I'm sat at a desk in a glossy London publishing house. On the floors around me, writers are working on tough investigations and hard news. I, meanwhile, am updating a feature called "Shocking celebrity nip-slips: boobs on the loose." My computer screen is packed with images of tanned reality star flesh as I write captions in the voice of a strip club announcer: "Snooki's nunga-nungas just popped out to say hello!" I type. "Whoops! Looks like Kim Kardashian forgot to wear a bra today!"
Back in 2013, I worked for a women's celebrity news website. I stumbled into the industry at a time when online editors were panicking: Their sites were funded by advertisers who demanded that as many people as possible viewed stories. This meant writing things readers loved and shared, but also resorting to shadier tactics. With views dwindling, publications like mine often turned to the gospel of search engine optimisation, also known as SEO, for guidance.
"In a very broad sense, I would say search engine optimisation is making sure Google is able to understand what a website is about," says Chase Granberry, CEO of AuthorityLabs, a software company that helps publishers track the words people are searching for. "You use tools to figure out the phrases people look for on Google—popular ones are known as 'keywords' or 'search terms.' You produce content about that. Then you flag up to Google what you've written about by repeating the search terms in the headline, URL, copy, and in the picture tags [they're a bit like invisible hashtags that identify images]."
SEO can be used to bring great content to the attention of readers, but some critics believe that titles that sell their souls to search in return for high traffic can end up producing less-than-great journalism. This plays into a wider argument in journalism about whether the impact of an article is more important than the number of people who click on it; as writer Joshua Benton explains in a 2014 article for Nieman Lab: "You get better work when you're trying to please actual humans instead of opaque algorithms."
Like making a deal with a highly-optimized devil, relying heavily on SEO to push readers to websites has a high moral price for publishers. When it comes to female pop stars and actors, people are often more likely to search for the celebrity's name with the words "naked," "boobs," "butt," "weight," and "bikini" than with the names of their albums or movies. Since 2008, "Miley Cyrus naked" has been consistently Googled more than "Miley Cyrus music," "Miley Cyrus album," "Miley Cyrus show," and "Miley Cyrus Instagram." Plus, "Emma Watson naked" has been Googled more than "Emma Watson movie" since she was 15. In fact, "Emma Watson feet" gets more search traffic than "Emma Watson style," which might explain why one women's site has a fashion feature called "Emma Watson is an excellent foot fetish candidate."
I know this only too well. In 2013, my job involved researching the things people searched for privately and writing about them publicly. I crammed headlines with sleazy keywords and turned bikini Instagram posts into 300-word news stories. While a lot of what I produced didn't sit comfortably with my feminist values, there was a satisfaction to writing an all-star headline crammed with words that people were searching for, or producing a story that thousands clicked on. By boiling down a celebrity to a list of search terms—"Rihanna naked," "Rihanna butt," "Rihanna bikini Instagram"—you can objectify them in a way you would find impossible to if you thought of them as an actual person.
When keeping your job relies more on you getting people to click on a headline than on producing an interesting article, your goals change. "There are definitely cases where journalists find it extremely stressful," says Susan E McGregor, the assistant director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. "There's no doubt that having a big blinking red bar visible in the newsroom saying what's doing well and what's not could have a very negative impact."
You'd add in words like 'nip slip' even if nipples are nowhere near having a slip because that's what people are searching for.
This is something that feminist and celebrity journalist Hannah* has experienced firsthand while working online across a number of newspapers and magazines, all of which have global readerships of hundreds of thousands of people per month. She was told by editors to write articles that sat uncomfortably with her beliefs, but now brushes it off as something that "just what happens on your way up."
"Right after the 'Blurred Lines' video came out we always had to write about Emily Ratajkowski, one of the topless models," she says. "At that point she hadn't done any films—I couldn't really give less of a shit about her and I can't imagine our readers knew who she was—but we'd literally just do [an article saying] 'She's taken a really sexy naked boobs selfie,' and it would get huge amounts of traffic. You'd be like 'What am I even writing about?' But you just had to do it."
Laura, another celebrity journalist who has worked online for popular tabloids, explains there are other times when she has had to sex up stories about celebrity women who weren't even trying to be especially provocative. "You could do a red carpet round-up of 'all these women look great in these dresses' but you'd change it to 'plunging necklines' or 'high splits,'" she explains. "Marriage announcements would be sexed up with 'cleavage enhancing' or 'revealing' outfit descriptions. You'd add in words like 'nip slip' even if nipples are nowhere near having a slip because that's what people are searching for. It was literally just for SEO, and it was soul destroying."
