February 2nd, 2010
Searching for traffic
Newspaper copy editors spend a lot of time crafting the best headlines for stories, with particular attention focused on the front-page headlines. The reason is obvious: to draw readers into our content. On the Web, writing a good headline is just as important.
Thanks to detailed metrics, we can see exactly what draws people to our content, and we know that search engines bring in a sizable chunk of traffic on newspaper Web sites. Most of that traffic is not coming to the newspapers’ home pages but to individual stories, blog posts, videos and photos.
This search engine traffic is so valuable that there’s an entire industry, search marketing, built around finding ways to drive it. When you search for something on Google, it’s not sheer luck that you can find what you’re looking for – Google takes several things into account before deciding what content to put first. Search marketers work with companies and individuals to help them place better in the search engines.
Although Google’s algorithm for ranking stories is a trade secret, search engine marketers have figured out the major factors that come into play. One of them is including relevant keywords in headlines. When news broke recently in Austin about the local-favorite Cactus Cafe closing, Austin360.com could have written a headline online that said, “Longtime UT music venue to close in August.” Although there’s nothing factually wrong with the headline, it misses out on some keywords that would help people find that story when they search for it on Google, Bing or Yahoo. The headline Austin360 did use was “UT to close Cactus Cafe, end informal classes.” That has all the keywords we’d want: “UT” “close” and “Cactus Cafe.” Thanks in part to that headline, the story appears at the tops of the search engines today.
“When writing headlines, you all are the masters,” said search marketing expert Kate Morris. “I did not major in journalism in school, but many blog writers are told to look at journalists for ideas.”
We’re all headline writers these days, whether you’re writing a headline for your blog, for a photo gallery, a video or a story that’s going on A1.
Morris has this advice for writing headlines:
* Look for a balance between eye-catching and relevance. Don’t worry about trying to pack the headline full of keywords to the point that the headline is awkward, but also try to avoid something that’s clever but lacks any keywords.
* Focus on one topic. Morris says: “Going for “Michael Jackson” isn’t going to get you on the top for his name. But if you go for something like “michael jackson documentary austin show” – that focuses well, but may not have the best traffic. In the end, write for the end user, but keep keywords in the back of your mind.”
* Although we’re not limited in space the way we are in print, if a headline is too long, it might get cut off online in an awkward spot when displayed in search engines.
Link, link, link
Headline writing isn’t the only thing that helps us in rankings. Google’s algorithm also takes linking into account. Generally, more people linking to us helps our search engine “juice.” Linking out, surprisingly, also helps, Morris said.
“Linking out is becoming more important as time progresses,” Morris said. “Think of it as Karma. The search engines have noticed that the sites that link out are more relevant than those that keep traffic to themselves.”
Morris said it’s important to link out only when relevant, though. Don’t add 20 links to one article or blog entry – two or three is fine. A few more than that is OK if they’re relevant. “Ask yourself if you would read the story, if the links are interesting to you. We are all readers.”
We should also link internally, again, when relevant. Linking to one of your own past blog entries or another story on our site is good, but only if it makes sense to do so.
Search engines also look at the tops of storie sand blog posts to find relevant key words to organize and rank content. Morris points out that a good story will already most likely have the top keywords near the top of the story. So burying the lead online can be as much of a problem as burying it in print.
Overall, we’re doing pretty well, Morris said. “You’re more ahead of the game than you know.”
Click here to read a Q&A Old Media New Tricks conducted last year with Morris.