SEO Lessons Learned by Reading Mark Twain’s ‘Life on the Mississippi’

Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who is better known by his pen name, Mark Twain. What does this have to do with search engine optimization? Well, as the American author and humorist once noted, “A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.”

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Cover of "Life on the Mississippi (Signet...

Cover via Amazon

Twain, I believe, would have felt right at home in our industry, profession and time. I recently re-read his book, “Life on the Mississippi,” and found a couple of lessons that an SEO needs to learn sooner or later.

Let’s start with the river.

In Chapter 1, Twain says the Mississippi River “is in all ways remarkable.” As a pilot’s apprentice on a riverboat in 1857, he had to learn “this troublesome river BOTH WAYS” – because the Mississippi was a different river coming up-stream than it was going down-stream when “a boat was too nearly helpless, with a stiff current pushing behind her.”

Twain added, “The Mississippi is remarkable in still another way – its disposition to make prodigious jumps by cutting through narrow necks of land, and thus straightening and shortening itself. More than once it has shortened itself thirty miles at a single jump! These cut-offs have had curious effects: they have thrown several river towns out into the rural districts, and built up sand bars and forests in front of them. The town of Delta used to be three miles below Vicksburg: a recent cutoff has radically changed the position, and Delta is now TWO MILES ABOVE Vicksburg.”

He could have been describing the radical changes to many search engine rankings that followed the Florida update in November 2003, the unveiling of universal search in May 2007, or the introduction of real-time search in December 2009.

Which brings us to the second lesson that an SEO should learn.

When “the Mississippi changes its channel so constantly,” who can successfully navigate their way up and down this troublesome river?

According to Twain, it was the riverboat pilots – especially the reputable ones, who shared information and observations with their peers. Twain could have been describing SEOs when he wrote, “all pilots are tireless talkers, when gathered together, and as they talk only about the river they are always understood and are always interesting.”

In Chapter 7, Twain tells the story of a pilot named Mr. Bixby, who could “look at the river” and see things that other pilots might miss. He would then call for the leadsmen to sound the depth of the river and understood the significance of something that I had forgotten: “When the river bottom was only two fathoms, or twelve feet, down, he would hear the lusty cry ‘by the mark twain.'”

Then, Mr. Bixby “set a lot of bells ringing, shouted through the tube, ‘NOW, let her have it – every ounce you’ve got!'” He put his wheel down and successfully navigated past unseen dangers.

“Fully to realize the marvelous precision required in laying the great steamer in her marks in that murky waste of water, one should know that not only must she pick her intricate way through snags and blind reefs, and then shave the head of the island so closely as to brush the overhanging foliage with her stern, but at one place she must pass almost within arm’s reach of a sunken and invisible wreck that would snatch the hull timbers from under her if she should strike it, and destroy a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of steam-boat and cargo in five minutes, and maybe a hundred and fifty human lives into the bargain,” writes Twain.

He added, “The last remark I heard that night was a compliment to Mr. Bixby, uttered in soliloquy and with unction by one of our guests. He said – ‘By the Shadow of Death, but he’s a lightning pilot!'”

So, what are the lessons that we can learn from reading Twain’s memoir detailing his days as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River before and after the American Civil War?

First, we can learn an important lesson about the search industry.

No industry “changes its channel so constantly” than the search industry. That’s why search engine optimization isn’t something that you can set and forget.

It makes a lot more sense to imagine that the search industry is like the Mississippi River. It might also help an SEO explain why the town of Delta’s search engine rankings have “radically changed” from three pages “below Vicksburg” to two pages “ABOVE Vicksburg.” In the search engine industry, it is perfectly normal to observe something as remarkable “in a single jump.”

Second, SEOs can learn an important lesson about our profession from Twain’s story about “a lighting pilot.”

Much of what we knew a year ago about search engine optimization is now obsolete. That’s why it is absolutely essential to talk with our peers – at conferences and other events — especially the reputable SEOs who understand the significance of measurement and have successfully navigated their way past unseen dangers in the past few months.

If fundamental change in our industry isn’t slowing down in the foreseeable future, then all of us need to share information and observations to master “the marvelous precision required” to help our companies and clients pick the “intricate way through snags and blind reefs” that could “destroy a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of steam-boat and cargo in five minutes, and maybe a hundred and fifty human lives into the bargain.”

These are just two of the SEO lessons that I learned from reading Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi.”

Yes, yes, you should also read SEO books, including:





But the 80/20 rule suggests that the fifth book you read should be about mastering change. And I can think of no better book to teach you about that than Twain’s memoir of his days as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River.

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