How Three News Organizations Are Optimizing Their Digital Content

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By: Tim Sohn

How Three News Organizations Are Optimizing Their Digital Content

It’s no secret that newspapers and online-only news organizations are dedicating more and more resources to their websites and other digital products. At the same time, publishers are cutting back on print editions, and it looks like this trend will only expand over time.

Advance Digital is now down to printing three papers a week in Alabama, Louisiana, and Michigan, while it ramps up its online efforts. Journal Register Co., which filed for bankruptcy in September, has also bet its future on digital. However, advertising statistics released by the Newspaper Association of America reveal a dismal $798 million in losses on the print side for the first half of 2012, and only a $32 million digital ad gain. With this increasing focus on digital, it’s critical for news outlets to refine their search engine optimization strategies to draw the most readership and lure potential advertisers.

Arkansas Times
The Arkansas Times, which updates with news and blogs on a daily basis, also publishes a 30,000-circulation alternative weekly paper. However, according to editor Lindsey Millar, the Times tries to stay away from using the word “weekly,” because it is constantly publishing news online.

Arkansas Times senior editor Max Brantley, who has been in the news business for 30 years, writes more than 20 items each week for the site’s Arkansas Blog.

“He has been a one-man news generator since we started the blog. So, for a long time, we have essentially been a daily newspaper. He publishes 20 items or so during the week, and then maybe 12 on the weekend, and we break news regularly before the daily paper and the TV station,” Millar said. The Times also publishes entertainment, art, and food blogs.

According to Millar, all content published in the alt-weekly is posted online as individual stories. They use the Foundation content management system, which integrates both Web and print production and allows the art director to input Web headlines. In addition, the Times publishes a digital edition using issuu. However, the blog content gets much more traffic, Millar said. Reporters and editors who turn in copy are expected to write keyword-driven headlines for both Web and print. So what makes a good headline?

In addition to focusing on keywords, “Just like normal headlines, you want to be provocative as well as thoughtful,” said Millar, who added that they use a tagging system that allows users to find content based on topics. Google’s Standout tag feature allows publishers to suggest content that is featured in search results.

Millar said the Times’ coverage of the West Memphis Three — three men convicted of murdering three boys in West Memphis who were freed in 2011 after 18 years in prison — was the “perfect storm” when it comes to SEO strategy.

“We had just piles and piles of articles … We had time to go through and write an explainer, and then we reported the hell out of it,” Millar said, adding that the Times distributed coverage through Facebook, Twitter, and email alerts. In addition, a West Memphis Three topic category appeared on the top and bottom of every page, which linked to the explainer. Millar emphasized the importance of publishing news — and a lot of it.

“I think what places like The New York Times and Mother Jones have done with explainers is really obvious, but not nearly enough people do it, and it’s incredibly useful not just for readers, but especially for SEO. That’s really where I’m hoping that we can move — having all of these topic pages for all of the subjects that we cover most frequently, and each one of those would lead into something like we did with the West Memphis Three,” said Millar, who added that the Times use Google Analytics and finds that readers are mostly drawn to news and politics coverage.

When it comes to referrals, sees the most from social media, especially Facebook, not search. Arkansas Times maintains six Facebook pages, updated mostly by the editorial department, in addition to Twitter and Tumblr accounts.

The Times editors receive support from a social media division, which also manages social media platforms for clients. Newspapers that offer SEO services to local businesses are becoming increasingly common. Tribune Co. has a digital consulting division called 435 Digital, and Dow Jones Local Media Group has a local online marketing division called Media Blacksmith.

International Business Times
The online-only International Business Times (, which was launched in 2006 by chief executive officer Etienne Uzac and chief content officer Jonathan Davis, publishes 10 editions in seven languages in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Its content focuses on business news that’s relevant to each local market. According to Uzac, IBT saw “significant growth” in 2010 after it added more coverage and honed its SEO strategy. Six million unique visitors from the U.S. went to in August, and a total of 12 million visited worldwide. Davis said the articles that get the most traffic typically are technology, media, company, product, and business-related.

IBT uses a multipronged approach in its content strategy. “I think SEO is one part of the strategy that we’re using. There’s a number of ways that we’re approaching development of our content and positioning that in front of our audience and making sure we’re reaching the people we want to reach,” he said, adding that they started weaving analytics tools into the newsroom workflow in 2010 — IBT uses Chartbeat, Webtrends, Google Analytics, and Statcounter.

In addition to SEO as part of its content strategy, IBT always includes a “global perspective” and “comprehensive insight,” Davis said.

At IBT, editors and reporters are heavily involved in story development and selection strategy. They choose stories that they think readers will be interested in, and the analytics and editorial teams work together to help decide story placement on the websites.

