An online editor recently rejected an article I wrote, accusing me of the heinous crime of “keyword stuffing.”

Writers grow accustomed to rejection (or they quickly find other careers), but this was a good story that would be of interest to many readers. So I fought back.

The article was about using questions in headlines for ads, newsletters, emails, and other marketing materials. It’s a common conundrum that generates a lot of bad advice. Many people believe questions cut readership. Actually, well-worded questions are one of the best ways to engage readers. Don’t believe me? Well, you’re reading this post.

Anyway, because the article was about questions, it used the word “questions” fairly often, and once I was able to get more feedback from the editor, I understood her concern. Since Google and other search engines have modified their algorithms to fight people who try to cheat by using as many keywords as possible, sites that appear to be stuffing keywords get penalized in their search rankings.  The editor worried that the frequent use of the same word would be read as an evil attempt, and that it might lead search engines to blacklist the site.

The incident points out the fact that search engines are indeed changing the process of writing. Once, writers focused on connecting with readers as the most effective way of delivering a message. Now they also have to tiptoe around the ever-changing and often mysterious preferences of search-engine spiders when crafting copy. My original article was clearly more compelling for human readers, but in the age of Google, clarity is fast becoming secondary to conformity.