What can TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ teach us about SEO and Content Marketing?

Busi­ness­es often clus­ter around the same data sources, KPIs, and ter­ri­to­ries. This cre­ates con­fu­sion, dulls com­pe­ti­tion and makes con­sumers’ lives bor­ing. Pete Mar­tin explores how TS Eliot’s poet­ry par­al­lels and informs, SEO and con­tent...

Pete Martin By Pete Martin from The Gate Worldwide. Join the discussion » 0 comments

What can we learn about SEO and con­tent mar­ket­ing from the most famous poet of the 20th cen­tu­ry? Pete Mar­tin pon­ders what it means for the future of brand com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

In school, you may like many of us, have been forced to read TS Eliot. His poem ‘The Waste Land’ is one of the most famous and com­plex works of the 20th cen­tu­ry. As well as being a lit­er­ary giant, Eliot worked as a banker and was a direc­tor of the pub­lish­ing house Faber & Faber. In his spare time, he also liked to wear make-up, call him­self Cap­tain Tom and invite hand­some young men round to his flat for par­ties. Not a lot of peo­ple know that.


Com­pli­cat­ed’ would be one way to describe TS Eliot’s life.

But what has poet­ry got to do with the hard-nosed, num­ber-crunch­ing of search engine opti­mi­sa­tion? (Oth­er than our nat­ur­al nosi­ness about the emo­tion­al tur­moils of famous folk.)

First­ly, as Eliot once remarked, ‘Our civil­i­sa­tion com­pre­hends great vari­ety and com­plex­i­ty, and… must pro­duce var­i­ous and com­plex results.’

His life and work remind us that, like mod­ernism itself, noth­ing is as sim­ple or straight­for­ward as it seems. Like Eliot, you can be a great poet and a bit of a jerk. You can come across as frigid and high-brow, and still long for low-brow fun. You can swear to celiba­cy at 28, and mar­ry a woman half your age in your six­ties.

In this sense, ‘it’s com­pli­cat­ed’ isn’t just a rela­tion­ship sta­tus. It’s a philo­soph­i­cal stand­point. Life is messy and so is search mar­ket­ing.

The Dissociation of Sensibility…

The sec­ond rea­son Eliot has par­al­lels with the search busi­ness is that he invent­ed the phrase ‘the dis­so­ci­a­tion of sen­si­bil­i­ty’. (Now, if you can work that into your next SEO pitch, you will be the world champ of BS Bin­go.)

In The Times Lit­er­ary Sup­ple­ment in 1921, he bemoaned the schism between intel­lec­tu­al thought and human feel­ing which, he felt, had set in since the 17th cen­tu­ry. And ‘from which we have nev­er recov­ered’.

In the after­math of the world’s first mech­a­nised war, the future seemed ter­ri­fy­ing. As Eliot put it, “I had not thought death had undone so many”. He feared the widen­ing gap between sci­ence and art, log­ic and intu­ition, machine and man. We now know how, with the Sec­ond World War, the loss of empa­thy led to the most mon­strous of crimes against human­i­ty.

For our own time, there’s still dan­ger in our faith in ‘tech­ni­cal’ solu­tions; in economism and Big Data, in high walls and barbed wire. There’s some­thing about our log­i­cal pref­er­ence for ‘facts’ that seems to hard­en the heart.

Parallels in SEO

In its own small way, SEO mir­rors the same philo­soph­i­cal debate almost per­fect­ly. If it were pos­si­ble to trust in the good­will of our fel­low man, would Google have had to take such heavy mea­sures in its algo­rithm adjust­ments to pro­tect peo­ple from every shade of shady prac­tice?

All too often in online mar­ket­ing, clev­er­ness has become dis­con­nect­ed from con­sumer expe­ri­ence or even cus­tomer ben­e­fit. But it’s not just the blag­gards, cheats and crooks who posed a threat to our trust in search. There’s the ques­tion of mind-set and moti­va­tion which feeds into the long-term sus­tain­abil­i­ty of any human enter­prise.

