What the world really wants to know about Britain, part sevenish

What leads (a few) wide-eyed innocents from all over the internet to Notes from the U.K.? Let’s look at the search questions they ask–and let’s pretend it tells us something about what they want to know about Britain.

We’ll start with the strange ones, for a change, instead of saving them for dessert.

Strange questions

“why is everyone wearing pineapples”

I, my friends, am not wearing pineapples. Not as I type this and not when I read the question. That convinces me that not everyone is wearing pineapples. I don’t think I ever have worn pineapples, although there was a stretch of time when I wasn’t responsible for what I wore—or even for remembering it. But my mother wasn’t a pineapple kind of parent. I’m pretty sure she didn’t dress me in any. If this is really important to anyone, I can ask if my older brother remembers any pineapple-related clothing events–his memory kicks in a few years earlier than mine–but I’m hoping you’ll take my word on this, because it’s not going to be easy to explain why I’m asking.

And to be completely clear, it doesn’t matter if the question is about clothing with pictures of pineapples, the fruit itself (sliced or whole; canned, fresh, or dried), or three-dimensional imitations of the fruit. I am not now wearing nor have I ever worn any of them.

Why did the comment lead someone to me? Because one of my posts, “Banning Pineapples,” mentioned that a couple of music festivals had banned them, along with hand grenades and land mines. You can understand why they’re all in the same category, right?

As an article on the BBC website explained (and it’s bizarre enough that it bears repetition), “Organisers said [the ban] was because fans of Oxford band Glass Animals bring hundreds of the fruit to its gigs, in a nod to song ‘Pork Soda’ which includes the lyrics ‘pineapples are in my head.’ ”

No, I don’t understand it either. Especially the pork soda part. But nothing I wrote mentioned anyone dressing in or as a pineapple. Pineapples are not in my head. And what kind of world do we live in that people don’t make a distinction between wearing pictures of pineapples and decking themselves out in dripping slices of the canned stuff?

A very strange world, that’s what we live in. It must be time for an irrelevant photo, and then another question.

Blatantly irrelevant photo: begonia flowers

“coke fabric yard”

I not only don’t understand this question, I can’t account for it leading anyone to Notes. As far as I can remember, I haven’t written about either coke or Coke. Yard? Yes, I have mentioned yards, probably in the context of metric and non-metric measures. Fabric? In the U.S, it’s measured by the yard, so I might’ve used that word too. Plus I do tend to call that piece of ground outside a house a yard. I probably said something about ours. The British call it a garden. Even—I think—if it’s cemented over.

Coke, though? I can think of three meanings of the word, and none are measured by the yard. You might as well toss pineapples into the conversation.

Surely thousands of other people on the internet have mentioned the word yard. How deep into a Google search would you have to go before you landed here?

Well, because I take the responsibility of blogging seriously, I checked. It turns out that you can buy Coke fabric—that’s fabric with pictures of Coke (cans of, or maybe bottles, but not spills or glasses), and the first couple of search pages were all about how to buy some. So if someone wanted to buy Coke fabric by the yard, they didn’t have to go very deep into the listings–it’s all at the top. But they went past all that, so I kept going as well. And it all got strange by the second or third page. I found:

Christ to Coke: How an Image Becomes an Icon. When I followed the link, I landed midway into the thing and found a mention of fabric and a picture of the American flag. No Coke, no Christ, no idea what it’s all about. Best guess? It’s somebody’s PhD thesis and it’s all very, very deep. Too deep for the likes of us, so let’s move on.

Next came The Dangers of Kissing and Diet Coke: What Your Doctor Doesn’t Know. This leads to a book that opens by saying, “I bet you bought this book because you wonder what’s dangerous about kissing and Diet Coke.”

Well, no. I didn’t pay a damn dime and wouldn’t have. And when the author didn’t get around to either kissing or Diet Coke within the first few paragraphs, I figured it was clickbait and bullshit and I moved on to The Pollution Abatement Handbook, which mentioned both coke (a fuel used in making steel) and fabric filters to minimize emissions.

Below that I found The Reports of Sir Edward Coke KNT (1572-1617), in Thirteen Parts, which not only gives us one of the keywords in the author’s name but somewhere along the line mentions a church-yard, and that hyphen make sit look like the word yard is running around loose. No fabric. Sorry.

