By: Gretchen A. Peck
With so much attention being given to the “paid vs. free” content debate, one important factor is often lost in all the noise: Neither advertisers nor readers will be inclined to pay to support your product if they can’t find it online.
Search engine optimization — the process of using relevant keywords, links, headlines, and metadata to boost your site’s likelihood of being found in a Google search — remains a top priority for publishers seeking to distribute content online. But as search engine algorithms are constantly changing, your website’s SEO strategy must also continuously evolve to meet the new demands and expectations that come up daily.
Diane Thieke, president of Simply Talk Media (simplytalkmedia.com), has been on the front lines of publishing’s digital-media odyssey. She began her career in the mid-1980s with Dow Jones & Co., and had the responsibility then of putting The Wall Street Journal’s content online. Later, she edited the Dow’s first online service — now known as Factiva — and launched its first online community initiatives.
Today, Thieke serves as president of the company she founded, Simply Talk Media — a New Jersey-based public relations and marketing firm that leverages both traditional and social media channels for its clients, representing startups, nonprofits, and corporations.
Newspapers may have stumbled in the fledgling days of publishing on the Web, but they were not a unique case, according to Thieke. “It’s pretty much the way it went for every business. If you remember back to the early days of the Web, businesses just took their brochures and put them online, exactly as they were. There was no such thing as writing copy for the Web,” she said. “Big brands were basically taking offline marketing copy and putting it online.
“And that’s true for newspapers,” she continued. “Early on, I think we all thought that online would be a supplement to printed editions. And that’s the same way that brands thought about it. Brands thought about online as supplemental to their other marketing efforts. Back in the mid-90s, I don’t think anyone thought that, in such a quick time, this would all become the preferred way for people to communicate with businesses, and to get information.”
Newspapers’ early ventures on the Web did get off to “kind of a bad start,” said Brandon Mitchener, director of newspaper sales and business development at Dirxion (dirxion.com). The Fenton, Mo.-based developer produces digital publishing software, including a solution that enables publishers to create digital editions.
“The Internet offers different interactivity, different ways to serve the news,” Mitchener said. “A printed newspaper is like a snapshot of the news, while a website is more like a never-ending movie; it’s alive.”
In the timeline of contemporary publishing, the newspaper industry’s chart through digital territories is short, but a lot has been learned about the new platform in that short span of time.
Marshall Simmonds, founder and chief executive officer of Define Media Group, Inc., said that while there are a few tried-and-true strategies for website development, there remains no secret recipe for “blowing the doors off traffic.”
Define Media Group (definemg.com) is a consultancy that specializes in audience development, search engine optimization, investment advisory services, and social media. Prior to founding Define Media, Simmonds acted as chief search strategist for The New York Times Co.’s About.com property. Simmonds has also worked as a consultant with The Boston Globe, Gannett, USA Today, Hearst Digital Publications, Time Inc., and others. Despite that lack of a “secret recipe,” Simmonds said there are some general questions that all publishers should consider.
“How will you build your site map? How will you build into the content-creation process the necessary fields for SEO? The necessary fields for sharing? How will you manage image tagging? What about video?” Simmonds asked. “All of these elements that the engines are really paying attention to, how do you make sure that you quickly — as quickly as Google releases new tools and functionality — integrate those into your content management system?”
“Looking at the issue from the perspective of Google and SEO, I think most newspapers have done a good job at quantity and freshness,” said Jason McDonald, senior SEO director at JM Internet Group (jm-seo.org), which provides online courses and training materials to publishers and businesspeople interested in developing their SEO marketing strategy.
But simply flooding Web pages with content isn’t enough to ensure search engine attention.
“Newspapers — and especially their writers — could do a much better job at defining the types of keywords that people search, and including those search terms strategically in their articles and blog content,” McDonald said.
Define Media’s Simmonds concurred. “You can have the best article in the world, and if it’s not optimized, it’s like yelling into the wind,” he said.
As an example of the evolving challenges in the race for search engine attention, Simmonds points to sites that leverage Microsoft’s Ajax feature.
“Ajax is like Google Maps from the user’s perspective. So they can grab a map and move it around without the page having to reload,” he said. “The problem with Ajax is that the engines can’t index it, because the content is there but it’s not really there. It’s built on the fly, just like the map is … It’s very efficient; it’s fast. It has a good user experience, but it has terrible SEO implications.”
Fortunately, the very nature of newspaper publishing gives publishers an SEO advantage.
“I think that newspapers have an inherent advantage at SEO, because they are constantly creating new pages on their websites,” Dirxion’s Mitchener said. “A typical daily newspaper probably creates 30 to 40 new pages every day, especially if they’re publishing wire content under their URLs. That obviously enhances their SEO performance.”
Of course, creating lots of content is only the beginning of an effective SEO strategy.
“Become data-driven, and look at trends,” Thieke advised. “Regular evaluation of what’s working, and what’s not, is a staple activity for marketing pros, and journalists should do it, too. Also, PR pros have long hooked into big news stories as a way to get coverage for their organization. Newspapers can do that, as well, to drive traffic by looking at crowdsourced data from social networks and Web analytics. Resources like Google Trends and Twitter trending topics can be useful for identifying phrases and hashtags that people are using to share stories. Incorporate these into the distribution of your content.”
It’s not just about eyeballs anymore; Web initiatives must also consider how best to give content legs. It needs to be easy to share, and share-worthy. It needs to be compelling and provocative to rise above the noise.
YouTube’s trends manager Kevin Allocca offers the perfect perspective to determine just what makes content share-worthy.
