This article is also available in Brazilian Portuguese: Entrevista com Michael Martinez sobre SEO e Jornalismo.
Michael Martinez, a SEO professional was previously the Director of Search Strategies for a Seattle area startup and more recently Senior SEO Manager for a Bay Area company.
The following interview is all about how The News Industry can benefit from search engine generated traffic and how many of them see the Google News aggregator.
CK: How is a traditional training program for news rooms built? Which has been your greatest satisfaction training journalists (if you ever did such a job) and your biggest disappointment after being in this industry for years?
M.M.: I have only trained one journalist in search engine marketing. I hired him to be the editor for a news Website. I needed the site to publish occasional legitimate news articles for clients. The only guidance I gave him was to set an editorial policy, to adhere strictly to that policy, and to develop the site’s content as he saw fit. When clients pressed me to have their content included on the site I insisted that he make a decision as an editor, not as my employee. After he rejected a few stories people began to understand he was only interested in publishing news, not propaganda. After that, clients only submitted real news to him. (I should note that the majority of the site’s content, more than 95% of all articles, had nothing to do with clients.)
To me the integrity of the site was more important than matching the impatient demands of clients who don’t understand the intricacies of value-based search marketing. I wanted compelling content that people would be interested in. We almost never “built links” for the stories on the news site. It earned its links naturally. The optimization that the editor performed consisted only of choosing titles for articles that met his criteria and assigning those articles to a team of professional journalists to write. The few links we did point to his stories were placed on Websites we controlled and were embedded in relevant articles.
This was a niche news Website and the projects I was overseeing were not heavily dependent upon its success. However, I felt that integrating such a site into my strategy would accomplish many things provided I had the courage and discretion to NOT interfere with the legitimate journalistic process. I feel that in the almost two years I worked with and supported that project it paid for itself several times over.
CK: At the news room in general, how is SEO understood / misunderstood by journos?
M.M.: I think that too many search optimization specialists have indoctrinated journalists to think about writing for the correct keywords. In consulting with several news site editors, I have emphasized that they make the stories interesting and compelling first and worry about the keywords later. These are established news sites with large audiences.
People search for what journalists write. The journalists just need to learn how to use the lexicon that people search with as a tool to enhance their copy. When journalists are taught to think of keywords first, they don’t put their best effort into the writing process. I believe that passionate articles work better than mechanical, formulaic articles.
Search engine optimization must be a reactive process. You see what works best and do more of that. You see what works least and do less of that. For a journalist, that should fall into the realm of writing stories that readers find interesting and compelling. The “keywords” follow the content.
CK: What is the real impact on the time needed to optimize an article once it is finished writing? do you suggest an after optimization or do you think that it should be performed as the article is written?
M.M.: I believe optimization should be handled after the article is written. It is more challenging to be passionate about a topic when you’re following a write-by-the-numbers formula than when you just write the story knowing that it has to be edited anyway. A good journalistic SEO is an effective editor.
The journalist who wants to attract more search traffic should practice integrating as many different expressions into their copy as the article can structurally tolerate. Linking to reliable resources is also important. The outbound links establish trust with search algorithms. Choosing the anchor text for those outbound links also affords the journalist an opportunity to embed some of the keywords that people may be interested in without having to write around the keywords.
The less time the journalist spends focusing on keywords in the copy and title, the faster the article will be written. The editing process can tweak the article for search.
CK: What has been so far the main argument used by news rooms when it comes to do or not do SEO?
M.M.: The compelling corporate demand for more readers is the reason editors bring up the most in my experience. The pressure to increase traffic to online news sites is tremendous. Search engine optimization can certainly enhance the process of growing traffic to a site.
CK: My guess is that journalists are natural born google headline writers. Any idea why some journalists still refuse to use keywords? What changes in a person when it sits in front of a computer?
M.M.: The disconnect seems to happen when an SEO specialist advises writers to use keywords in titles. The search optimization industry has become formulaic and mechanical. It *IS* important and helpful to use keywords in titles, but where do the keywords come from in the first place? How do people decide what to search for before you write the article around the keywords?
A journalist is in a unique position to MAKE the keywords. Too many SEO specialists don’t understand this. There is a middle ground where journalists can write the titles they need and blend in the keywords search engines want, either in the page titles or in the body copy. You CAN outrank a mechnically optimized article if you artfully utilize repetition and emphasis in your article.
CK: If you were an online news organization would you exchange your google news-presence for stronger universal search results presence?
M.M.: NEVER. Just because you’re an online news organization doesn’t mean you cannot publish other kinds of content. If being in universal search results is THAT important and the news stories are not working, then there are pictures, videos, and other options.
CK: Any (small) online newsroom has limited time and resources to write a story about anything that has broken minutes ago. How do you see braking news stories ranking being influenced by the Panda Update?
M.M: I believe that Panda has been good to the majority of vetted news Websites. A site would have to have serious design issues in order to be downgraded by Panda, in which case it wasn’t well optimized to begin with.
