After assigning digital projects (videos, podcasts, websites, slide decks) in first-year and upper-level writing courses for years, I designed this lesson to help students more meaningfully engage with issues concerning audience. Although the search engine optimization (SEO) activity is presented here as part of a larger project for first-year writing classes, it can also be adapted into a stand-alone project appropriate for upper-level writing classes. Project descriptions for both versions of the SEO activity are included in the Lesson Materials section below. Additionally, both versions focus on what Google search terms an audience might use to find students’ digital texts.
First-year writing, but adaptable to second- and third-year writing courses
At the end of the semester, as part of the process of producing a long-form digital text, students will use SEO tools to more effectively identify their audiences.
Total Estimated Class Time
Coursework or Assignment Underway
Students are producing a digital multimodal project, such as a revision or remediation of their own scholarly research into a video, podcast, or slide deck; a collection of their writing into a digital volume published through WordPress or Blogger; or an e-portfolio developed in Wix or Weebly.
Work Completed before Class
Previous class sessions will have introduced students to audience-centered models of writing, specifically through the concept of the writing situation or the rhetorical situation. Students may have read Lloyd Bitzer’s “The Rhetorical Situation,” Laura Bolin Carroll’s “Backpacks vs. Briefcases: Steps toward Rhetorical Analysis,” or Quentin Vieregge’s “Exigency: What Makes My Message Indispensable to My Reader.” Students may have also completed a short rhetorical analysis of an existing composition to identify how writers analyze the choices other writers make in response to an audience’s needs.
Students will also have answered three questions related to their own digital texts: Who is my audience? What is my purpose? What audience need does my project respond to?
Description of SEO Activity
Having identified an audience and a purpose for their digital compositions, students will practice SEO to better define their audience. SEO is a practice essential to professional writing designed for online publication and circulation—what’s most often called content work.
By the end of the activity, students will have produced an annotated list of three to four search terms. Along with their list, students will note current search results, the way their project fits with the other texts appearing in that search, and reasons their audience might click on their project in those results.
Sequence of Classroom Activities
- Students will begin by watching two videos to learn how Web writers and other content makers think about search terms to help make the online content they produce discoverable to their audiences: “The Internet: How Search Works” and “How Lil Nas X Took ‘Old Town Road’ from TikTok Meme to No. 1.”
- Each student will make a four-column table, like the one listed in Lesson Materials below, in a Microsoft Word document, in a Google document, or on paper to record SEO activity. Students will submit these tables at the end of the class session.
- Students will navigate to a free SEO keyword tool to identify three to four long-tail (long, more specific) search phrases. I recommend Answer the Public because it generates a range of long-tail keywords. To help students navigate the results generated in Answer the Public, you could require them to type in one short-tail term of one or two words (e.g., “climate change”) and provide three long-tail options: a question (e.g., “How does climate change affect the economy?”), a comparison (e.g, “climate change versus cost”), and a third long-tail result (e.g., “climate change economic impact”). Students will place their short-tail terms and each of their long-tail terms in the first column of the table.
- Students will run a Google search with each of the keywords they’ve chosen, noting in the second column some of the results that the search returned. For instance, searching “climate change” returns results from state agencies (e.g., the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), governing bodies (e.g., the United Nations), and Wikipedia. Searching “how climate change affects the economy” returns a wider range of results, including a blog post, a New York Times article, several other online articles, and a listicle. Students will take notes about these source types in the second column. If producing a video, students might use Google’s video search tool instead. And if producing a work like a podcast or slide deck, students might include that information in their query (e.g., “how climate change affects the economy podcast”).
- Next, students will begin to think about how their projects might fit alongside these already-published texts, paying specific attention to style, research presentation, organization, length, and use of media. The goal is to help students consider the shape their messages might take by asking them to identify what is conventional and working well in existing texts.
- Finally, students will begin to think about what appeal their projects might have for real audiences—why, given this range in existing results, an audience might choose to read, view, or listen to their projects. In other words, here is where students might begin to think about how they could appeal to real audiences conducting searches with SEO phrases that are already in use.
After the Activity
Ask students to report back what they learned after having completed this activity. Some guiding questions might include the following:
- Given your keyword research, why do audiences read about your topic? What are they trying to learn or do by accessing those texts?
- Given your keyword research, what choices will you make in approach (e.g., style, tone, length, organization) so that your text appears relevant to other texts about your topic?
- Given your keyword research, what might you do to distinguish your text from those of others?
Further Reading and Resources
Bitzer, Lloyd F. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. 1, no. 1, 1968, pp. 1–14. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40236733.
Carroll, Laura Bolin. “Backpacks vs. Briefcases: Steps toward Rhetorical Analysis.” Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, edited by Charles Lowe and Pavel Zemliansky, vol. 1, Parlor Press, 2010, pp. 45–58. Writing Spaces, Parlor Press / WAC Clearinghouse, 3 May 2010, writingspaces.org/sites/default/files/carroll–backpacks-vs-briefcases.pdf.
Dush, Lisa. “When Writing Becomes Content.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 67, no. 2, 2015, pp. 173–96.
Vieregge, Quentin. “Exigency: What Makes My Message Indispensable to My Reader.” Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, edited by Dana Driscoll et al., vol. 3, Parlor Press, 2020, pp. 175–88. Writing Spaces, Parlor Press / WAC Clearinghouse, 1 Apr. 2020, writingspaces.org/sites/default/files/vieregge-exigency.pdf.