New tricks: Journalists and SEO – searching for the right balance

February 2nd, 2010

This is from a social media newsletter that I send out to the American-Statesman newsroom. You can read previous newsletter entries about audience and responsiveness to the community.

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, 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.

- Robert Quigley

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Entry Filed under: New Tricks,Newsletter,SEO

  • paulbalcerak

    Excellent post, Robert. I'm a full-time SEO headline writer/rewriter for 30-some newsrooms and I love having advice and explanations like this to pass along to my coworkers.

    I'll get this circulated throughout my company—keep the good stuff coming!

  • Robert Quigley

    Thanks, Paul, I really appreciate that.
    Kate Morris is a great person to interview :-)

  • MonicaOctober

    I've wondered where print headlines and Web headlines would collide, and SEO is an obvious point. But where's the balance between summary and intrigue? Aren't the best Web headlines SEO friendly teases?

    I don't think anyone wants the Statesman to dip down to Gawker-type headlines, but at the same time, do the writers ever consider holding something back to get the click? Like, “UT to close 2 cultural institutions, cites budget.”

  • Robert Quigley

    Monica -

    Writing a headline is more than a science – there is some art to it. I think the trick is to write a good SEO-friendly headline and still have it full of intrigue. Although the Statesman mentioned all you need to know in the headline about Cactus Cafe, it still got plenty of clicks. I think on a good story, people will still click through, even if the headline reveals the news.

    I don't think we'd hold back for the sake of getting a click. However, I do think we should be trying to lure the reader in with a catchy, yet still informative headline. At least that should be our goal.

  • georgedavis13

    You are right Robert.Writing a headline or content for SEO is not easiest task.If you get good guidelines from this kind of post,you will surely get some ideas about it.

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