One journalist told me she worked on a site where every picture of a female celebrity—including those in full coverage outfits—was tagged with the word 'panties.'
While you're groaning at clickbait "shows her ex what he's missing in tiny bikini" headlines, there's a whole new level of trickery that lurks behind them. For example, a female celebrity recently posed for a tasteful set of nude photos with a glossy magazine, who published the story with an empowering, "you go girl!" headline. The page's URL, however, was a chain of sexy keywords that simply ended with "nude-photos." Things get especially murky once you delve even deeper into the behind-the-scenes sorcery. One tabloid journalist told me she worked on a site where every picture of a female celebrity—including those in full coverage outfits—was tagged with the word "panties." I'll also admit to using the phrase "nearly-naked" in headlines just to hit the search term "naked".
Questionable traffic-driving activity spills out into titles that don't just focus on celebrities. Even more highbrow fashion and entertainment journalists I talked to spoke about producing content made to lure in visitors from dubious SEO keywords, though these articles would not be promoted on social media or the homepage. One writer who works for an outwardly feminist site told me she once had to produce a 50-page slideshow of "Kim Kardashian's changing butt" that drove thousands of page views, but was buried under other content.
Freelance journalist Clare* used to work at a website that covered news about Middle East politics, finance and culture, but also published celebrity content to boost traffic. "There was a boring story about an advert Cara Delevingne was naked in," she raises as an example. "It wasn't the sort of thing a reputable website should be writing about, but the headline 'Cara Delevingne naked' is brilliant for search engine optimization and the traffic was incredible."
While stories like this clashed with her position as a "tedious, left-wing orientated feminist," Clare now finds it funny that she worked on them. "People want to read about women being criticized and judged and SEO just highlights that really," she says. "If you can harness the market of people searching for that content to make money from advertising that then goes back into really good journalism, then I find it hard to see it as an totally bad thing. It is also so depressing though."
Her view was echoed by all the journalists I spoke to, with one explaining: "If people were searching for really good, heartwarming news that's all we'd write about, but they're not. I've got to pay the rent, and I need a job. If I feel like I'm degrading someone, I'll just say I don't want my name on it." SEO expert Granberry adds: "It's not that the writers are sexist. It's that the general public is probably more sexist than not, and in order for publications to get traffic they have to mimic that behaviour."
Writing content to serve the secret whims of Google users can have real life implications for writers. Hannah learned that the hard way when she wrote a controversial comment piece for a celebrity site."One editor would dole lists out daily article ideas that weren't very nice about women just because they had the word 'sex' or 'skinny' in," she says. "I usually went in early so that I could pick a non-sexist one, but there was one time when I wrote a comment piece where I called an older celebrity 'wrinkly' and was really ageist. All of their fans started tweeting at me; even my friend's mum got really upset."
I'd love to end this feature with an anecdote about me leaving celebrity journalism in a blaze of glory—burning pictures of Celebrity Big Brother contestants on my way—but I'd be lying. I enjoyed working at the news site; I actually pitched the sleaziest stories. I was good at my job. It's easy to call out showbiz content, but it really does just serve a demand that exists. Ultimately, the things we search for give us a depressing insight into what the world is really like—and celebrity journalism is a reflection of that.
It might not be that way forever though. McGregor from the Tow Center says that SEO-focused strategies are as out of date as the sexist content they often lead to. In fact, she says forward-thinking publishers are moving away from traffic goals completely and thinking more about loyal readership. This will ultimately change what content is produced. "There's always going to be sexist content if people are looking for it," she says. "But publishers are starting to realize that there's an opposite market who are undervalued. As women in the US grow economic power, we'll start to see a real change in media and entertainment."
That change is potentially already on its way, but not in the way you'd think. Tabloid journalist Laura—the writer who talked about sexing up marriage announcements—explains that while the amount of sexualized content about women isn't decreasing, she's starting to produce more sexualized content about men. "I wish I could say it was because we were growing up and no longer objectifying women," says Laura. "But I think it's because women just don't shock anymore. You see Miley Cyrus in a leotard all the time but you hadn't seen Justin Bieber's penis until those paparazzi pictures leaked. It's exciting and it's new. As long as people click on it, I don't think publishers care who's naked."
* Not their real names