“The role of the journalist in SEO is changing,” said Eric Olander, former Digital Editor-in-Chief for France 24, an international news network based in Paris.
Today’s digital newsrooms are acutely aware that search engine optimisation (SEO), a term that encompasses a range of tactics for getting web content noticed and listed high up in search results by Google and its competitors, is not a magical gloss that in-house tech experts can merely apply to news articles after they have been written. Rather, it is a skill set that all journalists whose work appears online need to possess, and use to their advantage, in order to remain competitive in the digital age.
“Optimisation should be baked in as you’re creating the story,” said Olander; “it has to be done on the content creation level because if you do it on a secondary level you’re changing the editorial structure of the story.”
“Now, when we run newsrooms we expect that the journalist has an understanding of SEO,” he continued, “so that their headlines are optimised, their ledes are optimised, and their first paragraphs of text are optimised.”
Optimised how, exactly?
Here are 5 very basic rules for boosting your article's rank on Google's podium:
- Align the keywords in an article's URL with those in the headline, lede, and first paragraph.
- When possible, favour keywords that people are most likely to search for, such as Barack Obama over POTUS.
- Bold keywords throughout the story – “Google does recognize bolding,” said Olander.
- Add metadata such as copyright information to images – Google reads all of the text on the page, even that which is hidden.
- Have between two and five external links in your article – enough to be connected, but not so many that you look like you’re taking shortcuts. “Google is very sensitive about having too many links because then it looks like link bait,” Olander said.
“What Google is looking for is genuine content; they’re not looking for people who are intentionally trying to gain the system,” he said.
“Google changes its rules and algorithms quite a bit, so none of these rules are fixed; they shouldn’t be… Google is always evolving its system in order to get ahead of people who are trying to fix it.”
Such search engine manipulators engage in nefarious practices known as “black hat SEO,” which Google essentially considers to be cheating. Ploys include flooding a page with keywords that are irrelevant, or even ones that are invisible to the naked eye because they are written in white text on a white background. Google keeps a robotic eye out for such malpractice, and responds by blocking or penalizing the sites in question.
In an interview with The New York Times last year, the head of Google’s Webspam team, Matt Cutts, offered the following proverb: “don’t chase after Google’s algorithm, chase after your best interpretation of what users want, because that’s what Google’s chasing after.”
An example of Google's dynamism lies in its Agent Rank patent, registered last spring, which many presume will develop into a direct factor in the search engine’s complex and mystery-shrouded algorithm. One of the motives behind such a project would be to promote the original webpages on which content appears above pages upon which it has been “scraped” by aggregators.
Frédéric Filloux, Managing Director of Digital Operations at French newspaper Les Echos, commented on July 8 on the “transfer of value” that is taking place as technologically savvy pure players such as the Huffington Post train their journalists to write headlines that generate traffic, and the traditional news organisations fail to catch up.
“Original stories are getting very little traffic due to the poor marketing tactics of old-fashion[ed] publishers. But once they are swallowed by the HuffPo’s clever traffic-generation machine, the same journalistic item[s] will [do] tens or hundred[s] [of] times better traffic-wise,” Filloux wrote.
Asked whether pure players like the Huffington Post would soon be dancing on traditional news organisations' graves thanks to their superior SEO prowess, Olander was circumspect.
“It’s not because of SEO necessarily that the pure players are winning,” he said.
“It’s easy to say, look at the Huffington Post and Gawker, which have done exceptionally well. But in the traditional players you also have some successes — The [New York] Times is the second-largest news hub in the United States,” he pointed out, adding that news agencies such as AP and Reuters have also excelled at diffusing their content through digital avenues.
“The traditional players have done quite well in terms of generating traffic. Traffic has not been their problem,” he said, citing monetization and legacy costs as two of the primary challenges facing established news organisations.
Olander also, however, acknowledged a crucial difference in mentality: “Most of the pure players recognise that they’re dead without SEO,” he said.
“The problem is with old-thinking journalists and new-thinking journalists.”
For those who fear they need to step up their game in the search engine Olympics (a headline I would have used had I not been trying to take my own advice), here are a few resources and a rap video: