Newsroom SEO: 9 Optimization Tips for Publishers and Journalists

Many newsrooms still struggle to get the right content in front of the right audience. Obviously there are a number of different ways to improve here, but one basic way is through better SEO tactics with Google Search.

by WAN-IFRA External Contributor | October 1, 2018

In this article, author Goran Mirković, Senior Content Marketing Specialist at Content Insights, shares some of the finer points about how news organizations can properly work on their exposure through Google search. This article originally appeared here, and has been republished with permission.

Regardless of which topics publishers cover and how hard they try to encourage people to read their content, many are still struggling to breathe life into their publications and get their targeted audiences to interact with their output.

This is because they are continuously failing to acknowledge the paradigm shifts which have occurred in how people consume content.

As it has been widely reported, most newspapers are losing the online battle.
Back in 2009, NAA/Nielsen revealed that the newspapers owned less than 1 percent of U.S. online traffic. Since then, the market share has decreased even further, leaving old-school news organizations in the unenviable situation where they have to rely on breadcrumbs to survive.

But there’s still hope. For most newspapers, the fat lady hasn’t sung yet.  They can still compete for traffic if they expand their focus to search (not just social).

Doing SEO for a news website is often a challenge. It’s not the same as optimizing a small SaaS business website or a big e-commerce store for the search. News organizations churn out significant amounts of content on a daily and weekly basis because volume plays an important role in their strategy. If they’re going to compete in this oversaturated landscape, news websites need to increase their output and cover everything that’s happening in their community.

At least that’s what most publishers think. In reality, the situation is often quite different.

Increasing output won’t make your readers care about your content. The key here is to find that perfect balance between maintaining the high standard of reporting and bringing relevant news in front of your readers on the one hand and utilizing their search intent the best way possible in order to broaden your audience pool, on the other.

Here are some of the finer points about how news organizations can properly work on their exposure through Google search:

1. Improving Site Structure

Most of the content that news sites put out is often time-sensitive and likely to bring in more traffic from search than other static pages. To preserve the highest link equity, which generally comes from the home page, news publishers need to organize their entire website structure in a way that it allows the search engines and users to reach archived content from home with as few clicks as possible. However, newer pages also need to receive link juice (aka, link equity) as well. It’s not really easy to prioritize one over the other.

Website architecture is one of the most important areas news publishers need to consider because it directly affects how the search engines are going to crawl, interpret, and rank their pages in SERP. In order to properly distribute link juice across all pages of their website, publishers need to focus on:

  1. Pagination – This is a common website navigation technique, most commonly used in the e-commerce world. Pagination refers to a practice of segmenting links or dividing content in different pages affecting SEO, web development, and the overall UX of a website. This particular method directly influences website architecture and the distribution of link juice across the domain. As a news source that frequently publishes a lot of new content and pages, using numerical pagination will help you bring your older articles to the category home page and keep them accessible to your readers.
  2. Internal linking – This is one of the many techniques that could help publishers improve their website architecture. For those unfamiliar with the term, internal links are basically links that connect two pages on the same domain. They are great for navigation and establishing a solid information flow on both a micro and macro level. In addition, internal links also reduce so-called exit rates, which Google sees as proof that a certain website is indeed valuable and useful to readers because it encourages them to read more.
  3. Categories and tags – Categories are used for broader groupings of your posts, while tags are meant to describe specific details of individual content pieces. Both of these groupings help organize your content in a way that’s logical and accessible to both users and search engines. Having clearly defined categories is a MUST for news websites. Most readers only care about specific topics. They don’t want to go through dozens of pages to reach their desired content.
  4. Sitemap – As already stated above, news websites have a large volume of pages, which makes it challenging to keep them within a few clicks from the home page. However, if you create an index that operates as a list of links on a single page, it will enable you to have up to one hundred links per page. This will allow you to have loads of pages close to your home, along with the ability to categorize your links by tags, themes, or some other filter that will help you build a better experience for your readers.

2. Optimizing Content for Search

Journalists and editors operate on tight deadlines. The deadline is always NOW in the newsroom. In this environment, speed and accuracy play a critical role. When asked, most editors and journalists will say that they don’t really have the time to look for lucrative keywords and optimize their content according to the latest SEO standards.

Writing for SEO comes naturally, as soon as you understand the benefits. In order to make their output SEO-compliant, editors and journalists don’t have to waste hours of their precious time on optimization.

