The Role of SEO in News

In today's newsletter I want to talk about the main areas of focus for SEO in publishing, and how organisations can improve their internal SEO functions.

This will be a bit of a philosophical piece, where I look at the overarching functions of SEO in the context of news, and how these functions could relate to actual SEO roles in newsrooms and the broader organisation.

Recently I’ve been involved in several projects that went beyond the day-to-day execution of SEO. These projects were focused on the overall function of SEO in a content publishing organisation, and how this function can be reflected in roles and responsibilities for employees.

The different challenges each project faced, with different historic practices and ‘boots on the ground’ execution of SEO, has broadened my perspective and taught me a few important lessons. I hope to share some of those lessons with you today.

While I’ll be borrowing some concepts and terminology from various project management approaches I’ve been exposed to over the years, I am most definitely not a project manager. All of what follows is distilled through my own limited lens of experience and perspective.

The Basic Cycle of SEO

At its core, the cycle of SEO is more or less the same as many other business processes. You start with a plan, you execute that plan, and then you learn what worked and what didn’t and adjust accordingly.

1. SEO Planning

Drafting a plan for SEO is very much about having a long-term view. Contrary to many other digital channels that can have a very direct connection between your activity and the traffic it may generate, SEO is (or should be) mostly concerned with building long-term value and authority.

1.1 People, Words, Search

Planning for SEO, as for any audience growth channel, means understanding your market and audience first and foremost. It’s all about people typing words into search boxes (with some exceptions). Let’s look at that sentence in a bit more detail:

People typing words into search

There are three nouns in that sentence, and each warrants a proper examination.

People are your audience. This is your target market. Whether you’re an ecommerce site, a financial consultant, or a news publisher, it’s all about getting your content in front of the right people.

Some news publishers may think their audience is ‘everyone’, and those publishers would be wrong. There isn’t a single publisher that can reach everyone, and generalised buckets like ‘all people living in the UK’ isn’t a sufficiently narrow demographic either (sorry BBC!).

Whether a publisher accepts it or not, their content caters to a specific audience that has certain characteristics. It’s important to understand those characteristics, so that you’re not trying to write for an audience that your news site will never be able to effectively reach.

A word of caution here: deep-dives into demographics and personas can be useful for understanding your audience, but there’s a risk of diving too deep. The more granular your audience persona, the more people it excludes.

A broad, general understanding of your audience is valuable. A detailed, narrow view on your audience risks limiting your potential and can even be actively harmful to your site’s long-term prospects by attaching you to a target audience that doesn’t grow.

Words are the search terms that your audience may type into Google. The aim of your SEO efforts is to make your content surface in Google’s results for those words.

When identifying which words your audience may type into Google, there are some common pitfalls to avoid. Often companies will use industry-specific lingo in their content. For niche industries this is often perfectly fine, as that lingo is only used by exactly the audience you want to target.

But if you intend to cast a broader net and bring more people into your industry, then avoiding lingo is important. You’ll need to write for people who don’t understand the industry, which means using language that explains things without resorting to industry-specific terminology.

Fortunately this is something journalists tend to do regularly, although there’s a risk of oversimplifying things and losing accuracy for the sake of comprehension. I’ve read enough articles about the search industry written by journalists with limited understanding of how Google works to have used up a lifetime’s worth of cringe.

It’s valuable to understand that Google has made strong progress in moving away from simply matching keywords to searches, towards a deeper understanding of things based on context and related concepts. This is called the ‘knowledge graph’.

One example I like to use when explaining the knowledge graph is that what Google sees the word ‘jaguar’, it can’t be sure whether it refers to the panther or the car brand. But when it sees other words like ‘mpg’ and ‘2 litre diesel’ in the same piece of content, Google can be pretty sure the content is discussing the car brand and not the South American jungle roamer.

Optimising for Google’s knowledge graph is a simple matter of writing strong content that includes a topic’s related concepts. In an article about a football club, for example, you’ll also want to mention some of their key players, their home ground stadium, recent match results, and so on, so Google can form a complete picture of the article’s topical focus.

Search is understanding how Google works. I don’t think there’s a single person anymore who truly understands all of Google’s intricacies; the search engine is too vast and complex for that. Still, it’s quite feasible - and necessary - to have a basic grasp of Google’s core systems to inform your approach to SEO.

In fact, a good chunk of SEO practitioners’ daily effort is focused on understanding Google; how it works and where it’s headed.

