Consider this scenario: An editor looks over the search engine results on a story that your news outlet broke a day ago. She notices that the competition’s news report, which was posted some time after yours, shows up higher than your newsroom’s news article.
What’s up with that?
Shouldn’t Google recognize you posted the story first, that your newsroom actually had a reporter at the event, or that it happened just blocks away from your newsroom when the competition usually focuses on another zip code?
Here’s what happened: Google – and other search engines – doesn’t understand the context your audience might take for granted. What search engines do understand are keywords in specific spots in the website coding, inbound and outbound links, shares from social media, and general traffic patterns.
How to get your content to be understood by the search engines – and therefore get more traffic as people look for content – is the concept called Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
Most books, courses and articles that discuss SEO use marketing content or corporate websites as the examples. But when reading these discussions, it’s hard to imagine how testing and formatting marketing, lifestyle or undated content to be SEO-friendly is applicable to news content.
SEO lessons also typically use website programming language. But the Content Management Systems (CMS) many newsrooms use apply different phrasing or terms to the programming steps. Even the menus in WordPress do not translate exactly to the backdrop of web programming.
As a result, journalists need to learn through training or experimenting what exactly those boxes, spaces and checkmarks do in their particular CMS. But once you understand the functions in your CMS and how they translate to website coding, you can apply SEO concepts to news content and boost your traffic!
Here are five important details that are universally applicable to news organizations:
- Write a clearly understood headline. In website programming, the headline is known as the page title. On the web, a title must stand alone. Puns don’t translate well out of context, neither do common headline words such as “city,” “local” or “area.” When that headline goes out on mobile app notifications or Twitter, a reader sees only one line of text. And when a story gets forwarded around on Facebook to friends of friends, you have just lost control of the geographic area that your audience is typically understood to be. To compensate, you must include specific keywords such as this headline “Winter storm watch in effect for Monroe County” — and even then be prepared for misunderstandings among a web audience as there are Monroe County communities in other states. If the headline character length isn’t long enough, and it probably won’t be to clearly explain the news report, read step 2.
- Write a clearly understood description using exact words, names, numbers and phrases. Journalists are familiar with writing a lead, lede or nut graf – a snippet that gives more content and information than a headline can do. Copy and apply that summary into the description box on your website’s CMS. When used correctly, this box can help get link clicks! Here’s why: this is the short paragraph some search engines add just under the headline in results. In some websites, this paragraph appears under the headline. It’s also the paragraph that Facebook will import when a story is linked to on Facebook. So this is how I use a description vs a headline: When I post a news report about a traffic accident, my headline relates how many were injured or whether the highway is shut down; and then I use the description box to relate the time, date and location of the incident.
- Type specific words such as a person’s full name in the image file name and alt tag. The words typed in the alt image box are meant to help visually impaired readers understand the image. A file name with keywords instead of a number can help you find that image in your library the next time you want to use it. But these spaces also describe the photo that is attached to that article to the search engines. Remember that a computer can’t “see” the photo the way people can! An easy hack to fill the file and / or alt slots for photos in your CMS: write a short version of the caption you are placing on reader view.
- Learn how to find the keywords and phrases people use when landing on your website. Even if you don’t check analytics every day, take a minute to do lookups of incoming traffic during breaking news. Look past the top two or three phrases to see if anything in the top five to seven give you ideas for a fresh headline, a rewrite, a spinoff story or follow up. Keyword research is how I brainstormed every possible angle for my former personal finance blog during the federal government shutdown of 2013 – and got huge traffic as a result.
- Watch for older articles popping up on search engines. You can see this via your website analytics. If you notice a spike in interest in an older or expired story, send those viewers to the newer content by adding note at the top of the story with “See update at …” or “See related story at…” You can also add a paragraph at the top with a detail such as “the tornado warning was expired at 7:30 p.m.” You now have provided helpful information those visitors might share. In most cases, you won’t need to delete an article that has old details just because people are still looking it up. From a reader’s perspective, it’s very frustrating to follow a social media link or search engine link to a website – only to find a 404 notice and no explanation why or where to go next.
If you want to dig deeper into SEO theory and best practices, here are some reference articles:
- Search Engine Journal: 55 Quick SEO Tips Even Your Mother Would Love.
- Neil Patel: SEO Copywriting – How to Write Content for People and Optimize for Google.
- And the Alexa blog has a nice three-part discussion on SEO content.
Reading a library book on SEO tactics was one of my “a-hah!” moments years ago on learning how and why certain things I did on websites worked. But my expertise is more in social media. Follow me on Twitter at @WethingtonPaula for those conversations.