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Shane Richmond

How SEO is changing journalism

British Journalism Review
Vol. 19, No. 4, 2008, pages 51-55

Shane Richmond is communities editor of Telegraph.co.uk and has worked online since 1998.

Contents - Vol 19, No 4, 2008

Editorial - Toys in the attic 3

Not finally... - Subjective views on matters journalistic
Michael White, Laurel Maury, John Cole 5

Kenton Bird - Sarah Palin's a journalist, too 13

Piers Morgan - Adventures of the comeback kid 17

Iain Dale - Mining for gold in the blogosphere 31

Steven Barnett - TV news and the echo of Murrow 37

Mark Seddon - Labour's love lost? 45

Shane Richmond - How SEO is changing journalism 51

Julia Cresswell - Let's hear it for the cliché 57

Stephen Pritchard - Holding ourselves accountable 63

Anthony Delano - Different horses, different courses 68

John Hill - Will hacking help the press? 75

BOOK REVIEWS
Michael Henderson on Michael Parkinson 81

Eamonn McCabe on Kenneth Kobré 83

Christina Lamb on Ann Leslie 85

Philip Jacobson on Daoud Hari 88

Phillip Knightley on Elliott/Imhasly/Denyer 90

Brian MacArthur on Anthony Delano 92


Quotes of the Quarter 1 – 12
Quotes of the Quarter 2 – 30
Quotes of the Quarter 3 – 56
Ten years ago The way we were 62
Letter 94
Paul Foot Award 96


Cover: Piers Morgan by MARTIN ROWSON


  Search engine optimisation can ensure content attracts maximum web hits. And it doesn’t mean conning readers, says an online editor


The “Gotcha” headline on a Sun front-page splash about the sinking of the General Belgrano is one of the most famous, or infamous depending on your taste, in the history of British journalism. Yet no web producer with any experience would consider a headline like that today. The reason is search engine optimisation (SEO). SEO has been around almost as long as search engines themselves, but journalists were quite late to cotton on. It didn’t really reach newsrooms until a couple of years ago.

The concept is simple. It’s about ensuring that your content is found by the millions of people every day who use search engines as their first filter for news and those who don’t search at all but trust an automated aggregator, such as Google News, to filter stories for them. These people are essentially asking a computer to tell them the news. If you want your story to be read, you’d better make sure the computer knows what you’re writing about.

To do that you need to ensure your article contains certain keywords. That means not only the words that someone types into a search engine but also the keywords that the search engine knows are commonly associated with the search term. So if someone types “credit crunch” into a search engine, the computer knows that an article about the credit crunch often contains other words, such as financial crisis, bail out or bailout, banks, recession and so on.

The algorithms that determine how a search engine evaluates and chooses between keywords are complex and frequently kept secret. Search companies don’t want their techniques to be stolen by rivals or exploited by publishers seeking to gain an unfair advantage. As a result, the rules of SEO are constantly changing as search engines refine their techniques both to improve results and to close loopholes. There are lots of factors at play in SEO and I won’t go into them here. For most journalists the focus is on ensuring the presence and relevance of keywords.

It’s a process that makes many journalists uncomfortable and that’s largely based on a misunderstanding. Columnist Charlie Brooker, writing in The Guardian earlier this year, suggested that “your modern journalist is expected... to shoehorn all manner of hot phraseology into copy”. This, Brooker argued, was an attempt to “to con people into reading it”. He’s wrong. SEO is about relevance. An irrelevant keyword does you no good at all and in some instances might be harmful because it can leave the search engine confused as to what your article is about.

Let’s go back to May 4, 1982 and that “Gotcha” headline. The sub-head read: “Our lads sink gunboat and hole cruiser.” Below that, the story began: “The Navy had the Argies on their knees last night after a devastating double punch.” Alongside was a graphic showing a British soldier and the words “Battle for the Islands”. All of this works perfectly for its audience and its medium, but it wouldn’t be likely to figure highly in search results. Imagine for a moment that the Falklands conflict was happening today.What would you type into a search engine to find the latest news about it? Well, “Falklands” certainly, or perhaps “Falkland Islands”. You wouldn’t search for “the Islands”, which is used in the Sun copy. You’d be more likely to search for “Argentina” than “Argies” and “British Navy” or “Royal Navy” would get more relevant results than“The Navy”.


Gotcha! It’s the wrong heading

A journalist writing that story today would be wise to include all the above keywords and would want the name General Belgrano high up in the story, too, and perhaps even Conqueror, the name of the submarine that torpedoed the Argentinean vessel. And that headline? At the very least, an online version would read: “Gotcha! Royal Navy sinks Argentinean warship.” Realistically though, better would be: “Falklands conflict: Royal Navy sinks Argentinean warship.” For many a print journalist such tinkering amounts to butchery, and the insistence on keywords renders copy dry and formulaic. On top of this there’s a resistance – seems like snobbery to me – to the idea that we are somehow reduced to writing for computers rather than for people.

