SEO as Website Dramaturgy

In modern theatre making, a dramaturg is a professional critic and literary consultant whose job it is to act as the voice of the play in the rehearsal room, ensuring the play comes across effectively to a contemporary audience and stays true to it’s social and historical context.

Their job is two-fold. First they have to ensure that the play is true to itself – that the contextual implications of the script are understood, respected and utilised to their best effect. Secondly, they have to ensure that the play works dramatically with the sentiment of the observing audience – utilising the semiotics of symbolism, the contemporary resonance of ideas and the effectiveness of performance techniques in stimulating specific thoughts and emotions. As can be imagined, the job typically involves a lot of beard stroking, pipe smoking and prognostication.

The dramaturg is an interdisciplinary aesthetician, someone able to see the bigger picture and balance the creative desires of actors, directors, designers and technicians towards a singular integrated artistic composition.

In recent months, I’ve been struck by how much the job of an SEO is increasingly becoming like the job of a dramaturg – balancing the desires of different creative and technical elements within an organisation to ensure the final product (website) provides value to it's audience, while maintaining an integrated structure where all elements work towards a singular goal. Both SEO and applied dramaturgy are processes of managing relevancy for two distinct and competing audience types. As a dramaturg focuses on ensuring a play simultaneously excites a live audience while maintaining contextual relevancy for critics; an SEO works to ensure a pleasant and pertinent user experience while ensuring that best practice for search engines is respected.

The check list below explains how I see SEO as a system of applying a pluralistic dramaturgy

Does it work for the search engines:

  • Technical restrictions
  • Metadata
  • Information architecture
  • Holistic view of the link profile

Does it work for the Audience:

  • Is the the website style match the overall message?
  • Does the content assume the right level of prior knowledge?
  • Is the site easy to navigate?
  • Is the site represented faithfully and appropriately in social networks?
Having experience working as a production dramaturg before becoming an agency-side SEO consultant; I thought it would be worth explaining the three principles which I feel have helped me transition my skills from one professional discipline to another.

Remember your first impression and collect other's first impressions

When spending a lot of time working on a site – you become accustomed to the design, the styling, the UI and the font. The perceptions of seasoned observer are radically different from the initial reaction a first time audience member has, so you need to hang on to the feeling you get when you see something for the first time. Dramaturgs will typically leave the rehearsal room for extended periods within latter stages of a rehearsal process - in order to come back to the content with fresh eyes and to make recommendations from an "audience perspective". Before looking at a new clients site, I always run through the following check list and make notes as soon as the front page loads before me:
  1. Is the design inviting?
  2. Does the design fit the content?
  3. What does the site do?
  4. 3 words to describe the design style
  5. Do I understand how I would complete my goal on this site? (be it a purchase, information gathering, make a phone call etc)
  6. Does the site seem like an authority in it's field?
A  visitor is a little like someone browsing through TV channels; you have roughly 5-10 second to capture interest and attention, or they will be gone and getting them to return will be an uphill struggle. As such, if anything doesn't match or jars in your conclusions from your first impression audit, it's going to hold you back in the long term. Those first impressions should define the beginning of any CRO considerations.

Just as your own first impressions are valuable, so are the first impressions of others. Use mechanical turk or visual website optimiser to A/B test your ideas - constantly.

Put the audience first

A play acted poorly, without any flair or vision will always fail - irrespective of how faithful it is to the original script. The same is true of a website - no matter how good the on-page optimisation is, no matter how many links you have built; if the site doesn't entice an audience to engage with it effectively, then it will fail (as no one will convert). Plus, as Google are increasingly using user data as a metric for Ranking and the line between SEO and CRO is beginning to blur. You need a good site before you can begin to do SEO, so get your design, architecture and conversion funnels sorted at the earliest opportunity.

Context is everything

What assumptions are you making about the knowledge and experience of your audience? Are these accurate? What do you need to educate them on? It's a common error to assume that your users know as much about your product/company as you do and to neglect many of the basics explanations which will aid engagement and conversion. The likes of Coca-cola or Apple can assume a high level of brand awareness for visitors to their site, but many B2B companies or small e-commerce ventures do not have this luxury. Tag lines, slogans, or good category page titles can all help to ensure understanding at a basic level; while explanatory body-copy or videos may be needed to explain any complex site functionality or technical product.


And so over to you - are you becoming a dramaturg? Do you have a similar process or checklist that you use? I'd welcome your thoughts.

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