For publishers, some specific areas of Google search are more important than others. For example, the local maps box on Google SERPs is next to meaningless for publishers, and the Top Stories carousel is absolutely crucial. Not many general SEOs understand how articles are surfaced in Top Stories, so this is where specialised knowledge is important.

Just like a local ecommerce business would want to hire an SEO that has relevant ecommerce experience, publishers should try to recruit SEOs that have experience in publishing. The news industry is sufficiently different, with its own unique SEO challenges, that a general SEO practitioner will be at a disadvantage.

In recent years Google has evolved its approach to news quite drastically. For publishers to draft a strategy that effectively targets news in Google, the SEO needs to have a good grasp of the relationship between news and Google and the direction Google is headed with regards to showing news stories in its results.

1.2 Topical Authority

Another key aspect of the forward-looking phase of SEO is deciding what your news site’s topical focus should be.

Up until a few years ago, general news publishers could rank for pretty much any topic under the sun. The sheer authority their sites had built up over the years allowed them to rank near the top of Google results for almost any conceivable search term, as long as they had some content for it.

If a publisher had a lot of authority from their strong reporting on political news, that authority would be shared with all other sections of the website - even those where the publisher didn’t have strong journalism, such as celebrity news or sports.

That all changed in 2018, when Google started putting emphasis on a website’s topical authority. Now a publisher with strong authority in politics would still rank high for political news, but not for topics where they didn’t have similar levels of authority. No longer would their occasional celebrity news be able to achieve good rankings off the back of the publisher’s political news authority. Instead, the top spots for celebrity news stories would go to publishers that specialise in that kind of news.

This narrowing of space afforded to publishers in Google has been a consistent trend, beginning with their algorithm update in March 2018 (which I’ve started calling their ‘stay in your lane’ update).

Niche publishers find it easier to rank in Top Stories with their articles, exactly because they are niche and their topical focus is very limited. General publishers, on the other hand, have found themselves boxed in, their Google visibility limited to certain topical areas that the search engine deems them sufficiently authoritative for.

Needless to say, not all publishers agree with Google’s assessment of what their topical authority actually is.

This means publishers need to think hard about what their topical focus is - i.e. what type of news stories you’ll be writing about. For most publishers, it’s not feasible to write about everything and get decent search traffic to all your stories. You’ll need to pick your battlegrounds, and go all-in on several topics where you think you can produce sufficient unique stories.

Looking at your site’s current and historic strengths and weaknesses is a good start. And if you’re not happy to accept Google’s evaluation of your topical authority, know that it’s a fluid picture and publishers can change how Google perceives them over time.

It takes a lot of effort and patience, but a political news publisher can become a celebrity news publisher as well. All you need is a lot of strong journalism on celebrity news over many months - even years - and Google will, eventually, change its view and might allow you to escape your political news box.

2. SEO Execution

Whereas publishers have a lot in common with ‘general’ SEO in the planning and analysis phases, in execution there’s a marked difference for news.

Most organisations that do SEO look to achieve improved rankings and traffic over the course of months and even years.

Even websites with huge content churn, like classifieds sites, are more focused on building SEO value over weeks and months. An individual classified listing may have a relatively short lifecycle (30 days for a job listing, for example), the overarching goal for SEO isn’t necessarily to get each individual classified listed in Google but to drive visibility and traffic to classified categories (i.e. 'IT jobs’ or ‘journalism jobs’).

For news, this is rather different.

Yes, a good chunk of SEO effort for news publishers should be aimed at improving long term topical authority and expertise, but the day-to-day drivers of traffic to a news site are its articles.

And a news article’s lifecycle in Google is drastically different from content published anywhere else.

2.1 General SEO

For a new piece of content published on a non-news site, the organic traffic graph can look something like this:

The page will not start driving significant numbers of visitors to the site until it starts to accumulate a certain amount of trust and authority in Google’s eyes. This can take months or even years to accomplish.

For general SEO content, it’s common to tweak and improve the optimisation of the content after it’s been published. You can try to improve the title tag to see if that yields a higher ranking in Google’s results, play around with the images and structure to improve time-on-page, and experiment with calls to action to elicit higher conversion rates.

2.2 News SEO

For news articles, the traffic graph looks very different. This is because news articles aren’t really targeting regular Google search results - the ‘10 blue links’ - but are focused on achieving visibility in the Top Stories carousel on Google results.

The lifespan of articles in Top Stories is usually less than 48 hours. That means a news article has a very limited scope for achieving its traffic potential.

For most news articles, a typical Google traffic graph will look a bit like this:

Once an article drops out of Top Stories, its traffic potential falls to near-zero and needs to be built up over time.

It’s common to see articles achieve some sort of traffic volume from regular Google search after a while, but this doesn’t happen for every article. It’s usually a small selection of news articles that drive consistent traffic numbers to a publisher’s from regular Google search.

This vastly different potential for traffic means that publishers have to approach the optimisation of their articles differently too.

For news content, an article needs to be as close to perfectly optimised as possible when it’s published. Once a news article is published, Google usually crawls and indexes it within seconds. That initial indexing of the article determines its visibility in Top Stories to a very large degree. Get it wrong, and the article may not ever show up in Top Stories, and won’t achieve decent traffic numbers from Google.

It used to be a good tactic to tweak an article several times in that 48-hour Top Stories window to see if you could boost its visibility in Top Stories carousels. It was such a common tactic that I believe Google has acted against it. Nowadays, I often don’t see big payoffs from making changes to an article after it’s been published.

I believe this is at least partially because Google doesn’t re-indexes articles as frequently as it used to. With the exception of live articles that use LiveBlogPosting structured data, I think Google will only re-index an already indexed article when it sees significant changes in the content or is manually triggered to do so (with Inspect URL in Search Console or using the Live Indexing API).

So getting an article’s SEO right the first time is much more important to news publishers than for any other type of business. Mess it up, and the traffic an article gets could be a fraction of what it potentially could have achieved - with very little opportunity to fix those mistakes and claim that traffic after the fact.

As a result, most publishers put a lot of emphasis on this execution phase of SEO - perhaps to the detriment of the other two phases. More on that later.

3. SEO Analysis

The last piece of the puzzle is the analysis phase, where we review what the results of our SEO efforts were. Most importantly, we’re hoping to learn lessons about what works and what doesn’t, so that we can do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.

Most organisations will have some form of monthly reporting in place, where a site’s traffic numbers from various sources are shown. Good reporting looks beyond the numbers and tries to find the ‘why’ behind them - why did this article do so well? Why did that one fail?

Competitive analysis should be part of this. It’s hard to judge an article’s SEO performance in isolation. Depending on the type of Top Stories box, the number of individual articles shown there will vary from just one to ten or more. If your article wasn’t among those shown in Top Stories, it’s very useful to know which ones were shown so you can compare their optimisation to your own.

But monthly reports, while useful for most organisations that deal with slow-moving SEO, are only part of the picture for publishers.

3.1 Real-Time Reporting

Due to the real-time nature of news in Google results, SEOs and editors need to be able to analyse their content’s performance in Google as close to live as possible.

This is where specialised Google News tracking tools like NewzDash and Trisolute come in handy. They can provide detailed overviews of a news site’s performance in Top Stories and Google News in near real-time, empowering a publisher to act quickly.

For example, if a topic starts to trend in Google News and rival publishers have articles ranking for that topic, it’s useful to get that information into the newsroom so that the editors can decide whether they want to publish an article on that topic too.

And I’m a big fan of feeding live performance data to individual journalists where possible, so that they can see for themselves how well their articles are doing. Some publishers have built their own analytics platforms for that, like The Guardian’s Ophan.

And any publisher can get a basic real-time analytics dashboard up and running for free with Google’s Real-Time Content Insights tool (if you’re using Google Analytics).

It’s that level of real-time reporting on SEO performance that sets publishers apart from other types of websites. For most organisations, tracking content performance in real-time is not a good use of resources. For publishers, it’s a must-have.

3.2 Technical SEO

Some areas of analysis start to cross over into the planning phase. One of these aspects is technical SEO.

It’s useful to do periodic tech site audits to ensure your website doesn’t accumulate any technical debt that could impact on how efficiently Google can crawl and index your articles.

This overlaps with the planning phase of SEO, as Google has gotten into the habit of pre-announcing major algo changes. In years past we’ve had plenty of advance notice for things like HTTPS, mobile-first indexing, and now the upcoming Page Experience update where a webpage’s Core Web Vitals scores will form part of the ranking factor.

Those types of changes in how Google indexes and ranks webpages means tech and product teams need to be kept in the loop, and may require specific projects to be launched to address the website’s shortcomings.

And there will always be unannounced changes in Google’s crawling & indexing systems, as well as new features that may be rolled out with limited to no warning, that may warrant changes to a publishing site’s technical foundation.

3.3 Standards and Training

As with technical SEO, a publisher’s efforts on setting standards for their editorial team and providing training for editorial and technical staff crosses over between the analysis and planning phases.

