So what do we mean when we say 'Google News'?

You may be surprised to learn where most of the Google traffic to publishers actually comes from.

The Very First ‘SEO for Google News’ Newsletter!

21 hours ago I announced on Twitter and LinkedIn that I’d be trying an experiment: an irregular email newsletter specifically for those interested in optimising for Google News.

I’d hoped for a few dozen signups perhaps, and aimed to grow that to 100+ in the next few months.

We’re now about 21 hours after I announced I’d be trying out this newsletter thing, and we’re well over 300 subscribers. That’s without a single newsletter sent - in fact, you’re reading the very first edition.

I’m a bit overwhelmed by the enthusiasm for this. Yet, more than that, I’m very excited. There’s obviously a great deal of interest in learning about SEO for news publishers, and I feel I have a lot I can share.

I appreciate all of you who signed up blindly for this, without any evidence that it would be worthwhile. I’ll try my best to earn your trust, and to make this newsletter a somewhat regular presence in your inboxes full of worthwhile insights, tips, and my own experiences working with news publishers.

I have a range of topics in mind that I hope to cover over the coming weeks and months, and I’d love your feedback on which ones I should cover first - and other topics you want to suggest.

So far, my topic ideas are:

  • Integrating SEO into newsroom workflows

  • Technical optimisations for news articles

  • Best practices for syndicated content

  • SEO approaches for multi-site publishers

  • Getting hastily published articles quickly de-indexed from Google

  • Google AMP and Page Experience and what it means for news

Let me know what you think - you can always email me directly on [email protected] or drop a comment underneath this newsletter on the site.

For my very first topic, I want to talk a bit about the key essence of Google News. It’s a term that is widely used, but different people have different ideas about what it actually is. So let’s talk about that.

What is Google News?

When you hear the term ‘Google News’, I suspect most people will think of the news.google.com vertical. This is the main Google News landing page and what Google themselves call ‘Google News’.

This news vertical has been around since 2002 and is a pretty popular starting page for many readers. Yet, when it comes to sending traffic to news publishers, this Google News vertical represents only a fraction.

According to data from content analysis platform Parse.ly, this Google News vertical accounts for only about 3.7% of traffic to publishers - whereas traffic classified as ‘Google search’ accounts for over 50%:

So where on Google does all this traffic to publishers actually come from? Is it perhaps the ‘News’ tab at the top of a Google result?

Alas, that’s not it either. Recently Google started reporting in Search Console on how a website fares in that News tab, and it’s not a particularly high-flying traffic source either. When we compare the ‘News’ tab to regular ‘Web’ search results in Google Search Console, it accounts for only a small chunk of total Google traffic.

So if neither the news.google.com vertical nor the News tab on regular Google results are particularly valuable to publishers, where does all that Google traffic actually come from? And why do we keep referring to Google News as such a crucial traffic source for news sites?

To understand that, we need to dig a bit deeper - specifically, we need to look at regular Google search results and what’s happening there.

Top Stories

In the early days of Google, the search engine showed just a list of links in response to any query. You’d type something in to Google, and you’d get ten blue links pointing to websites that Google felt were best suited to answer your question.

Those days of ‘ten blue links’ are long gone. Nowadays a typical Google search result has a load of enhancements that give a much richer experience. And it’s one of these enhancements in particular that’s crucial for news publishers:

I’m of course referring to the Top Stories carousel (also called the ‘news box’), high up on the Google results page. It’s a very common feature on Google results; the folks at Searchmetrics estimate that between 9% (on mobile) and 11% (on desktop) of all Google results pages will feature a Top Stories or other newsbox element.

Considering that Google handles over 2 trillion searches a year, that’s an awful lot of Top Stories boxes. And when someone clicks on an article there, it’s registered as a ‘Google organic’ visit in the publisher’s analytics. That’s where that 50%+ of ‘Google Search’ traffic comes from that the Parse.ly graph shows.