CK: Would you agree that this update bestowed much of the responsibility on the site’s layout and users’ interaction opportunities rather than on the length of it’s content?
M.M.: No. The Panda update is built on data models, not on site layout and user interaction. The data models are constructed around a division of sites in a learning set into “high quality” and “low quality” sites. The high quality sites set the standard through signals that are algorithmically measured and aggregated.
CK: What can be told to news papers when they can barely rank first for their own content when an exact match query is performed on Google? Is this an exclusive Google incompetence issue or are other factors on the news papers’ side in this math?
M.M.: Many news organizations have the advantage of being included in Google News search, which uses a different algorithm from Google Web search. That advantage, however, becomes a liability if the news organization focuses too much on one algorithmic process over the other.
There is a common lexicon of terms that everyone uses for many popular topics. Where relevance and timeliness are given about equal weight by the algorithms, the deciding factors may fall to more obscure patterns. For example, a new site that only writes about a topic very rarely may be given less consideration than a news site that writes about a topic very often.
It is important to use the common lexicon in your page copy, more so than to use it in the page title. However, if all you are doing is using keywords in page copy and titles then you are not optimizing for search; you’re just following someone’s formula.
CK: Do you think there will be any kind of a Panda Update for the Google News section?
M.M.: There does not seem to be any real need for such an update. Panda was designed to help clean out the low quality Websites that publishers had produced en masse. Google News sources are manually reviewed for inclusion. Although some spammers do get included in Google News, the relative quality of Google News search results is much, much better than that of Google Web search.
CK: The Google News section in Brazil is rarely used, almost non-used when compared to the universal search interface. This turns Google News in something like “the kids’ room” where the news industry is shown but doesn’t really get a piece of the traffic, while it breaks stories on which many other sites will create opinion driven content and get to the universal serp. Would you agree that news sites have had an decrease in its real attributions leaving the former position of an information holder to a simple breaking news announcer leaving the rest of the content creation to 3rd party sites?
M.M.: Google News search in the US only receives a fraction of the traffic that Google Web search receives. Even in English-language search, the real value for being included in Google News is the reward of being shown as Universal Search injection in the main Web search results.
Where the news organization gets its content is still important. I see few if any aggregators awarded those highly coveted injected slots.
CK: Since Nov 2010, the brazlian news papers association has adopted a nosnippet policy for the Google News section. Now, six months after the experiment, they are adopting a total block of the news-bot (not all of them, but the major ones). In a conversation with the chairman, I heard that Google News has lost relevance. On the other hand, some news organizations which had no or very little traffic generatd by the content agretagot (yes, they call Google News a content agregator – a word that spreads enormous confusion among people who do not understand that there are traffic generating aggregators and frame based ones) are now enjoying a nice ride on the news section. How do you see this? fdo you think that the entire news industry has the strenght to take on Google?
M.M.: No. Google is just a Website and as such only accounts for a small fraction of the Web’s total traffic. To treat Google as the primary source of traffic is a failure in marketing. An established news organization must first and foremost promote itself to its visitors but it should not fall into the hopeless trap of believing that “visitors” belong to any one Website.
News organizations have the power and the opportunity to be their own Googles. They just need to stop focusing on Google and focus on building their resources and visibility. The Web does not start and end with Google.
CK: Have you noticed a relevant usage of the Wonder Wheel in news rooms? Now that it is gone, where you think journos have to look for leads on how to develop that little piece of content which will complete a story? In an interview with some googles at Expon2011 I heard that it was being misused – do you have any information on how the WW was being used in the US?
M.M.: None of the conversations I have had with editors or journalists this year have touched on the subject. So far as I know, none of the news sites I am assisting were even aware of it.
CK: Have you had any experience with the usage of both meta-tags released for news sites (original and syndication-source)? They’re supposed to be used across different domains, yet whenever I see them, they’re listed on under each other, plus the rel=canonical and all three pointing to the same page itself. Some sites of the IDG network is using them like this. What is your perception about the correct way of using these meta-tags and the way they’re actually used. Do you see them being set as they’re supposed to be set (across domains from different news organizations)?
M.M.: It is very difficult to get large organizations to implement meta directives correctly and consistently across a lot of Websites. There are so many people involved in the process of publishing a Website that often uniformity overrules customization. People tend to use the same functions and tools for new meta tags as have been used for older meta tags.
Still, at some point resources may be allocated to improve the publishing software so that the tags can be implemented correctly. Getting them onto the page is the first step. No one will care about their proper use if they are not being used at all.
CK: Any other comments you might want to add to this subject.
M.M.: I think search engine optimization is misused by many news organizations. They are becoming content farms, chasing keywords rather than readers. Although the keywords are important they should not, in my opinion, be driving the editorial calendar.
For my own Websites I have often written articles around keywords only to find that they do not perform as well as articles that were written simply to make a point.