Lessons learned from the analysis phase need to be shared among relevant staff and turned into improved daily efforts. Regular training sessions for journalists and developers will keep their SEO skills sharp, ensuring the publisher’s articles are always as close to maximally optimised for Google’s ever-changing algorithms.

SEO Roles and Responsibilities

Now that I’ve (briefly) covered the three main focus areas of SEO in publishing, we can talk about how that relates to actual SEO roles and responsibilities in a news organisation.

Note that what follows is a limited and summarised overview of my own perspective on this. Every publisher I’ve worked with has a different approach to SEO with different roles and responsibilities. There is no single perfect way of doing this. The below is just my own view on what I think is a good approach that ensures most, if not all, of SEO’s remit is covered in one way or another.

Simply put, each of the three phases of SEO has a role associated with it:

The planning phase is the purview of an SEO strategist. In most organisations, this is the remit of the head of SEO, often in collaboration with the person responsible for overall audience growth - an SEO strategy needs to be aligned with all the other audience growth channels, after all.

The day to day graft of optimising articles is the job of SEO editors. Sometimes this is a separate FTE (or several FTEs), though I’ve also seen this role as part of the scope of regular editors and even journalists that perform some basic optimisation on articles before they click ‘Publish’.

The analysis aspect of SEO should be handled by an SEO analyst. This role can be part of existing Business Intelligence roles, or exist as a separate role under the head of SEO.

Depending on the scale of the publisher’s operation, other specialised roles that could be required are technical SEO and SEO training.

For publishers that have dozens of websites to manage, having in-house dedicated technical SEOs makes sense. For publishers with a smaller scope, it’s smarter to employ external consultants and agencies for periodic technical SEO audits.

It’s very rare to find a publisher with a dedicated internal SEO trainer, and I consider that a bit of a missed opportunity. Even if there isn’t enough scope for a full-time trainer on your payroll, it may be worth having an SEO editor take ownership of internal training to ensure all people that have the ‘Publish’ capability know how to optimise articles before they go live.

Common Staffing Issues

The most common issue I see among publishers is that there is so much emphasis on the SEO editors role, that the other two aspects of SEO are neglected.

The importance of claiming that Top Stories box with the first version of an article that Google indexes means that SEO editors are seen as an absolute crucial piece of the SEO puzzle.

And yes, this is correct. An SEO editor’s role is of vital importance for the success of a publisher in Google.

But the other two areas of planning and analysis are just as important. The difference being, the work of SEO editors is immediately visible, whereas the work of SEO strategists and analysts takes much longer to reap rewards.

The immediate results driven by SEO editors has an equivalent in broader search marketing, namely PPC advertising. For most non-news websites, SEO efforts can take months or years to drive significant growth, whereas PPC advertising sends immediate surges of traffic to a website. That makes PPC much more effective at attracting budget, despite only accounting for a fraction of potential traffic.

It’s why I call PPC the ‘crack cocaine’ of digital marketing - you get an immediate hit, and as long as you keep pumping money into PPC that high will continue.

SEO, on the other hand, is the ‘physical exercise’ of digital marketing - a lot of sweat over a long period of time, and the results won’t materialise until way down the line. But those results are much healthier for the business, and reap significantly greater rewards.

For publishers, the SEO editors are the crack cocaine: they have such a disproportionate impact on immediate traffic that the other aspects of SEO are incorrectly perceived as less valuable and requiring less emphasis.

This is a potentially catastrophic error to make.

Without a well-founded and reasoned SEO strategy, a publisher risks becoming obsolete. No amount of daily SEO effort is going to help if you’re focusing on the wrong topical areas, or your content is not aligned with what Google wants to rank in its Top Stories boxes. It’s the job of an SEO strategist to keep the publisher on track and developing in a direction that agrees with Google’s ever-evolving algorithms.

By the same token, if there is no voice for an SEO analyst to show what’s working and what’s not, there is a strong chance the publisher is just treading water and not really growing. If you cannot learn from your mistakes, you’re bound to repeat them over and over.

The publishers that are consistently successful in Google are those that have found a good balance between the three areas of SEO. They start with a strong strategy that drives the daily work done by their SEO editors, and they have the right reporting and analysis in place to enable continuous learning and improvement, refining their strategy as the Google News landscape evolves.

As with most things in life, finding that balance is difficult but worthwhile.

Miscellanea

Here are some recent articles and resources that are worth a read:

That’s it for this edition of SEO for Google News. Please share this newsletter with anyone you think may find it useful, and as always thanks for reading.