Can 2010 SEOs Rescue Newspapers From Internets, Selves?

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Newspaper foolhardy fun

So here’s kinda what was going on with “news” at the end of 2009: the news stations and newspapers were dying continuing to have a difficult time adjusting to the fact that there is “an Internet.” Specifically, the fact that the Internet has reprogrammed consumers to expect get news updates by the second, streamed directly to their phones, all for, uh, free. Also, everyone and their mother’s cagefighting vice-barrister has an opinion on how newspapers and other media outlets should retool and monetize. And oh, it’d be great if these once unparalleled news platforms could stop being the butt of the jokes we all love to hear… and tell. Meanwhile, at SES Chicago 2009, some of the smartest and most resourceful folks in the news industry gathered for the Real Time SEO: No More Yesterday’s News session to discuss successful tactics and strategies adopted by their organizations. If you’re in any tier of the news industry and actively interested in saving your organization, this was the place to be (and if you weren’t there, then this is the coverage to read). The session was super informative and empowering… nothing like the public pity parties thrown for some news outlets lately.

Moderating this session was Tim Ruder of PerfectMarket, and speaking first was Brent D. Payne, SEO director for the Chicago Tribune.

Breaking News SEO & the Dilemma of Yesterday’s News
Consider the volume of search traffic available for breaking news events. Consider when the Tiger Woods story peaked; his name actually had more search volume than “porn” and even “sex.” At the Chicago Tribune, Brent and his team focus on these breaking stories and take the opportunity to build content around them.

Over a two week period, normal weekend traffic for the Tribune attributes a half million visits to Google. The weekend after the Tiger debacle, the site received a cool million visits from Google. It seemed they had ranked well with Google News during this time; at their best, both Google news and Google web were doing considerably well.

Google Hot Trends
The Tribune consults these figures daily to understand who’s searching for what on an hourly basis. Keep in mind that trends are not about volume, but rather percent increase. The bar indicators inside of trends tell you a little more about volume of traffic. Smaller broadcast sites focus on the “spicy” ones that are likely to have a lot of volume whereas bigger papers focus on the volcanic bars.

Google Hawt Trendz

Don’t Assume… Research. Think Creatively.
The Tribune noticed the subject “penile fracture” appear in trends one random day; although it remained #1 for several days thereafter, Brent and his team were hesitant to build content around the trending keyword phrase. After three days, Brent decided to do some research. Turned out the only reason “penile fracture” was tipping the trend charts was thanks to a recently aired Grey’s Anatomy episode that covered the risque medical condition. The same day as this discovery the LA Times (also a Tribune company) wrote an article about the ways people ingest media today; it’s not just through TV, not just Internet, but a hybrid of multiple news platforms. Indeed, the article referenced that very Grey’s Anatomy episode and its effect on traffic. While the post ranked well, it didn’t fully capitalize on the hot part of trend.

The Majority of Results are Still Yesterday’s News
Consider the results for Tiger Woods again. Even now, the top results are from Google News, and they all address the scandal. This is totally on-point. Relevant, recent and topical.

But the rest of the web results are not helpful for the spike of users or their (morally questionable) intent. A few stories that cater to user intent (from The Huffington Post, Yahoo Sports etc.) reside at the bottom of the SERPs. But this is where we need to get Google web and news to focus, cooperate, and ultimately create a more positive user experience.

How did the Tribune combat? They took one of their older, relevant articles that was ranking well in web results and they redirected it to the new story about the Tiger Woods scandal.  It channeled page rank to the new post and helped it jump to the lead news story. Big opportunity here.

The problem: if you are constantly focusing back to one story, you won’t have enough URLs for Google to look at. Google does recrawl stories, technically. But as Brent maintains, the reality is that Google cannot physically go through all of these older stories over and over again.

In Tribune companies, they still focus on URLs. If Google news did update URLs every time, you’d notice that the updated HuffPost story would have their updates listed in Google News. The fact is, they do follow URLs, but not for a long period of time.