It depends on what you con­sid­er as the fun­da­men­tal pur­pose of your busi­ness or, indeed, of any busi­ness. If the sole aim is mak­ing a sale, you may win one skir­mish at a time. And, inevitably, slow­ly lose the war for cus­tomer loy­al­ty and life­time val­ue.

Have we for­got­ten what the direct mar­ket­ing indus­try learned the hard way? It’s a fine line between belief in trans­ac­tion­al tricks, and cyn­i­cism. Cyn­i­cism is med­ical­ly proven to increase your risk of heart fail­ure, clouds the mind, cor­rodes propo­si­tions, and even­tu­al­ly kills the cus­tomer rela­tion­ship. That’s why tra­di­tion­al ‘direct mar­ket­ing prod­ucts’ fail.

In the online world, the plague of exit pop-ups is a case in point. “Even if you find pop-ups annoy­ing…” says one expert “In the end, if a tac­tic gen­er­ates more mon­ey for your busi­ness… what’s the point in not using it?”

The ‘end jus­ti­fies the means’ is a ratio­nale so worn-out that it needs no counter.

As Bob Stone observed in his 1974 book ‘Suc­cess­ful Direct Mar­ket­ing Meth­ods’: “The most impor­tant cus­tomer is some­one who buys from you twice”. So, any­thing which degrades the cus­tomer expe­ri­ence or reeks of char­la­tanism or feeds buy­er-regret is like the hot choco­late with which the Vic­to­ri­an Scot­tish socialite Madeliene Smith alleged­ly killed her lover: sweet at the time, but laced with arsenic.

The real killer though is a fail­ure to invest in what some Amer­i­can clients have tak­en to call­ing the ‘non-work­ing’ parts of mar­ket­ing spend. It’s an illu­so­ry dis­tinc­tion, but telling nonethe­less.

The soft, heart­felt sense of pur­pose – of com­mit­ment to cus­tomers, to emo­tion­al con­nec­tions and even to social progress – is giv­ing way to hard mar­ket­ing met­rics. This ‘dis­so­ci­a­tion of sen­si­bil­i­ty’ is regret­table in two dis­tinct ways:

  1. Com­mon data sources and com­mon­place tac­tics force busi­ness­es to clus­ter around the same KPIs, and the same ter­ri­to­ries. And since sim­i­lar­i­ty is the sin­gle biggest source of prob­lems in remem­ber­ing, it cre­ates con­fu­sion, dulls com­pe­ti­tion and makes con­sumers’ lives, well, bor­ing.
  2. Plus, as Eliot’s exam­ple sug­gest­ed, life just does­n’t work that way. It’s com­plex. We are far more than the sum of our search­es. One hun­dred mil­len­nia of homo sapi­ens sug­gest that we long – not for facts (which we can­not com­pute any­way) – but for sto­ries and beau­ty, and mys­tery and com­mu­ni­ty. Count­less word­less feel­ings deter­mine what we do far more than any­thing we say or type into a search field.

Distorted mirrors…

And yet there’s still one more fun­da­men­tal issue for all of us, not just as mar­keters, but as con­sumers.

Have you ever googled a cat­e­go­ry you know well – and got the nag­ging feel­ing that the search results were nuts?

That’s because SERPs offer an alter­nate real­i­ty. The pages hold up a dis­tort­ed mir­ror in which infor­ma­tion (struc­tured across a long list of fair­ly arbi­trary vari­ables) is tak­en as a proxy for rel­e­vance and qual­i­ty. As a sim­ple illus­tra­tion, if you search ‘ad agency lon­don’, you’ll prob­a­bly know that the results bear very lit­tle rela­tion­ship to the real world rank­ings by scale, by cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion, by indus­try sta­tus or peer recog­ni­tion.

