Ghostwriter (or the art of tricking Google)

The Thinker by Rodin

All my life I wanted to be a paid writer. Being a writer sounded quite glamorous. You are paid to create and if you were good enough or wrote for just the right mass audience you could be wealthy like Stephen King.

Life didn’t work out that way for me. It’s probably for the best because most writers are starving writers, which means they do it as a hobby and not for much real income. They have other jobs that pay the rent. Moreover most writing is not glamorous, even when it pays well. Most writers dream of writing popular fiction. What most writers actually do is write articles for magazines or trade journals, or the local newspaper. They adhere to editorial guidelines. Their writing is not very creative. It’s about putting a number of facts and quotations on paper or online in a way that may be interesting enough for the reader to make it to the end of the article. These days even publishers don’t care if readers read the entire article or not. They are looking to serve ads. They care about whether your article attracts a lot of ad views. Whether it gets read is not that important, unless they are going for some sort of award.

So if you can find a writing job it is likely to pay poorly and be demoralizing to you and your self-esteem. And if you do manage to get a book published, it’s likely to sell a hundred to a thousand copies, with extras ending up in a discount book bin or just shredded for pulp for the next book. For the vast majority of creative writers, writing does not provide close to a living wage. Most editors will refuse to acknowledge your brilliance.

Recently though I did get paid to write. I was paid to ghostwrite. So in a sense I have become a published writer, although I think the content is going strictly online. Essentially, I’m being paid to influence Google’s search engine. Yes, I am writing for a set of algorithms! I’ve become something of a slave to the computer!

Google of course is the king of search engines. Getting high or higher on its search index is important. For many businesses it’s the difference between life or death. The only question is: how to get ranked higher than your competitors? Google is not telling, although it does give some hints. Needless to say there are plenty of companies out there that claim they can get your company ranked higher.

Most of these outfits are selling snake oil. There are lots of obvious things that can be done which don’t hurt, such as having URLs with meaningful information about your article, providing a sitemap.xml file and removing bad links. In the trade this is called “search engine optimization” or SEO. Everyone with the means to do so is already doing SEO. What you really want is for your company to appear in the top page of Google’s listing, ideally at or near the top for a given search phrase. These are links that people will click on.

One of my clients has made a business of SEO. I’ll call him Dick (not his real name). He’s hired me for odd jobs maintaining his forum, generally because he’s too busy making real money to mess with it. Dick has a reputation in the SEO world of getting results. That’s why Dick sought me out to be a ghostwriter.

Dick’s success has come through building a company’s online reputation. He figured out that Google ranks higher those sites that publish honest articles. I have no idea how Google assigns an honesty rating to an article, but somehow it’s got a built in bullshit detector in its algorithms. If it doesn’t look like bullshit, it’s ranked higher. If it looks authoritative, it’s ranked even higher. If you publish lots of articles that look honest and impartial, over time it will raise the ranking of your company in Google’s search index. This is a long-term strategy and it’s a costly one as well.

So I was hired to write some technical articles in this client’s particular domain. It turns out I have pretty good credentials. First, I do information technology for a living, so I have practical and current experience along with a masters degree in software systems engineering. Second, I write fairly well. Third, I am mostly retired. And fourth, I can write an impartial article. My years in government have actually helped. Government employees develop finely honed bullshit detectors, because we are constantly dealing with vendors trying to get their products and services into our enterprise.

Dick is also kind enough to provide a few sample articles for my topic. I use these as well as my thirty years in the business to crank out these articles. Generally they are no more than 800 words and follow a format. I charge by the hour. Since most of these are survey articles, I don’t have to really do any research. I just start writing. It takes me about three hours to write an article. I bill at $30/hour (my retiree rate). So far I’ve done two articles and earned $180 ghostwriting. There will probably be more, as the client is satisfied with my work.

I have no idea where these articles will be placed, but Dick tries to get them in online publications of authoritative sites. I could probably find them online if I looked. Dick does edit what I send him, so it may appear somewhat altered. But at least I am a published writer. Some people may find my articles interesting, but the only “person” of real interest is Google’s search engine. We are basically trying to fake it out. Dick’s client is essentially renting my experience for potential future customers and an improved reputation.

I’ll probably never know how this will all pan out. Some part of me thinks I am being dishonest. I am writing honest articles, but I am doing it on behalf of a company that doesn’t have the in-house skills or the time to do it. They are essentially renting my reputation, such as it is, to add to their reputation.

But hey, at least I am a published writer now! My pseudonym? Call me Anonymous.