“There’s an editorial agenda we have for the day. Obviously, we have a whole calendar of things we need to cover on a daily basis, and for the most part, that’s what we cover. However, as the content goes out, then we can immediately see how people are finding the content, whether it’s through the websites, whether there’s better positioning on the front page or on the section pages that can optimize it. And also what type of keywords people are using to come,” Davis said.

Depending on those results, editors will make changes throughout the day to optimize the content for best positioning. For example, based on analytics, staffers will find out whether readers are looking for a particular story based on the name of a product or company.

Social feedback is also a key tool for the IBT in terms of developing and adjusting its content. The teams monitor what readers are saying on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and other platforms to get a good idea of what they are interested in content-wise. IBT has a partnership with LinkedIn Today, and stories get picked up daily by Reddit and Slashdot.

Davis said creating Web headlines is a trial-and-error process and called it an “art.”

At IBT, the linking strategy isn’t uniform across the newsroom. Some reporters link to external sources, but Davis said internal linking is “really important.” IBT currently uses a proprietary CMS but will soon be moving to a Drupal platform.

Patch, owned by AOL, has 850 hyperlocal news sites across the U.S. According to chief content officer Rachel Feddersen, Patch focuses heavily on what she calls the localization of search.

“The search engines are increasingly personalizing results based on where you are searching from, and that’s where Patch can really shine. So, we have to be smart about alerting the search engines to our location. We have some back-end technology that goes into that on our proprietary system,” Feddersen said, adding that Patch’s strategy is a combination of back-end technology and smart story structuring using local names and location.

For example, she said, a Patch local editor would write “Lower Merion” instead of Philadelphia, but without overusing the words.

Another example she cited was the localization of national news, especially this past August with the Aurora, Colo., shooting. According to Feddersen, analytics results showed that people were not searching for gun laws, but rather for specific local information, such as “Is there extra security at my local theater?” “Is my theater still showing this movie?” “What’s happening in my ZIP code, and not only in my zip code, but maybe a mile from my house at the movie theater?”

Feddersen said that even though Patch gets most of its referrals from search, social does play a significant role in the ranking of articles.

“Search engines are looking at social cues for ranking various pieces, not how many times something was shared, but how influential are the people sharing it, how much was it commented on,” she said. Because of this search engine behavior, Patch reaches out to local influencers to help distribute stories on social media. Feddersen said her editors know local coaches, principals, PTA presidents, parents, etc., so it isn’t awkward to approach them to help out.

“We have relationships with people in the community that are natural to capitalize on or natural to highlight and just make the news very shareable, and that in turn, like being good neighbors and being good members of the community, happens to enhance our social SEO strategy,” she said, adding that mobile is an important part of Patch’s strategy, since search is the largest referrer to Patch’s local and events listings.

In terms of keywords and tagging, Patch tags all its content with local names and things, and AOL headquarters provides trending terms to all the local editors for them to use when they tag. Patch also has its own audience and analytics team that local editors can make inquiries to about keywords and other concerns.

Feddersen emphasized the importance of using the keywords that people are actually searching for. For example, people search for police and fire, not public safety, she said.

July 4 is a big deal for Patch, so the network had to figure out what wording to use in its stories: July 4, July 4th, or Fourth of July. The result was July 4th, according to analytics tools.

Feddersen said coverage of the Perseid meteor shower was also big for Patch because of the importance of location.

In terms of analytics tools, Patch uses Omniture, Chartbeat, and has produced proprietary reports for its editors. Patch content appears on the AOL homepage and The Huffington Post, another AOL property.

“The most interesting challenge is how specific can we get around a search term that we can have a really significant impact on our ranking across the country,” Feddersen said.

SEO Basics

The following SEO tips are excerpts from Google’s Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide.

  • Content: Creating compelling and useful content will likely influence your website more than any other factors.
  • Keywords: Think about the words that a reader might search for to find a piece of content. Google AdWords provides a keyword tool that helps users discover new keyword variations and see the approximate search volume for each keyword. Also, Google Webmaster Tools provides readers with the top search queries for a site and the ones that led the most readers to a site.
  • Images: All images should have a distinct file name and “alt” attribute. The alt attribute allows users to specify alternative text for the image if it cannot be displayed on the browser being used.
  • Heading Tags: Heading tags are used to present structure on the page to users. There are six sizes of heading tags, beginning with <h1>, the most important, and ending with <h6>, the least important. For a news story, the name of the site could go into an <h1> tag and the topic of the story into an <h2> tag.
  • Mobile: Publishers should verify that their mobile sites are being indexed by Google. If not, they can submit a mobile sitemap through Google Webmaster Tools.
  • Google News: It’s important that newspaper publishers’ content show up in Google News to help drive more traffic. Go to for more details on how.


Tim Sohn is a freelance writer and editor focusing on technology and social media. Follow him on Twitter @editortim, email him at, or visit his website at

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