Literary Writers Need ALT LIT Tags

"Evelyn had looked forward to the hall at Knaresdean with feelings deeper that those with usually inflame the fancy of a girl proud of her dress and confident of her beauty."

That line is taken from Lytton's "Alice", the top of the page where my bookmark happened to be. It would be very unlikely to attract any potential readers from search traffic, especially since the proper name "Knaresdean" isn't a real place. It's also a proxy for the problems that literary writers face online. Literary writers use words to paint scenes and evoke emotions in order to engage their readers, not to attract search engine traffic. But in a world where search engines are out competing bookstores as traffic cops for words, literary writers are left more dependent than ever on bookstore shelf placement and reviews. There aren't a lot of ways literary writers can raise the profile of their work online without becoming social networking phenoms, so I've been working for months on a solution.

Introducing, the HTML innovation that will no doubt earn me honorary PhD's across the globe - the literary ALT tag.

<ALT LIT="Plain English description of what's going on">

The idea of the ALT LIT tag is to translate literary passages into the lingua franca of the Internet, broken English in most cases, so that search engine users have a chance of discovering high art along with the "art photography" they so avidly seek. Imagine Google sending you to a page starting:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

In response to the query:

"What time is it"

Instead of the boring:

My ALT LIT tag would make this and more possible if only poor Dickens had the foresight to heavily annotate his text with tags like:

<ALT LIT ="What time is it">
<ALT LIT ="How far is it from London to Paris">
<ALT LIT ="What is a guillotine">

or, if he was really clever:

<ALT LIT ="Cliff Notes for Tale of Two Cities">

Wouldn't that be a good joke on the kids. Of course, the ALT LIT tags are only a start to allow literature to exist on an even playing field with bad prose writing. The next trick for literary writers will be getting good contextual links, so that the content of their ALT tags could be competitive. I believe this can be addressed very simply by organizing university professors to link each other's work the way they assign each other's textbooks. In fact, they might accelerate the process if they forced students to go out and generate links as part of the educational process. At least that way, students graduating in a deep recession would have a marketable skill.

My only worry is that I have the syntax wrong. I'd hate to see somebody come up with the <LIT ALT> tag and get all the credit!


Peter said...

This is great and had me laughing but unfortunately there is far too much truth in it.

I have similar problems with technical writing for multiple audiences that also indexes well. "excessive 50Pa infiltration rate" might need the tag "your house has drafts". Avoiding word repetition improves readability but reduces Google rankings ... which leads me to conclude that search engines will be a major force in mutating our literary culture. Corpus based dictionaries like Encarta should also reflect these changes. As our language dumbs down we will be left with a vocabulary of marketing hype and cliches where the only way to get found by Google is to be the highest Adwords bidder. Pathetic state of affairs.

Morris Rosenthal said...


Didn't Encarta just fold up their tents?

But seriously, while not many people search on "50Pa infiltration rate", you would own it. The vast majority of the 5,000 or more search visitors this site gets every day come from Long Tail phrases. Or to state the reverse, five of the top 10 search phrases brining visitors to the site have very little to do with the majority of my work. It's just that a particular page got popular for some very short phrases.

Getting search to work for literary fiction is probably a long way off, but since I concentrate my reading in the early to mid 1800's, it doesn't have much effect on me.


Rogue Mutt said...

If you really want to steer search engine traffic, shouldn't you just put in keywords relating to sex since that's primarily what people use the Internet for?

Morris Rosenthal said...


I'm going to assume that you are serious and just new to the web.

So the answer is "No" on both accounts. From the standpoint of an author or publisher, drawing people to your website who are really looking for sex stuff isn't going to help you at all unless you are publishing sex stuff. The whole point of getting traffic from search is to get the right traffic from search - the wrong traffic just eats bandwidth.

As to people using the Internet primarily for sex, that's just silly. There may be a hardcore group of people who spend 24 hours a day looking for sex on the Internet, but they are vastly out numbered by people who are looking for information or shopping.