The goal: Aim to do well in both news and web. Don’t screw over one for the other; there needs to be mutual support. For news, look at trends, topics, data, then optimize: change your headlines (to get past duplicate content filters), change your subheadline, change your first paragraph. After that, redirect your old story to a new version. Of course, make sure your new version is listed in Google News before you try to redirect… otherwise, what’s the point?

You have to be careful with the old topics, though… editorial folks might express concern about the redirect. Play it safe- only perform this tactic for a short period of time.

The Future of Breaking News
There’s a new Google tool that shows breaking news within a particular window.
Google Breaking News

The folks over at Google literally announced this a few weeks ago. Brent promised to deliver more research in the future, but his gut feeling  is to have a lot of relevant topical information from trends.

Up next was Topher Kohan from CNN.

Future of SEO for News Sites
On September 14th, Google announced they would add support to Yahoo Search Monkey/RFDA tags and Facebook Share in their video search. Topher saw this as an interesting opportunity for CNN, a company that now has the incentive to post a lot of new video content.

Yahoo Search Monkey is a tool that lets you customize how you show up in Yahoo search. With it comes a different type of microformat: the RDFA tag. Google says you should use these tags with your videos- heck, why not?

Topher experimented with the tags on some of his test site properties. After just a month of testing, he saw a 35% increase in the number of indexed videos in Google Video Search. He also saw a 22% increase in videos showing up for targeted keywords. To be clear, they made no other changes to they way they posted or produced the videos. Just tested the tags.

In this scenario, though, you have to be aware of the multitude of RDFA options… because there are, like, 1,000. It adds a lot of code and can slow things down. (Topher said they eventually backed it off to around 150.)

Facebook Share is code you can wrap around your video to encourage distribution in the Facebook community. It’s also a great way to track your content when it leaves your site.

Topher and his team added this feature to their test sites, but also added it to a small subset to videos on CNN. They saw a 12% increase in test site videos in Google index; the videos also showed with the source link attributed as CNN.com, not from other sites that might scrape the video. His team also saw a 47% increase in videos being shared and viewed on Facebook, and traffic from a video on Facebook increased by 32%. People were coming back to the source of the content, spending more time there and hopefully doing all the other wonderful things CNN wants those users to do.

Microformats & Semantic Web Tagging
Get ready, boys and girls- this will literally change the way we do SEO, and it will happen within the next 12-18 months. Topher’s heard from both engines that they are working together to come up with a preferred set encompassing universal tags to wrap around videos. (Just watch out for the code bloat!)

XML Video Sitemaps
Tags aren’t everything, though. You still need a really nice sitemap to feed the engines. All the tags do is tell them what the content is, what it’s about, and where they should categorize it. Getting found is not the issue; making sure the content goes in the correct bucket (when someone is searching for it) is.

Speaking next was the Washington Post’s Rochelle Sanchirico.

Working the “SEO Program” Successfully Within an Enterprise Organization
Some general truths Rochelle has found about SEO:

  • Most people within a large organization don’t understand SEO and/or are intimidated the the point of inaction.
  • People who have a bit of knowledge (have used a search engine before… once…) think they’re experts. They are the ones sending emails with the subject header: “Why aren’t we first for this keyword in the Google??”
  • There are people who have the potential to be really strong evangelists and partners, but they are difficult to find.

Attributes of Ideal SEO Partners

  • Access - People who have regular and unrestricted access to the site content or code. People like senior web editors, content creators or owners.
  • Accountability - People who have something to gain or lose by performing SEO. Traffic or product owners who can lose their job if they don’t get traffic to a particular section.
  • Enforcement - People who can get things done – CTO’s, CIO’s, even general managers and publishers.
  • Reinforcement - People who are just plain interested in this stuff. Those who have done site analytics, for example.

Some of the most important things to coordinate with these folks are definition and alignment of goals. Some metrics to consider are unique visitors, visitors in a particular segment, pageviews, time on site etc. Whatever criteria drives your business, align your goals accordingly.

Create weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual goals. This is the most effective things the Post has done to get their goals incorporated with the key stakeholders. Rochelle has shared SEO traffic goals with her tech lead and it brought about additional understanding for both parties.