But here’s a star­tling­ly obvi­ous obser­va­tion: pro­duc­ing excel­lent con­tent around a top­ic is not the same as pro­vid­ing excel­lence in that top­ic. A sim­ple anal­o­gy would be Syd Field, the ‘guru’ of screen­writ­ing. He wrote copi­ous­ly, suc­cess­ful­ly on the sub­ject of writ­ing screen­plays. Yet you would­n’t have asked Syd to write an actu­al screen­play for you, in much the same way that you would­n’t want a sports jour­nal­ist turn­ing out for your team in the World Cup (or the World Series). Know­ing about it and doing it are dif­fer­ent.

The same argu­ment, I believe, applies across oth­er sec­tors. It’s eas­i­er to get ranked as a house­hold bill com­par­i­son web­site than it is to run an ener­gy plant. Indeed, per­haps the only cat­e­go­ry in which SERPs offer a gen­uine reflec­tion of the ser­vice offered is SEO firms.

Cer­tain­ly, the democ­ra­ti­sa­tion of con­tent has opened up mar­ket infor­ma­tion and dis­rupt­ed tra­di­tion­al mod­els. But, too often search shows us a mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the world. And, in the long run, mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions can­not last. Espe­cial­ly when mon­ey is at stake. Even­tu­al­ly, as the Bard said “the truth will out”.

What this means is that those brands and providers who are the ‘real deal’ rather than the ‘Syd Field’ of their sec­tor will need to re-assert their right­ful com­pet­i­tive place.

The future of brand communications…

In the com­ing years, we will see a nuclear arms race for cus­tomer engage­ment as brands switch their spend away from tra­di­tion­al mar­ket­ing. Like the tran­si­tion from press adver­tis­ing to TV as the motive force for brand prof­itabil­i­ty in the 1950s, infor­ma­tion-dri­ven con­tent will give way to mar­ket­ing prop­er­ties which com­mand atten­tion and affec­tion, and give brands cul­tur­al force.

If you won­der what that mod­el might look like, check out Vance Packard’s 1957 clas­sic ‘Hid­den Per­suaders’ to see how busi­ness sought to buy brand pref­er­ence through agency-honed cre­ative prop­er­ties such as Kraft Tele­vi­sion The­ater and the Cole­gate Com­e­dy Hour. His­to­ry may be about to repeat itself in a dif­fer­ent guise.

Just as the new ‘sci­ence’ of moti­va­tion­al research cre­at­ed insights for adver­tis­ing in the 1950s, so data will inevitably dri­ve deep­er under­stand­ing of con­sumer trends and response for con­tent mar­ket­ing in the next decade.

How­ev­er, as the adver­tis­ing leg­end Bill Bern­bach warned in the 1960s, the focus on human con­nec­tion mat­ters most:

There are two atti­tudes you can wear: that of cold arith­metic or that of warm, human per­sua­sion. I will urge the lat­ter on you. For there is evi­dence that in the field of com­mu­ni­ca­tions the more intel­lec­tu­al you grow, the more you lose the great intu­itive skills that make for the great­est per­sua­sion – the things that real­ly touch and move peo­ple.”

There is a sense that we are at a piv­otal point in his­to­ry – in the his­to­ry of mar­ket­ing as much as in world affairs. The idea of human progress seems beset on all sides by an unholy alliance of mis­truth and mis­an­thropy.

Even in the nar­row field of SEO and con­tent mar­ket­ing, if ever there were a moment in which men and women of good­will must make the effort to rec­on­cile real evi­dence and insight with a gen­uine desire to do right by the cus­tomer and the wider world, this is it.

Indeed, as TS Eliot him­self wrote in cap­i­tals in his most famous poem ‘The Waste Land’:


Pete Martin

Written by Pete Martin

Creative Director, The Gate Worldwide

Pete Martin is Creative Director at The Gate Worldwide. His book on profit-with-purpose ‘The True, The Good, The Beautiful’ is available as a free download on iTunes.

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