The last of those is the easiest to deal with. We are writing to be read and these days that increasingly means ensuring that our stories are found by search engines. Readership patterns are changing. Online news may seem similar to its offline equivalent – it is after all just words, pictures and moving images – but it is fundamentally different. In the offline world audiences form around a single title or a particular news bulletin. This happens for practical reasons. The average person may prefer the sports writing in one title, the financial reporting in another and the political coverage in a third, but the constraints of time and money mean they will probably choose to buy just one newspaper. Online readers can be choosier. It’s easy to get your sport, finance and politics coverage from three different titles if that’s what you’d prefer to do. So in recent years we’ve seen online publishers break their sites into channels, and audiences have formed at section level.

But this is still a replication of offline structures in an online form, and the technology of the internet is breaking this down further. Now, audiences can form at article level, driven by news aggregators such as Techmeme, social bookmarking sites such as Delicious, and news sites, such as Digg, that are “edited” by their users. There are still audiences, and large ones, that are loyal to a single title, but every publisher is seeing more and more people arrive at their websites via search engines, and the potential to use this trend to increase audiences is huge. Ideally, many of these surfers will see that your site comes high in the search results time and again and will become regular readers.

Achieving that means adopting the rules defined by the search companies. There’s always been a certain formula to journalism: focusing on the five Ws – who? what? why? when? and where? – that underpin any good story; writing an article so it can be cut from the bottom; working within the constraints of the publication’s style book. SEO rules are as important as any of these and in fact they bolster the first two. A keyword-rich story will get names and places in prominent positions and will do so early in the copy. The only conflict comes with the style book. If your publication insists on an idiosyncratic spelling of a particular word, then you may want to change it to match the most common spelling you are seeing in search engines. Unfortunately though, and there’s no gentle way to put this, the witty, punning headline is finished when it comes to the internet. The greatest headlines of the web era will be the most functional ones and they’re unlikely to be remembered by anybody at all even a month after publication, let alone years later. That’s a shame, but we do still have print publications and they will be with us for some years yet. Those headlines are perfect in print, working with the pictures, the subhead and the page layout as a whole to draw the reader in. We use those techniques because they fit the medium so well, not because they showour readers how clever we are. They aren’t right for the online medium, and to hold on to them is nothing more than self-indulgence.

SEO techniques do seem to favour journalism that deals with breaking news and topical subjects. News, finance and sport articles are most likely to begin with a flurry of keywords – people, businesses, teams and places – that do so well in search engines. Adopting these techniques is relatively simple for those kinds of stories, but it’s more difficult for features and opinion pieces. The delayed drop intro, which is often used in feature writing, may create suspense as the subject unfolds for the reader over a few paragraphs, but it is an SEO nightmare. The further down your story a search engine has to travel to reach a keyword, the less value it will attach to the article.


Journalists feel their writing is drier

For example the intro – not the standfirst, however – to this article is not well optimised. The important keywords “search engine optimisation” and “journalism” are in there but they should come earlier, and “internet publishing” would probably be more useful than “web producer”. This is a better intro: Search engine optimisation (SEO) is changing internet publishing and challenging journalists. With keyword-rich headlines and intros a priority, many journalists feel that they have to make their writing drier and more formulaic. The Sun’s famous or infamous, depending on your taste, Gotcha headline about the sinking of the Belgrano would never be published on the internet.

In many ways that’s better than the actual intro, anyway. It gets straight to the point and makes it clear what this article is about. The trade-off is that it drops in some ugly technical terms – search engine optimisation and keyword-rich – very early. I wanted to start with something familiar to readers of the British Journalism Review, the “Gotcha” headline, and use that to lead into the less familiar technical details. That isn’t an insurmountable problem. For example, a headline with good keywords and a well-written standfirst will give you the freedom to write a gentler intro to a feature. So the online version of this story could mention “SEO” “keywords” and “internet journalism” in the standfirst and allow me to begin with the more familiar reference to The Sun.

Just as clever headlines, delayed drops and other journalistic tricks evolved to suit the medium, so we will learn new ways to take advantage of the opportunities SEO provides to reach a vast audience. Hopefully it should be clear by now that there’s nothing to debate when it comes to SEO. If you want your story to be found, you have to adopt these techniques. There’s no room for argument. But the debate frequently mutates into something else and unleashes a host of other concerns.

Once we know what people are searching for should we write stories to meet that demand? Will search engines end up dictating our news agenda as well as the way we format our stories? If we write stories simply to chase traffic, where do we find the resources to write the specialist stories, the ones that are important to our core readers but not massively popular?

All those concerns are legitimate, but they are not questions about SEO and shouldn’t be interpreted as such. They are editorial questions. If an editor wants to devote resources to writing stories based on topics people are searching for, they now have the data that will permit them to do so. Giving readers what they want is a sensible strategy, even though the overall mix of stories within a publication has to be balanced. Different editors will make different choices, but they are editorial choices, not SEO choices. SEO is value-neutral. It doesn’t require you to dumb down, to fill your stories with the names of celebrities or to write 500 articles about Viagra every month. Even if you write about badgers, thermal dynamics or parachuting you will want your article to be seen by people who care about those topics. SEO techniques will give your article a better chance of being found.