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SEO and its impact on journalism

SEOBlog.KMMThe earliest practice of search engine optimization (SEO) can be traced back to the mid-1990s when all webmasters had to do was submit a page’s URL to a search engine and let the search engine do the rest.

SEO practices have changed a bit since then. Today, news organizations across the Web have refined the practice of inserting keywords into headlines and paragraphs in order to get their articles listed higher in search engine findings. As a result, the way news is crafted on the Web has changed.

No longer are headlines and lead paragraphs crafted to merely hook the reader, noted Jen Watkins, publisher of the Washington, Utah-based St. George News, an online-only newspaper. Now it’s about grabbing the reader’s attention and using the right keywords to get Google to notice you. “Did you get the keywords in the first sentence? If you are writing a fitness article, did you ensure you used other keywords Google would expect to see in the body, such as workout, metabolism, etc.?” she said in an email interview.

SEO has even impacted the way Watkins reviews press releases. The decision to reprint a press release is that much harder if the publisher is hoping to get page views on it. In print journalism, Watkins noted, an editor could easily change the lead of a press release so the same article didn’t appear in the competition’s paper. Now she has to decide whether to change the entire release so it’s not duplicated elsewhere on the Web. “Using an article that was already placed online may not hurt you, but it will definitely not help you. So now you are not just determining whether the release is relevant, or will it take too long to check for errors and grammar, but is it worth rewriting for SEO purposes and do you have that kind of time? Since you don’t have a hole to fill like in print editions, you are more concerned about relevancy,” she said.

Despite some of the hassles associated with SEO, the St. George News seems to have benefitted from the practice. Last month, the online newspaper had 85,000 readers – its highest so far. One-third of the Web traffic came from returning traffic, another third came from Facebook, and the final third came from Google and Google News search results. Indeed, Watkins said she uses SEO for every single story on the site.

Although content farms like Demand Media have gotten a bad rap for creating content around popular searches, reputable news organizations occasionally deal in this practice as well. In a recent interview with SparkSheet.com, Slate editor David Plotz noted that if there’s a story they want to do, they do it. “But when we’ve done it, we look to figure out what people are searching around this topic, what they are going to be searching for, and how we can ensure our menu lines and the various things that search engines pay attention to reflect how readers are actually searching,” he told SparkSheet.com. And if staff come across a popular topic people are searching on the Web and one of Slate’s writers has a good angle on it, they will write a story based on that search.

Not all publishers have embraced the SEO system, however. “I think the effort to manually think in an SEO way would outweigh the possible benefits and bog you down,” said Ann Arbor Chronicle editor Dave Askins, noting that headlines in media have become long, complete sentences in a “transparent attempt to make sure as many keywords are crammed into the headline as possible.” That’s not to say the Chronicle doesn’t utilize some SEO techniques; they aren’t trying to be uncooperative with SEO, but it’s more internal, he noted. When researching, the reporters need to be able to find old articles on a given topic so he said the Chronicle includes some basic elements to SEO.

However, instead of headlines heavy with keywords, Askins said the Chronicle pretty much sticks to keeping headlines “old school.” Like a typical newspaper headline, it won’t drop onto the next line and will fit the space.

Sometimes, the Chronicle intentionally tries not to attract traffic to the part of the site where they curate and link to other publications. The reason for this is so they don’t outrank the original article’s site in search results. “We’re not trying to exploit other people’s original reporting and content,” he said. Meanwhile, they will continue to embrace the old school headline. “To establish a connection to original print-based journalism even though we’re online only,” he said.

As long as we have print, traditional headlines and leads will most likely continue to exist. But despite the misgivings of some who hold onto traditional values or believe the practice may impact journalism negatively, SEO has become a dominant tool for online publishers to attract more readers. Take the formerly print Christian Science Monitor for example. According to a recent report from the Nieman Journalism Lab, the online-only publication was able to increase page views from 3 million per month to 25 million by using SEO as one of its strategies. “When someone wants to hear about a breaking story, they no longer wait for the paper the next day. They jump online to find the newest headlines,” said Watkins. “But Google doesn’t show a story based on the latest headlines. SEO pushes you ahead of your competition when you want someone to read your publication’s version instead.”

–Katrina M. Mendolera

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