Regardless of how good your content really is, writing and publishing articles is only the first part of the process. If you want to make sure that your stories land in front of your desired readers, as a journalist or an editor – you need to optimize your content for search so that people can actually find it.

Even though most publishers still heavily rely on social media networks to promote their articles, numerous studies have confirmed that search outperforms social by a staggering 300 percent. Believe it or not, Google now processes over 3.5 billion searches per day. That translates to 40,000 requests per second and 1.2 trillion searches per year worldwide.

People prefer search. Whenever they need information about a particular subject, the first thing most online users do today is to convert their thoughts into keywords and type them in Google’s search.

With that in mind, it’s only natural for online journalists and editors to think about SEO as something that could actually help them reach bigger and more relevant audiences.

Even though a lot of journalists still feel that SEO is the nemesis of good reporting, it’s time to revisit the subject and take a more detailed look into how the industry has evolved in the last couple of years.

The days of keyword stuffing and other ‘over-optimization’ techniques are now just a bad memory. Since the first Penguin update back in 2012, Google has started penalizing malicious website owners who rely on spammy and dated gimmicks to claim respectable positions in search results. This is good news for journalists. They don’t need to accept SEO at the expense of their core values: they will continue to write for people, not machines.

Modern SEO techniques are not there to degrade the quality of writing but to help journalists and editors tailor their content more effectively to please web-based audiences. If they want to generate some genuine engagement from the search, journalists and editors need to focus on the following key elements:

  1. Keywords – Optimizing content and headlines for keywords is equally important for everyone who writes for the web. And we do mean everyone. Doing keyword research before writing a single word of the article will provide journalists with a more detailed picture of the information their readers are looking for online.
  2. Links – The world’s most popular search engine relies on links to visit and analyze your content. Links create pathways for Googlebots which help them assess the relevance of websites and pages in search. They also assist journalists with referencing sources and connecting with older articles to provide users with a background story that’s relevant to a particular piece they’ve just published. Links are there to feed users with additional information that will help them develop a deeper understanding of a specific topic.
  3. Formatting – Online readers have different preferences and habits than people who still consume printed media. They tend to consume content in smaller, easily digestible chunks. Modern internet users rely on shorter sentences, bullet points, subheadings, and clear tone that makes it easy for them to immediately extract the information they’re looking for. When it comes to content itself, list-form or top-ten style formats often work best, even though most journalists despise them.

3. Hacking Google News

Google News is a massive source of traffic. It sends more than 6 billion clicks to news websites across the globe on a monthly basis. Grabbing a small piece out of that pie could be huge for any news organization.
Google News is a content syndication platform, built with a single mission in mind – to help better organize news stories across the world and make them more accessible to Google’s users.

As with everything regarding Google and its services, there’s a clear set of guidelines and best practices which publishers need to follow or at least consider if they’re trying to get featured and ranked above their competitors in Google News.

The Search Engine Journal wrote a comprehensive list of all the guidelines publishers should follow if they want their content to appear in Google News.
Apart from producing original, well-formatted, timely and relevant content that meets Google’s quality standards, news organizations need to improve certain technical elements of their site as well to get featured in this service.

Optimizing for Google News mostly revolves around developing a bug-free XML sitemap. It needs to be clean and functional, and not overflowing with content. The domain needs to be accessible to Googlebots, and the content itself should be provided in HTML format only. URLs and anchors should be unique and descriptive of the content that’s being published on the same address.

Google News’ interface is full of topic clusters, which means that news organizations should probably do their best to arrange their content in the same way.

4. Optimizing for Mobile

Back in November 2016, Google announced its mobile-first indexing update, meaning that the world’s most popular engine would look at mobile versions of websites as the starting point for determining how to calculate their positioning in the search. Now, mobile-first indexing is in full swing and publishers need to do everything in their power to quickly adapt to the new terrain.

If they want to continue to receive traffic from Google and keep their current ranking positions, news organizations need to optimize for mobile as well as for desktop. Google publicly declared that it cares more about mobile now, which is natural as it aligns with the evolution of user behaviour. Namely, users are shifting away from desktop engagement towards mobile.

In order to stay competitive in this mobile-first era, news organizations should, first and foremost, invest in responsive design.