“KNT” may be an abbreviation of knight, but might also be a hint that the gentleman was knit. Or–as I’d have put it–knitted (or is that knot, or possibly knut?), but both spelling a grammar were different back then. I think I like it best when I’m not sure, so I didn’t try to find out anything about him.

After that came a story about cocaine being found in a Coke factory in France, which is appropriate, then one about what it’s “really” like to smuggle cocaine. Then we were back to Coke fabric.

Then I gave up.

“what does ‘feeding the bears’ mean when it comes to classroom instructional design”

Um. Gee. I have no idea. I googled it but the responses were about feeding actual bears. Or not feeding actual bears, which for most of us seems like a good idea.

The exception was the Urban Dictionary, which defined it as getting a traffic ticket. It had a second definition, but it was even less useful. I have as little understanding of how the search led to me as I do of the definition the writer was looking for.

 

Questions about Britain’s greatness

As always, people want to know why Britain’s called Great Britain. Or sometimes when it was first called Great Britain. Or—from the gullible—why Britain’s great. This version of the question comes from people who think the jumbo burger has to be big in some absolute way when in fact it could easily be bigger than a micro-size regular burger.

Great Britain is—as I say every time I write one of these posts—a geographical term. It means big.

When I slotted the question into Google, I’m happy to report that I didn’t have to work my way through pollution handbooks. Notes was close to the top of the list. Of course, Google feeds you what it thinks you want and confirms whatever prejudices it thinks you have. Still, you take your triumphs where you can find them.

If you want to know why Britain’s called Great Britain, it’s here.

I have yet to write about when Great Britain was first called that or why Britain’s called Britain, but a shallow splash in the Google pond tells me that Britain comes from the Latin Britannia, which dropped out of use when the Romans left Britain and came back into use when the Normans shot an arrow into the eye of the king of the moment and put themselves in charge, so they got to call it whatever they wanted.

I still don’t know why the Romans called it Britannia, but let’s not dive down that rabbit hole right now.

In the meantime, if you think words will make a country great, I refer you to Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

Full disclosure: Some versions of the quote use “cannot” instead of “can’t,” and one link claims he never said it at all. But, as Yogi Berra (is alleged to have) said, “I never said half the things I said.” So let’s not quibble.

And by way of full disclosure, I can fool myself perfectly well, so you don’t have to bother.

For the sake of variety, someone asked, “why great Britain.” This reminds me of the Marx Brothers routine, “Why a duck?” But really, why not a duck? And why not Great Britain? But all this threatens to involve us in some pretty deep thought and it’s too much for a Friday morning. We’ll leave it.

 

Knowledgeable questions

“emmits”

You have to know something about Cornwall to ask about this. It’s a Cornish word for incomers, and also for tourists, who swarm all over the landscape like ants, which is the word’s literal meaning.

When I googled emmits, I popped up at the top of the list, which is (again) meaningless since Google’s feeding me what it thinks I want to see and it knows how vain I am.

The word is also spelled emmets, and since that’s not the spelling I used, I drop out of the running if I put the word in that way. I should probably have gone with the e spelling. It seems to be more common.

What are people really trying to find out when they google this? If they’re emmits (or emmets), maybe only a definition, but maybe what the Cornish think of them. Since I’m not Cornish and came here four generations too late to ever be, you shouldn’t look to me for an answer.

“what is a cockwomble”

I’m not at the top of the list here, but in the narrow field of cockwomble experts I do at least register. I’m so proud. And proud of all the strange people who know enough to ask what a cockwomble is. What information I have is here.

 

Repeat questions        

Every time we do this, people want to know about:

Why British lawyers wear [fill in the blank with a disparaging adjective] wigs in court. Recently they’ve also been asking about court wigs.

Answer: It keeps their heads warm.

Oh, hell, I suppose I should include a link. Actual information is here.

Beer. This is usually—getting right to the point—about which country’s beer has more alcohol. Honestly, who cares? If you’re worried about getting drunk on minimal volume, try vodka. Or gin or tequila. Hell, it you can go for stuff that comes in colors too if you like.

