The Post-SEO Era

What happens when a news site launches that basically ignores the SEO orthodoxy? Easy: They do fascinating stuff. Hence, Robinhood’s Sherwood.

By Ernie Smith

A while back, I took a bit of a swipe at Axios, which I felt was selling bullet points as something innovative when there were so many more ways to stretch the alt-story-form model.

I surmised in the piece, I think correctly, that the reason Axios did it this way comes down to a simple fact: The SEO-driven model is basically incompatible with factbox-driven journalism. Quick hits are not what Google wants, despite the fact that they would likely do a better job of informing readers.

But what if we built a site that kind of ignored that mandate, and just trusted readers would go to the front page?

I think we are starting to see this approach emerge with the launch of Sherwood, a new website by the team at Robinhood. Sure, it has articles, but the front page is where the action is. It is built less like an SEO play and more like a constantly updated feed, albeit one that borrows most of its good ideas from Tiktok and Snapchat.

And rather than put its energy towards a desktop site, it basically built the same layout for everyone. It looks like Tumblr, but with more going on.

And honestly, it feels like the kind of theoretical site I was writing about, the one I wanted to see someone make when I was ripping on Axios.

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The fact is, if folks are betting that AI is going to break SEO, maybe we just need to stop building with SEO in mind and see how far we get with owned channels. What if we just build for newsletters instead and create an ecosystem that works in it’s own internal logic rather than trying to bet on the decaying horse?

Sherwood, while organizationally a separate LLC from its parent company (he notes as he links to Axios), has the advantage of being attached to Robinhood, an extremely sticky app that hobbyist investors already live in. It also has a strong newsletter apparatus. It does not need Google because it can boost its moat elsewhere. It can just build its own thing and not worry about SEO quite so much.

Sure, some of its articles will probably be search-engine winners, which is as it should be. But the fact is, one look at Sherwood makes it clear that the goal of this site is to be read on the front page, not through the back door. (Though it would sure be nice if it had an RSS feed.)

For three decades, search engines normalized going in through the back door, so to see someone put fresh emphasis on the front once again is kind of jarring. But maybe someone needs to try it to see if we can make it work.


(Sherwood Media/via Axios)

Sherwood, at least the version presented to us this week, is a site where a story can be 100 words and live life in a small box, because that’s all it needs. Where a funky number may be all the story you need. Where charts (from the Chartr newsletter, a Sherwood acquisition) are front and center, not hidden in the back. Where linking out is a virtue.

If the bet is that this is a news site for the post-SEO era, as it appears to be, we should be taking notes. Google and its competitors forced sites into unnatural states for a quarter-century, and we’ve been living with the results of that—an ecosystem where recipes have to be miles long because the ad economy otherwise does not reward them. Where articles are written to a specific shape just so people will notice them, and where content fully written about elsewhere will be re-reported by someone else just to help traffic.

The newsletter was the first step on our journey away from the SEO treadmill. Sherwood, and sites like it, will be the second step.

I will admit that editor in chief Joshua Topolsky’s design sense, easily the most experimental in modern journalism, is not everyone’s cup of tea. (Mathew Ingram, a media blogger who I deeply appreciate, is not a fan of what he built with Sherwood.) But this may be his most broadly palatable product since The Verge, even if critics of his style aren’t feeling it.

But the thing is, sites like Sherwood reflect where we should be going if we’re ever going to find our way out of the hole we’ve dug ourselves in as a media industry. Sherwood isn’t betting on search or social to save the day. It’s betting on itself—specifically, the version of itself that can get you to land on their front page on a daily basis.

We need to start building around the front door again.

Forward-Thinking Links

I’ve read the story of early tech mogul Lore Harp McGovern before—Benj Edwards did a great piece for Fast Company nearly a decade ago—but this retelling is just spectacular.

This ultra-high-level analysis of Wikipedia is fascinating.

Intel’s new laptop chip appears to be shoving the RAM right on the die. Only took ’em four years to borrow Apple Silicon’s best trick.


Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! And back at it in a couple of days.


Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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