But Google representatives have said, on multiple occasions, that this Top Stories carousel is a ‘search feature’ and not a ‘Google News’ feature. That means that, from what we understand, the Top Stories box is generated by Google’s search algorithms and is independent of Google News.

The thing is, I don’t believe that’s entirely accurate.

If we look at what Google shows in those Top Stories boxes, we see that they’re almost always dominated by news publishers that also have a presence on Google News.

A study done by NewsDashboard back in December 2017 showed that between 97% (on mobile) and 99% (on desktop) of articles shown in a news box on Google results came from publishers that are also included in the news.google.com vertical.

So we can safely say that to get into Top Stories, a website also needs to be in Google News.

And optimising your visibility in Top Stories is, in many ways, equivalent to optimising for Google News. It requires a lot of the same technical elements to be in place (such as NewsArticle structured data and proper features images), and it requires Google to understand that a publisher has an editorial expertise in the topic being searched for.

Getting into Google News

Now, getting into Google News used to be a manual application process, where a website could apply to be included. It was fairly straightforward and if a site was proper news-y that application process tended to go pretty smoothly.

In fact, I did a Moz Whiteboard Friday video on exactly this topic:

This all changed in October 2019, when Google implemented an ‘algorithmic inclusion process’ as part of their new ‘AI-powered’ Google News. As per their ‘Appear in Google News’ support documentation:

I can’t help but roll my eyes at this. It’s such obvious corporate double-speak as to be next to meaningless. For me, it reads like a ‘get out of jail card’ for Google, where they can blame the surfacing of any troublesome articles in Top Stories and/or Google News as an ‘algorithmic issue’ without any human culpability.

That excuse only works if algorithms appear out of thin air and are entirely and flawlessly neutral. But they’re not - algorithms are the products of people, who have biases and preferences which will inevitably be reflected in those algorithms.

It’s something I wrote about a while back. Summarised, algorithms can’t be neutral because the people who code them aren’t.

More importantly, this ‘algorithmic inclusion’ process doesn’t actually seem to work. I have heard from literally dozens of new publishers that are not getting any traction in Google News (and, by extension, Top Stories) despite publishing quality news content on a daily basis.

So far I have yet to learn of a single newly launched publisher that has successfully managed to get in to Google News and stay there.

There is no recourse here, no form to submit to request a review for inclusion in Google News, no appeal to authority, nothing. The algorithm gives no clue about what it looks for in a news publishing site, and what may disqualify a site from inclusion.

So at the moment we’re a bit lost.

If your site was already in Google News prior to the algorithmic switch, you should count your blessings and hope it stays there. Because once you’re out, getting back in to Google News seems - at the moment at least - a hopeless cause.

Publisher Centre

At the same time Google went algorithmic with its inclusion process, it also launched a new Publisher Centre for news websites. The exact role of the Publisher Centre in the Google News ecosystem is a bit vague. It seems mostly aimed at giving you control about your visual appearance and monetisation opportunities.

Getting your website configured in the Publisher Centre does not appear to affect your inclusion (or lack thereof) in Google News. It seems to mostly apply to a website’s listings in Google’s news-app on smartphones, and has no bearing (as far as we know) on a website’s presence in Google’s web-based news elements.

And you can verify any website in the Publisher Centre, whether it’s a news site or a regular blog or something else entirely.

So that doesn’t help much either.

If and when we learn more about how to get newly launched or ejected publishers into Google News, I’ll be sharing that here in this newsletter. For now, nobody seems to know.

Wrapping up

That’s it for the first edition of SEO for Google News. It’s basic stuff so far, aimed to lay the foundation for future newsletters where I’ll talk about more advanced topics.

I want this to be as useful and valuable as I can make it, so please let me know what you think and how I could improve. You can email me directly at [email protected] or leave a comment under the newsletter here.

Thanks for subscribing, I appreciate you sharing your besieged attention spans with me! If you think others could benefit from this content, please do forward this on.

Cheers,
Barry Adams