Having a mobile-friendly and responsive website is not really the same thing. Responsive design offers dynamic content that adapts to devices, automatically adjusts padding, spacing, and images to fit different devices. It’s borderline reliant on a mobile operating system, which is not really the case when it comes to mobile-friendly design. That one is a lot less flexible. It offers static content and compressed images in order to make them accessible on mobile. It’s not really a good fit for organizations that want to stay relevant in this SEO game.

Apart from making sure that their website is actually mobile-responsive, publishers need to focus on editing their content in a way that looks good both on mobile and desktop devices. In order to make that happen, journalists should start using shorter sentences and paragraphs. Investing in AMP pages also helps. For instance, Google News favors AMP pages. These stripped-down forms of HTML enable faster load times, which makes it easy for readers to consume content on their mobile devices.

5. Avoid Producing Copied Content

Republishing content is a big thing in the news world. A lot of publishers have developed a habit of finding and republishing great stories from other domains on their own website. Sure, they quote their sources and give credit to the original authors – but this kind of practice can harm their search rankings in more ways than they can think of.

If you are producing copied content with an intent to manipulate rankings and steal traffic from your competitors by copying their material, Google will make appropriate adjustments in the rankings and indexing regarding your site. If the world’s most popular engine figures out that you’re relying on shady tactics to generate traffic for your website – it will strip you of your rankings and push your domain so far down the search where no one will ever find it.

If you want to pursue the same stories as your competitors, be sure to at least rewrite them using your own words. Sure, this process requires a lot more time and effort, but it saves face. It’s better for your publication’s online reputation and position in the search.

6. Make Social Sharing Easy

So far, I have focused on showcasing how journalists underutilize organic search as a traffic source. I’ve even pointed out that SEO can indeed bring a lot more people to your website than social. However, that doesn’t mean that publishers should ignore social completely or choose between the two. In fact, my advice is to try to get the best of both worlds and maximize exposure across all available channels where readers consume content.

In order to encourage readers to share more articles on social, publishers need to make social sharing fairly easy for them.

If you run your website on a WordPress platform, there are numerous plugins you can choose from to help generate more social shares.

When I’m setting up a new website, I usually look for plugins that add visually appealing social sharing buttons for all of the major social networks (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) on my pages.

The first thing I do is make sure they’re 1000 percent responsive and customizable. I also check if readers are able to add their comments next to the link before it gets shared on their page. When it comes to news articles, people usually share them when the story triggers some kind of powerful (positive or negative) emotion.

If you’re having difficulties in determining where to place the social media icons on your pages, Garrett from CoSchedule did a bit of digging on this problem and found out that it’s often best to put them above your content or on its left-hand side.

7. Optimize Images

Images play a vital role for news organizations. When used with care, images have the power to provide readers with a deeper understanding of the articles they consume.

Apart from breaking the monotony of the pages and providing editors with a tool to enrich the narrative of the stories they publish, images bring additional weight to the content and highlight certain points that need to be remembered.

Most news websites don’t really own the images they publish in their articles. They license them from agencies like Reuters, AP, AFP, UPI, and Getty. Still, it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t invest in their optimization.

Publishers need to focus on compressing and resizing images so that the source image isn’t bigger than the size they’re being displayed in. Scaling images is important for load times, which reflects on UX and SEO. The less time it takes for your site and pages to load, the easier it will be for Google to visit and index them. When editors upload huge images and display them as small pictures in the body of their articles – Google still needs to load those images in their original size, which tends to complicate things a bit.

The best idea here is to resize the images before you insert them in your articles. WordPress can be of great help here because the platform automatically compresses the image in multiple sizes when you upload it.
This is just the first step of the image optimization process. If they want to make their images SEO-compliant, publishers also need to make sure that:

  1. Their images are named descriptively and in plain language.
  2. They have optimized their alt attributes carefully, meaning that the browser can render them effectively. It’s important to add unique alt attributes for every image so that the users and the engine can understand what they’re seeing.
  3. The images they’ve selected are of the right file type. JPEG has become the standard for images on the web. Images in JPEG format can be compressed considerably, which allows publishers to preserve quality.
  4. Their thumbnails are on point. It’s important to focus on their size and descriptions.
  5. They use an image sitemap, because they will help their images get noticed by Google. Googlebots can’t crawl images that are not visible in the source code. To help publishers do their job with ease, and thus speed up their indexing, they have to list the image location in the image sitemap.
  6. Their social sharing images are customized for a richer experience. When someone shares a link from a certain news site on social, an image (thumbnail) will appear with it. If the publisher doesn’t optimize the featured image, the social network will automatically select a random picture from the site or page and use it to do with the link. It’s in the publisher’s best interest to be the one who will choose which images will accompany the links. If you take some time to optimize the images that appear on social with your links, you can always get your logo and tagline in front of the right audience.