Creating Accountability
There’s a single wringable neck for each process or task. Visuals can work wonders in determining who is responsible. Rochelle uses a “burn down chart” because it’s familiar to her particular staff and it successfully resonates with them. Her “burn down chart” looks like a highly organized excel sheet, assigning supporting goals along with tasks and a level of importance, among other items.

Finding Evangelists
These are others in the organization with knowledge and enthusiasm to spread the SEO gospel. These folks don’t need to be stakeholders, but it’s ideal that they have regular contact with someone on the core team.

Rallying the Masses
Rallying five people is a lot different than a newsroom of 500. Ask yourself: what do people respond to?  Would they lose their jobs if the site isn’t doing well?

Organize large group and small group training sessions. Even sitting at someone’s desks while he/she works. Reinforce the SEO message over and over again… people forget and have a lot of other people to answer to.

The impact of SEO is very visible. Visibility inside an organization hinges on the ability to execute these tactics successfully.

Finishing up the session was  Muhammad Saleem, Director of Social Media for ChicagoNow

Using Social Media for Massive Exposure and Linkbuilding
Muhammad believes we should ignore qualitative metrics and focus just on quantitative side. Use Social News sites as part of a larger social media strategy. Muhammad has seen short term and narrow strategies fall off the grid… long term plans are better for the people that stick around and for the links you build.

Mainstream Media & Social News
Mainstream media is surprisingly well-represented on social news sites. If you go deeper into these sites, you’ll see that while they have a presence, they still don’t understand the mechanics of social news. Some of the front Digg page successes weren’t promoted to develop high quality links. Also, the top 50 sites on the Internet control 41% content on Digg.

Where do I start?
The Site. Look at the category distribution of popular stories. What kind of content is being promoted? How frequently is it being promoted? Understanding this will help you work with editorial to help promote content within these categories.

Also look at the competition within each category by studying the promotion threshold. In most cases, the highest volume categories are going to have a lot of competition. However, this is not always the case with say, the Digg “Science Section.”
Digg Science

Once you have an idea of the popular categories, you’ll have a handle on how to gain massive exposure. Then, you have to break this down into average link acquisition by category. Make sure you’re not just getting traffic, but that you’re in the categories where you can build the links and get long term search engine play.

Drill deeper into sub-categories. Once you know what categories are popular and what their thresholds are, then make sure you’re planning your campaigns by day of the week. Mondays do very well, but often Thursday ends up doing better than, say, Tuesday or Wednesday. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily apply to breaking news.

The Content. Look at link acquisition by keywords in the title of your submission and in the description of the story. You’ll see that pictures tend to do well, as do How-To and Top 10 Lists.

Compare this data to the same keywords being listed on the page where you’re creating the content. Do yourself and your users a favor: be consistent with how you present your content on social news sites and on the actual page itself.

The Viral News Title. Lists tend to do very well- superlatives and sensationalism. Why does this appeal to such a large audience if it’s not the best greatest and latest? Any sorts of statistics do well- especially if they’re alarming; rich media, too- infographics- embedded in the content or use that as the content. The average social news consumer doesn’t want to visit a page that’s just another massive wall of text.

Example Formula : [number] [adjective] [keyphrase]

  • “20 Greatest Milestones in Tiger Woods Life”
  • “10 Groundbreaking Michael Jackson Music Videos”
  • “15 Biggest Mistakes in the Iraq War”

You can also use a tag cloud tool for visual cues as to keyword popularity.

Also consider looking at the travel and places category in Digg for category ideas for link acquisition. This title is a great example: “16 incredible unconventional hotel rooms (pics).”

Capture

The Community. How do you actually get content seeded and promoted on the site? Muhammad likes to look at the most popular users for the last 30 days. Start with this list to get a better understanding of what kind of content they’re interested in and what kind of sources they go to.

Once you figure out the user that works best with your content, go to their profile- learn more about the categories most suited to them, their popularity ratio, and their other social media profiles (often complete with contact information). In most cases, reaching out to the members is a win-win; you get your content plugged  and community members dig the interaction. If you give these users the right content, and the exclusivity, you don’t even have to be active in the community.

Think this isn’t an influential approach? Keep this in mind: the top 50 community members are responsible for over 1/3rd of all content promoted.