In his TED talk, “Why videos go viral” (tinyurl.com/6sybk2u), Allocca began by offering a reality check about the challenges of new media: On YouTube alone, 48 hours worth of video is uploaded every minute. Only a very small percentage of those videos will ever go viral.
So what are the ingredients for a viral video? Allocca cited three: tastemakers, communities of participation, and unexpectedness.
“In a world where over two days of video gets uploaded every minute, only that which is truly unique can stand out,” Allocca said. “We don’t just enjoy now; we participate.”
Tastemakers, according to Allocca, are those who introduce us to something new. They help publishers of content — in this case, videos — create a broader audience. As the audience grows, a community forms, and as the community participates — either by sharing the content or doing something new with the content — it elevates it to cultural-phenomenon status.
Because readers desire this active role in digital publishing — as partners, really, when it relates to sharing — publishers must be keen about creating content that is “ready to travel.”
“(When sharing,) people want to be able to add their own commentary,” Thieke said. “That’s another behavioral aspect of social media, which I think journalists and marketers alike have to take into consideration. How is somebody going to behave with this content? What will they want to do with it? If they want to share it, they’ll likely want to add their own commentary to it. If they’re going to Tweet it, they’re bound by so many characters, so you’d want to have a headline that’s short, punchy, and leaves them some room to add their own commentary.”
Structure and design
What newspapers and their advertisers covet online is no different than what they’ve always sought to earn with their print properties: loyal followers. How does that happen online? What keeps readers coming back?
David Rodecker, founder and chief technology officer of Relevant Ads, Inc., suggested that newspaper publishers concentrate on developing their brand identities and leveraging their greatest assets, which of course are their writers, editors, and creative professionals. Relevant Ads (relevantads.com) is the Costa Mesa, Calif.-based developer of the Local Splash product line of tools and services for search-driven online advertising and marketing.
Rodecker said a website’s very design should facilitate the relationship between readers and their favorite writers, contributors, cartoonists, and columnists.
“People are looking to follow … brands and individuals, and when you couple those together, it represents the best of opportunities,” he said. Headlines matter as another critical element, but there are differing schools of thought about the best model.
“They need a headline that’s serviceable to search engines,” Dirxion’s Mitchener said. “The title needs to be SEO friendly. It doesn’t have to be clever. Instead, the headline should be straightforward and include a lot of proper nouns.”
Nouns in headlines may facilitate SEO, but Simply Talk Media’s Thieke argued that “clever” does matter. Headlines that challenge conventional thinking have a far better record of going viral than the more traditional who-what-when-where-why-how model, she said.
“Raise the percentage of visual content. On the Web, newspapers are no longer confined to text and images, and … readers are very much visually oriented,” Thieke said. “In Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm, which determines what shows up in each individual’s newsfeed, both images and video are weighted more heavily than text status updates. Articles can be augmented with maps, video, audio, slideshows, diagrams, and more.” Simply put: If you don’t already have multimedia capabilities, make this your top priority.
“I would hope that most newspapers have some level of multimedia staff by now, because you should be able to serve video and audio stories,” Dirxion’s Mitchener said.
In many ways, Web publishing is fluid and unpredictable. A blend of strategies that works well to drive traffic to large enterprise-level publishers won’t necessarily work for small community papers.
To complicate matters, life doesn’t stand still on the Web. Technologies, trends, and user expectations are all constantly evolving. Though it may be difficult to see one’s own hand for the fog, there may be a few indicators about what Web publishing may be like in the coming years.
“I have a very strong belief that the future of journalism may not be a question of whether the advertising-supported or the subscription model is better. I think it’s going to be all about syndicating content to brands, and this ties into search engine optimization,” Thieke said, citing Pepsi’s PULSE Web venture as an example.
“What they’re doing is licensing entertainment content to appear on the site … If, for example, someone searches for ‘Beyoncé,’ they may get a link to the PULSE page, which has information about her concerts. So the person gets information about Beyoncé but is also messaged about Pepsi. It’s brilliant,” Thieke said. “I think newspapers are going to have to think about how they’re going to slice and dice their information, and sell it off to brands as the brands build these online experiences. It’s a little like advertising in reverse.”
JM’s McDonald believes that newspapers need to focus on their social media basics before attempting to embark on grand profit-driven optimization ventures.
“Newspapers have not yet caught the social-media wave,” he said. “For example, most have high-profile editors and writers who — if they would just enable Google+ authorship — could get their pictures to show on Google searches and begin to build a better audience on Google+, Facebook, and Twitter … For many readers, reading starts at Google.”
Publishers should shake off the sting of change and embrace SEO, McDonald said. “SEO presents media with a true opportunity to learn what sorts of articles people like and respond to that by feeding people more of what they like and read, versus what they do not like and do not read,” he said. “And the emerging relationship between SEO and social media allows media companies to build personal brands around authors to whom readers turn for novel insights. Paul Krugman and Nate Silver of The New York Times have done a great job at becoming personal brands that help them both as columnists, and the paper as the go-to source for new ideas.”
Define Media’s Simmonds said he believes there needs to be a sea change in newspapers’ approach to Web publishing. “People need to talk about SEO in morning editorial meetings. They need to ask: How will this play in search; how will this play in social media? These kinds of points have to be considered in every content-planning meeting,” he said.
“The editorial calendar has to take this into account. What has played well this time last year? And for what reasons?” Simmonds asked. “That’s the first thing we need to do: get the SEO process into the day-to-day workflow.”