Search and journalism share a symbiotic relationship.
Journalism needs search so writers’ articles get found, and search needs journalism to provide some of the freshest content in the SERPs.
But some journalists feel that search represents an inherent contradiction to their job of serving the public good by disseminating timely, accurate and interesting information. It doesn’t feel natural to deliberately try to appease Google and Bing, with some journalists feeling it borders on being unethical.
That was the response that Vertical Measures President Arnie Kuenn and I got from college journalists and professors when we spoke at the Associated College Press National College Journalism Convention in Phoenix as well as the News21 Spring Training at ASU a couple weeks ago.
As we explained the basics of SEO and started to talk about optimizing headlines at the News21 conference, we got a question about the “elephant in the room” from a veteran journalist who explained that there’s some “dismay” in journalism around focusing on keywords for the purpose of ranking in Google.
This is a very valid question, a debate that will continue to rage as search becomes more and more important in the world of journalism.
My opinion goes back to the main point of Arnie’s presentation: when people are searching for your keyword they will either find you or they will find your competitor.
It goes without saying that you want to do everything you can to ensure that they find you, and I don’t feel like you’re doing anything unethical so long as your headlines are not misleading like the sensationalized heds popularized in the days of yellow journalism. So long as your headline still encompasses the core meaning of your story, it’s just smart to optimize that headline by throwing in a keyword as close to the beginning of the title as possible.
In my other life as the chief blogger for the ESPN-affiliated Phoenix Suns blog ValleyoftheSuns.com, I recently did an experiment trying to optimize my site for Amare Stoudemire-related keywords in the weeks leading up to the Feb. 18 trade deadline, as the Phoenix Suns star forward’s name swirled in many rumors about a potential trade.
This strategy involved pumping out lots of quality content and then optimizing for long tail keywords such as “Amare Stoudemire trade rumors,” “Amare Stoudemire trade rumors 2010,” “Amare Stoudemire trade to Cleveland,” and you get the picture.
The results? After getting 12.3 percent of my traffic from search in my site’s previous history, I got a whopping 31 percent of my traffic from search during this time. In just over three weeks, I got about 86K pageviews and 58K uniques. In an average month I generally get about 40K pageviews and 30K uniques, so the increased traffic from search certainly made a major difference.
So hooray for me, now how can you replicate that?
First, use the Google AdWords Keyword Tool to see what people are searching in your vertical, looking for keywords with a good ratio of how much they are searched to competition. Google Trends can also help you find highly-searched keywords in your vertical, and both of these tools are a big part of the research stage of content development.
Also, think ahead and optimize long tail keywords that you know will be hot for a specific period of time ahead of time, like I did with keywords such as “Amare Stoudemire trade rumors 2010” that would be dormant for most of the year but provided a lot of easy traffic during those three weeks.
Next, write content around what people are searching for, and here’s where it gets tricky. I have a journalism degree, so I know the goal of an ethical journalist (as I strive to be) is to report the news and nothing but the news.
By looking at my analytics and seeing that Amare Stoudemire-related stories were so hot during the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, I feel I was merely following the laws of supply and demand by supplying the kind of content my readership demanded. There’s nothing unethical about creating quality, timely content on topics people want to read.
A big part of the optimization process involves the headline, as touched on earlier. Optimizing for a public figure’s name that gets a lot of searches is often a smart strategy for news stories. You may notice some major newspapers such as the LA Times write different headlines for their print and online editions, often spelling out a public figure’s full name online for search purposes.
Since my site is a part of Google News, my articles often got top billing above the top natural results in a “News” section at the top of the SERP. With so many people searching for articles on this particular topic, there’s no question that this was a source of many of my clicks.
There once was a time when journalists worried only about the print edition, with the online edition being just another way to display their regular product.
But with pageviews and uniques becoming everything in the online world of journalism, it’s just one more thing that has to change in the ever-changing industry of journalism.
Every journalist must decide for themselves where they draw their ethical line when it comes to optimizing content, but I see no issue with rearranging a couple words in a title of an article that you would write anyway to make your article easier to find than the one written by your competitor.