How the English (or British) feel about (or treat) American tourists. A recent version of this read “british snooty to american tourists.” If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly (to do this, you pour off the SEO and interpret the patterns left behind), this should really have its own category: Paranoia. The writers are wondering whether it’s safe to take their delicate little selves out of the United States and whether the British will be mean to them. Take the risk, folks. It can’t possibly be as bad as junior high school.

Unless you were the people who made junior high so horrible.

“Tea on the Lawn.” It took me a while to figure this out, but these questions turn out to be about a poem that must be assigned to half the schoolkids in Britain, and they’re all out there looking for a quick way to get their bored little heads around it—possibly without having to read the damn thing. A recent query was looking for a summary. Read the poem, kid. It’ll be shorter than the summary.

The post that draws these poor souls was about a fund-raising tea on the lawn of a great house near where I live. It’s a very British thing, that kind of tea, and as a rule it doesn’t involve poetry.

 

New questions

how to act like an aristocrat Mostly, as I write this drivel, I don’t think about SEO—search engine optimization, or how to game the googlemonster—but when I wrote the headline that drew the poor silly soul behind the question into my lair, I did wonder if someone wouldn’t google the phrase. And someone did, confirming my worst suppositions about human nature.

“romance, marriage, village life” I have no idea what someone expected to find, but when I google it, my post on gay marriage, romance, and village life shows up. It’s probably not what the person was looking for, but it involves all three words. A triumph.

“US mail box UK”

What can I say? Name a topic and someone out there is interested in it.

“a bit about Britain”

There’s a blog by that name, and several of its posts turn up in a Google search. A post of mine shows up at the bottom of the page, after the ones that were a closer fit, and the questioner continued down that far, leading me to conclude that some people have too much time on their hands.

 

Language

Questions about pronunciation usually ask about place names, but not long ago someone wanted “pronunciation of whoo.”

This is awkward. The English language is such a mess. I edited kids’ nonfiction (briefly, which is too bad because it was great fun), and one of the things I had to do was create a vocabulary list for each book, with not just definitions but also pronunciations. Real linguists use a set of symbols that only they can understand. If you know the code, they’ll tell you how a word’s pronounced, but our lists had to use the 26 letters of the English alphabet and make sense to the average ten-year-old.

It tells you something about the language that we need a set of symbols the average English speaker can’t read to tell us what our words sound like. But never mind them. I couldn’t use them–both because I don’t understand them and because they wouldn’t do what we needed done.

So: English pronunciation with 26 letters. Have you ever tried writing the pronunciation of an English word? Name me a vowel (we’ll leave the consonants alone; they’re not as much of a mess) that doesn’t have three pronunciations for every whim that crosses its flitty little mind. In The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten avoids the whole problem by finding a word or phrase that each Yiddish word rhymes with. It works perfectly, but there must’ve been moments when he pounded his head against a wall.

So how do you pronounce whoo? Whoo. That’s  sort of like woo, but with a bit of air on the H, but that’s too long winded for a vocabulary list. It rhymes with few, but then so does woo, so that’s no damn help.

I’m happy to say, it never came up in the kids’ books.

“what do british call brownies”

Brownies. Aren’t you glad you asked? Mind you, British brownies aren’t always what I’d call brownies, because they’ll accept anything that’s baked, oblong, and vaguely chocolaty, but I’ve had some American brownies that I could describe the same way.

Semi-relevantly, the British tend to go over the top with their brownies, presumably because brownies are American and that’s what they think Americans do. So you can see a perfectly innocent brownie in a café’s display case, order it, and find that it comes to your table under a wedding gown’s worth of whipped cream embroidered with chocolate sauce. Plus, in the name of health and safety, a tiny marzipan stethoscope.

A question of my own and a bit about SEO

Before I end, I should make an opening, once again, for you to tell me what you’d like to know about Britain. Or the U.S. Or any other topic I might be unqualified to write about. I don’t promise to tackle it. That depends on whether I can be marginally informative while still amusing myself–and, with luck, you. But I will try.

And the bit about SEO? I just read that the Google searches beginning with “how to” are up more than 140% since 2004. (Sorry, I can’t give you link to prove I didn’t make this up. It was a very small item in the Guardian, and when I searched for it online, the matches were at least as bizarre as the stuff I’ve quoted above. Maybe it didn’t go into the online edition.)

The most popular searches include:

  • How to tie a tie (get someone to do it for you once, slip it off without unknotting it, and never own more than that one tie; when it gets dirty, twist it around to the back shows instead of the front)
  • How to kiss (put four lips together and see where things take you)
  • How to make money (don’t listen to anyone who charges for an answer)
  • How to write a cover letter (badly if the ones I’ve seen are typical)
  • How to make french toast (French toast? Excuse me, but I’m not answering that. It throws me so far off course that I’ve changed the structure of my answers by adding caps and periods and all that sentence-ending stuff. How’s that for intense? So let me ask a few questions of my own: Why not mashed potatoes? Why not pieroshki? In what culture is this a basic life skill?)

Nine reasons I ignore SEO

Let’s start with basics. SEO is short for search engine optimization. Bloggers (along with other people, but never mind them) obsess about it. Our goal is to lure in innocents who are searching the internet. Won’t you step into my parlor, said the blogger to the fly. Won’t you read 107 of my posts and hit Follow and stay here forever, thus bumping up my stats.

Stats? They’re the things that tell you how many people read what bits of your blog, and what country they’re from, and assorted other stuff, and they’re never high enough. We all want more, more, more.

So to get more people to stop by, you try to make yourself as visible to search engines as possible. You optimize yourself. You dig a niche out of the crumbling riverbank of the internet. Or maybe that’s the crumbling riverbank of what was once your creativity. The metaphor’s a little crumbly itself, but I’ll come back to that issue about creativity. You do all sorts of stuff, some of which borders on the corporate (all that stuff about becoming a brand) and some of which works at least some of the time.

Yet another irrelevant photo

Yet another irrelevant photo: flowers.

If you’re good at it, you provide what searchers looking for and they’re happy and either stay or come back, and you’re almost happy, although your stats are still never high enough. Addiction’s like that. You check your stats and see that your views have shot up. Or that they haven’t, in which case you tweak your S. You maximize your O. You tone down that pesky E.

You check your stats again. You remind yourself that yesterday’s stats won’t have changed but you check them again anyway. Because addiction’s like that.

I do check my stats, partly because I’m addicted and partly because the questions that lead people to my blog can be bizarre and finding a particularly good one adds a dash of insanity to my day. The insanity I generate on my own isn’t half as much fun. But the serious SEOing? I’ve read about it. In spire of what I’m saying here, I’ve appreciated the advice and learned from some of it. I’ve even made good use of some of it. But it has a way of taking over your brain. So although I’m not arguing that anyone else should follow my example, for the most part I ignore it.

Before I go on, I might as well admit that as I wrote this I couldn’t help imagining people arguing with me. So if you want to, argue with me. Or agree. It’ll make an interesting discussion. And to the people who write about SEO and do it well, I do appreciate what I’ve learned from you. It’s just that taking it too seriously was threatening my writing.

Why am I offering you nine reasons? Because the internet loves numbered lists. Offer people three reasons they shouldn’t use nail files, eleven ways to charm wild rabbits, or five reasons to paint their walls midnight blue, and they’ll click on that link. Or a certain number of them will. Even though they’ve been terrified of rabbits since childhood, their landlord does the painting and only buys white, and because their English isn’t great they only understand file in the context of papers and file drawers, so nail file makes no sense to them. But it’s a list. It involves numbers. The just have to click.

So. I ignore SEO because:

  1. I hate numbered lists. They’re about simplicity, and life isn’t simple. The interesting stuff—and most of the good jokes—involve complexity. It’s true that numbered lists are a nifty organizing tool, but honestly, people, they’re not the only one. They’re overdone.
  2. What people are looking for from numbered lists, whether they know it or not, is advice. I don’t give advice.
  3. If I do give advice, it will be in a moment of weakness and highly suspect. I advise you to ignore it. I have your best interests at heart here.
  4. SEO is about niches and I don’t exactly have a niche. Travel? Not really, although travelers may be interested. Expat? Expats are nothing but immigrants with a coating of education, money, culture, invisible ethnicity, or some combination of the above. If other people want to call themselves expats, fine by me, but I’m an immigrant. Google immigrant blog, though, and you’ll find one or two, but mostly you’ll find sites campaigning against immigration or offering information and advice about how to immigrate. Immigrant blog is not a niche. Besides, people trying to immigrate are so desperate for a toehold in this hostile world that making jokes about it from my own safe position borders on the obscene. Or forget borders. It’s planted dead center in the middle of it. Is this a humor blog, then? There’s something dismal about hanging a sign above your work saying, “This is funny.” When I worked as an editor and a cover letter told me the enclosed was a humorous article, I counted myself forewarned. It wasn’t. Ever.
  5. Even if we were to decide that in spite of everything Notes is to some extent an expat blog (I read several, and a couple of them are funny; others are worth reading for other reasons), that doesn’t mean expats are the only people I want to talk to. Or even the main group. I write for anyone who’ll laugh at my jokes, anyone who wants to know about living in Britain, anyone who wants to read about the oddities of living in a culture that isn’t your own. There aren’t enough people in those categories as it is, so why narrow things down? I know, I know: When you define your target audience you’re not limiting it. If you know where to find your audience, you can address it. Book publishing works on the same principle. You write a cover letter or book proposal and say, “This book will appeal to 36-year-olds who have never had a manicure and who didn’t wash their dishes yesterday.” Niche marketing holds that men don’t want to read about a woman protagonist, whites don’t want to read about blacks, adults don’t want to read about children, straight people don’t want to read about gays, etc. etc., ad fucking nauseum. To sum that up, dominant groups don’t want to read about non-dominant ones. It you’re in the non-dominant group, you’re niche. If you’re in the dominant group, you’re mainstream. Unless of course a niche book breaks out, at which point we all worship it. What am amazing writer to have done that. What wisdom. What a gift it is to be so deeply rooted in a vibrant culture. Do you spot just a touch of irony in that? [If this weren’t a numbered list I’d start a new paragraph here, so take a small breath.] I have yet to find the niche that makes me think I’ve found mine. Niche-ing makes sense in some situations: if you write about blogging; about food; about parenting, which is usually code for mothering; about travel; about books; about writing; about transgender issues; about hunting wild mushrooms in Maine; about politics or a given political outlook—about any established or sharply defined category. But some of us sprawl between categories. Some of us write in small categories and want to break out of them. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not focused—we may keep a tight focus on our awkward topic. But we don’t fit neatly into an established category, and I, at least, don’t want to narrow what I’m doing in order to fit.
  6. (And this is, really, the main issue) I don’t want my writing controlled by my efforts to game the search engines. Again, I have no quarrel with people who do. It works, and it’s a legitimate choice. To maximize my page views, I could, in theory, find out what people want to read and then write about it, repeating the key words in all the key places. I get a steady flow of people, for example, wanting to know why Great Britain is called Great Britain. They push my page views up and I like this because (a) it makes me feel good and (b) I’m hoping that when my next book starts making the rounds, the blog will convince a publisher to consider it with just a bit more respect, so my stats may have an impact on something of more use in the world than my silly damn ego. People also want photos of cats. And dogs. The appetite for them is endless. Should I be sitting at my computer, then, and wondering what else people want and how I could produce it? Possibly, but if I do, will I be able to keep my writing sharp enough to make it worth reading? To the extent that Notes works, it depends on me making myself laugh. That’s not an easy river to channel, and it dries up altogether when I give too much thought to what people think and whether I’m making them happy. Which leads to:
  7. The only reason I can keep this blog fed is because early on in the process of creating it I stopped giving a rip. I ignore much of what I learned about writing, and a good part of what, in turn, I taught. And if you were a student of mine, whatever I taught you I taught in good faith. We all change, and maybe I needed to learn it before I could set it aside. But I apologize anyway. What exactly am I ignoring? I haven’t checked in with the rules in my head long enough to be sure. These days, I pretty much let myself sit at the keyboard and riff. I can’t do that and worry about SEO. I won’t complain about people who do as long as they can do it with some subtlety, but it’s not going to work for me.
  8. If you read about SEO long enough, someone will tell you to think of yourself as a brand. I am not a brand. I’m a writer. I’m a cantankerous human being. I’m any number of other things, but I’m not a brand.
  9. I did say nine, didn’t I? I lied. It has a better resonance than eight. And I’m sure the search engines like it better.