8. Focus on Crawl Speed

Site crawling is a major SEO factor, especially for news sites that host a lot of pages. When Googlebots experience issues with moving across your websites, pages don’t get properly indexed. Once that happens, your publication virtually becomes invisible in the search. From that point on, the only way people can reach your content is either by social or direct URL. This is not really great, especially if you’re dependent on new traffic to keep you afloat.

There are a couple of reasons why Googlebots might be having difficulties crawling your site.

If publishers want to see their pages get indexed within minutes of publishing, first and foremost they need to learn about link building. Lack of internal and external links makes those Googlebots’ jobs ten times harder. If the world’s most popular search engine cannot properly locate links that point to your domain and connect pages on your websites, it will assume that your publication is not that relevant. This will basically destroy your chances of getting discovered through the search by your desired readers.
Other reasons are of a more technical nature. For instance, your site is slow, there are just too many pages to crawl, the structure is bad, errors keep popping up left and right – the entire experience becomes a living nightmare.

Getting a better hosting provider, adding a XML sitemap to your site and submitting it in order to make it available to Google might help you quickly resolve some of these issues. The “ping” function makes it possible to automate the submission of the XML sitemap as content is published/updated.
However, oftentimes that isn’t enough. If news publishers want to compete for online traffic in today’s world, they need to learn more about how crawling plays out and what kind of technical requirements they need to meet in order to become more visible in the search. Ensuring faster load times, proper site navigation, and linkage is just the beginning.

9. Produce More than Just News

As we explained in our latest data analysis – churning out articles at a high rate isn’t always the best strategy. You can do so much more with less if you focus on the quality of your output and what your online audience actually wants to read instead of pushing out large quantities of content.

Publishers who are currently surviving and thriving are the ones who’ve taken the time to consider readers’ behavior, demands, and engagement and are approaching content production with these aspects in mind. They are focusing on the production of content that’s always in line with their readers’ interests and which is – as a result – less likely to become immediately dated.

Looking back at our recent talk with Roy Wassink, De Persgroep’s Product Insights Manager, it is evident that just focusing on page-views is no longer an effective strategy. If publishers want to keep on growing, their efforts need to become more data-driven. Understanding your audience’s behavior, what encourages them to actually engage with an article and share it – not just land on it – is of crucial importance for publishers who operate on the modern web.

This is where quantity takes a back seat and lets quality take the wheel. The effort shouldn’t be invested in content production exclusively, but rather in the understanding of the way readers consume it as well as figuring out what you can do to increase their overall engagement with your output.

Newsrooms may argue that SEO is not a valuable tactic for them because journalism doesn’t work that way. As a reader, you cannot really type in a specific search query about some piece of news if you don’t have a starting premise, i.e. you don’t know what has happened, rightLead by this logic, giant media houses would rather invest in building reputation and reader loyalty, with the fair expectation that their audience will go directly to their website to check the news and consume the content that’s of interest to them.

The truth is, this aligns with the way traditional media functions – not digital publishing. And there is a logical fallacy in the above-mentioned publishers’ reasoning that I am about to explain.

Undoubtedly, direct traffic is valuable and creating a habit for your readers is also precious. However, we need to see a broader picture and understand that today’s readers are not passive participants nor just content recipients. They are critical thinkers who take part in online discussions, who, in the era of fake news – do their own research or even produce their own content. They have a tendency to check news sources and seek out additional information regarding something that’s trending.

In addition to this, it’s crucial to understand that we live in a very connected world. We receive information constantly, from thousands of different sources every day – be it through social media, print newspapers, TV, or conversations with our friends.

As a publisher, you need to be prepared for the fact that there is a high probability that your readers will discover some piece of news long before they start surfing the web or land on your website.
And what will happen then? They will type in their search query in Google and start reading those publications that are on the first few pages of search results.

This is where traditional reporting stops and modern 2.0 journalism starts.

Goran Mirković is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at Content Insights.

WAN-IFRA External Contributor

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