At the end of the day, all journalists care about one thing — getting people to read their stories. What was once as easy as printing the story on paper and dropping it off in a person’s driveway has become increasingly complex in an ever-changing digital world filled with tweets, +1’s and weird acronyms.
For editors, producing great journalism isn’t enough; you have to understand how readers are finding your work. Some are logging on directly every morning as they sip on their coffee. Others are seeing interesting links on Facebook and Twitter and clicking through. But often overlooked by editors — especially at budget-crunched mid-sized newsrooms across the country — are readers who find their way to your Web site by doing a Web search.
For editors of smaller newsrooms with limited resources, search engine optimization, or SEO, can seem like a daunting labyrinth of algorithms, spiders and obtuse techno babble. But with a little bit of understanding and planning, there are steps even the smallest newsrooms can take instantly to grow their traffic through search and showcase their work to new readers.
What’s the first step in understanding how search traffic works? Do some searches for your own work and see things from a searcher’s point-of-view.
“The key thing to keep in mind is that common sense will prevail,” said Marshall Simmonds, founder of Define Media Group and a former chief search strategist for the New York Times. “How you think your audience is looking for your content might not be how they’re really searching.”
Take for example the “Miracle on the Hudson,” when Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger successfully landed a passenger airplane in the Hudson River. A typical newspaper headline might have read: “Jet Liner’s Icy Plunge.” That might make sense in print with a photo and some context, but as Simmonds notes, no one was searching for those words while looking for information.
“Users search factual information quite literally,” says Simmonds, who suggested a good headline that blends editorial voice and search engine friendliness might read: “Jet Liner’s Icy Plunge: Plane Crashes into Hudson.”
Think of headlines on a sliding scale. On one end is the most direct (and probably most bland) way to sum up the story. On the other side of the scale is the creative and fun headline that might make it up on Romenesko, but leave you dry in terms of search engine traffic. Keeping the idea of that scale in mind will help you balance editorial needs with the directness search engine traffic demands.
“The key is maintaining your editorial voice while making sure your headline targets a user’s intent when they’re searching,” says Simmonds.
A problem unique to newspaper SEO is the print schedule of the newspaper. Depending on the paper, stories that appear in the next day’s paper might be set to post live automatically on the web during the middle of the night. That might make sense in terms in the days of daily delivery, but according to Simmonds, it’s not optimal for search engine traffic.
For instance, take a local story about the passage of a local school budget. If your story is scheduled for 3 a.m., but most people don’t log onto their computer to look for news about the budget until 8 or 9 a.m., then a competitor that posted the story closer to the peak traffic time might steal that search engine traffic from you.
“It’s important for journalists to understand when their audience is more active,” says Preston Gisch, who worked with SEO for Reuters and the New York Observer. “If you consider your audience traffic as a bell curve, you can create a greater opportunity for exposure.”
Another thing to try to avoid on the Web are slow ledes on news stories. While it may make for a more gripping narrative, it’s more important from a search perspective to have relevant facts and keywords front-loaded at the beginning of your stories.
That doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice good writing or your editorial voice for the sake of search engine traffic. But you might consider starting stories that have slow-developing ledes with brief summaries that concisely describe the relevant points you think readers will be searching.
The Web is littered with SEO messiahs and for-pay tools that promise top of the line results, but for budget-conscious newsrooms, these may not be options. The good news is there are a number of free tools that even the smallest newsrooms can use to instantly improve their search results.
Google trends: Want to get a sense of what people are actively searching for, and when? Go to Google Trends and feast your eyes on its colorful, full-screen display of what people are interested in. You can sort by year, categories and even region. If you’re wondering when is the best time to post your back-to-school guide online, this is the web tool for you.
Google news keyword meta tag: Launched last September, this is designed specifically for news publishers as a work around for editors to keep their witty headlines, yet still capture the search engine users that are focused on basic keywords. It allows up to 10 terms to be added to the meta tag of any headline.
Standout tag: This link attribute allows news organizations to mark up to seven pieces of content a week that they consider their best work. Essentially, the tag places a big neon arrow next to the story to help search engines find and spotlight it. User beware — if you consistently go over the seven allotted tags per week, Google News will begin to ignore your suggestions, so use it judiciously and only for your best content.
Google News sitemap: According to Simmonds, every news agency should create a Google News sitemap, which allows the ability to automatically annotate your content with search-friendly metadata like keywords. Most content management systems have good solutions for creating automated sitemaps, so check with your developer to find out.
Hopefully, these tools can help put your content in a better position to be seen by more readers. “SEO has gotten a bad reputation over the years,” says Simmonds. “But if you think of it as simply identifying your audience and taking the steps to reach them, then it just seems like common sense.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and reporter for Editor & Publisher, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.