Start with studying category distribution and the promotion thresholds. From there look at link acquisition broken out over categories and day of the week. Even further, look at link acquisition for keywords and description. Finally, network with the community members so your content gets to the best person who can promote it.

Selected Questions & Answers from this Session

Q: What SEO activity is the Tribune doing with their video content?

Payne: Unfortunately with our CMS, we’re wrapping our video in an iframe. Basically pointless, but we’re focusing on it in 2010. It was something I brought up in ’08.

Q: How does the panel leverage looking at their on-site search and correlating this with what they’re doing in the broader market?

Kohan: I spend a lot time looking at on-site search. It tells you what your users are looking for. You want to give them with what they’re looking for. I don’t put that in the same bucket as Google trends and Twitter.

Sanchirico: Beyond SEO, site search gives great insight for usability.

Payne: We put this more as a usability problem, we try to give people what they need by browsing more than search.

Q: Do you do anything to SEO against user-generated content?

Kohan: All the links are NoFollow; we have the ability to make the comments invisible to the engines. The comments on all the stories are not moderated at all. We do have a profanity filter, but this could become a big issue fast if it’s a hot topic.

Sanchirico: You have to be really careful about your brand and whether you’re seen as a neutral news source. In social media, we can quickly see things devolve.

Q: There’s a lot of news swirling around Rupert Murdoch, threatening to pull out of one search engine or another. Murdoch said that the search engine traffic isn’t valuable. What are your thoughts on the value to news organizations with this traffic?

Sanchirico: We do a fairly poor job of taking advantage of people coming in from search right now. We’re doing a lot of multivariate testing with ways to interact with people. The way that media sites in general are monetized, we went down a really bad road 15 years, and unfortunately it’s hard to go back. There’s a lot to do as far as keeping people on the site and convert on areas that make sense.

Saleem: Social media traffic converts to about one-third of what Google traffic does for the same content. That’s why we we’re heavily focused on link acquisition and not just page views. The links that drive traffic from search will drive conversions, not just direct traffic from the social news sites.

Payne: It comes down to the particular user too. You have to monetize much more heavily on that first pageview or those first few pageviews. You have that huge difference between the number of pages people consume, so you have to crank up the amount of money people make from those 3-5 page views. It’s a tough question, but one we’re focused on.

Kohan: Murdoch’s bluffing. He is never going to pull his content out of the index. He’s going to saber rattle until one of the engines bows to him.

Payne: Topher is wrong on Murdoch, but anyway. In news, there definitely is this mindset where people are “we don’t need two-thirds of our traffic, just focus on the one-third,” that’s different.

Kohan: The only reason that WSJ works is because it’s niche. That’s what Murdoch is looking at. It’s niche and people’s bosses are paying for it, not my mom and dad. They would never pay for that.

Q: Regarding niche, do you think people would pay for hyper hyper local media that’s block by block and very specific to them?

Sanchirico: People will pay for stuff that makes money for them.

Payne: This has to do with what individuals are interested in. Like Facebook, I may be super interested in the town I grew up in, but what about the other places I’ve lived in my life? News organizations have to recognize it’s about “me” news, not about local, or national or video about what “I” want. It’s the me generation.

Kohan: Maybe if it’s like an iPhone app – a one-time payment thing.

Q: Don’t you think that model could be close to what Pandora’s doing now with a small subscription fee per month? Could that be brought into the news field?

Payne: I think you can charge for convenience, but not for content. There’s a point where there’s true unique and high quality content, and then there’s convenient delivery.  That’s easier to monetize. What other way can you do this?

Sanchirico: It’s just a matter of “if someone’s going to do it for free, they won’t pay a subscription for it.” Everyone has to charge for customization for it to work as a model.

Q: In regards to Digg – how important is it to promote other people’s URL’s in stories? Can you only be a self promoter?

Saleem: I would say it’s bad, because you’re not contributing to the community except when you have something to gain. It’s not going to penalize you in the engines. Well, StumbleUpon does it within StumbleUpon, but Digg doesn’t do it with the algorithm. It’s just bad social media etiquette.