospects will plug-in to search boxes, in addition to spending millions of dollars trying to drive people to our sites. This has evolved into a problem.

Believe me, we are all in the same boat. I still cringe, thinking about the keyword dense copy I had on my site until fairly recently. "As a Miami public relations firm meeting the needs of Miami businesses with a Miami public relations solution..." Gag me! What the hell was I thinking? Well, I wasn't writing for people; I was writing for an algorithm at the behest of an SEO expert. (In retrospect, it's even worse, because I consider myself a professional communicator. That copy was crap.)

As I have said many times, the folks at Google are way smarter than us, and the Google mission is to direct people to the information they are seeking. They have figured out that people want what they want and do not want to be driven somewhere else.

From a communications and marketing standpoint, this means it's time to move on. We need to give up trying to outsmart Google and start writing and presenting meaningful content to our audience, which, remember, is made up of people, not computers. Meaningful content will get found, be appreciated, and ultimately further your business mission.

Google knows this too and is leading the charge. Fairly recent updates to its search process have sent many companies scrambling to replace web traffic. The old tricks aren't working, and all roads are pointing to brand building and authentic communications. A recent article in Entrepreneur explains it better than I can.

Now, I'm not saying that publishing good content eliminates the need for search engine optimization. That craft still exists, and you still need SEO-friendly content. All those meta tags and descriptions are not for naught, but they are less important than you thought. And for companies that have a mass-market audience, I highly recommend consulting with experts who are regularly analyzing the ins and outs of search, the Google algorithm updates, and the finer points of SEO.

But if you are in a small, niche business, then you'd better be thinking about authentic, interesting, and worthwhile content, and forget about teaching to the algorithm test.

It's important to note that I'm not just talking about SEO and being found online. Storytelling and compelling visuals, as well as attention-getting video, all need to be considered as we weave our marketing tales. We can never forget that our audience is made up of people -- sometimes smart, oftentimes fallible, and frequently unpredictable, but people, nonetheless. They are the ones who click, who make stories go viral, and who ultimately reach into their wallets and make purchases. An algorithm will never be your customer, so don't make it your audience.

This post originally appeared on DavidPRBlog.com.