The State of Search for News

uk-newspaper-traffic-sourcesMost SEOs are focused primarily on organic search results in Google’s ‘standard’ web search engine. However websites that specialise in providing news have a different Google in mind when it comes to optimisation: Google News.

Biggest Single Source of Traffic

According to data from the Newspaper Marketing Agency the biggest source of traffic for UK newspaper sites is Google, generating over 45% of all visits. This data does not distinguish between the various Google search products, but both Hitwise and my own experiences with the Belfast Telegraph website indicate that the vast bulk of that traffic originates from Google News.

So those responsible for generating traffic for news sites do well to pay attention to Google News. As a search engine it uses vastly different ranking factors than Google’s web search engine, as I’ve outlined in a recent blog post for Search Engine People: SEO for Google News.

Journalism and SEO

As any SEO worth his/her salt knows, a successful SEO project succeeds or fails with content. News sites are pure content generators, so you’d think this would be a SEOs wet dream. And to an extent, it is – if (and this is a big if) the content generators (i.e. the journalists and editors) understand the importance of SEO and integrate best practices in their way of working.

However many journalists see SEO as a ‘polluter’ of their craft, the whims of search engines interfering with their noble duty as the guardians of democracy and free speech.

This is, of course, bollocks. Journalists have always ‘optimised’ their texts for maximum exposure, from eye-catching headlines to sexy photos, from suggestive phrasings to full-out fabrications (which are easily weaselled out of by phrasing it as a question – “Did Barry Adams beat up the Pope?”).

SEO is just a slightly different breed of optimisation than journalists are used to. Instead of following the best practices for optimisation in print (or as it is known in some newspaper circles: “tits, cancer, and Lady Di”) now journalists have to keep an eye on trending keywords and hot topics on social media sites.

Does It Work?

So what does this sort of SEO for journalism yield? Well I’m fortunate enough to work with an editor that’s not afraid to experiment a little. A few months ago we used one of my own columns as a live exercise to see if we could get it to rank consistently in Google News for a variety of keywords simultaneously.

In the course of a week my column, originally titled ‘The Changing Face of SEO’, underwent no less than five headline changes, each one adding a new popular search term, until the final result was ‘Angelina Jolie, Britney and Beyonce nude, dirty tricks and the changing face of SEO‘.

Yes, I know, not very subtle. But as a test case it was brilliantly illuminating. After every headline change – and subsequently a URL change on the website – the article was re-indexed and published on Google News as an entirely new article. Additionally the article ranked in regular web SERPs as part of Universal Search results for a variety of keywords.

This was not a short-lived effect. After the initial one-day burst you can expect from the highly volatile Google News rankings, the article has continued to generate traffic from regular Google search for a wide range of keywords, specifically those involving the word ‘nude’ in combination with one of the celebrities mentioned in the final headline.

We learned a lot from this simple test case. Some of those lessons were:

  • It’s fairly easy to break in to the regular SERPs with a keyword-rich story in Google News
  • For the long term, keyword-rich headlines result in solid traffic from regular SERPs
  • Google News has a poor duplicate content filter, as changing an article’s headline and URL means it will be seen as a wholly new article (with all the resulting benefits)

Search engine traffic to the test article

Paywalls

The smart news sites embrace SEO and integrate it in to their way of working. However not all news agencies are happy with the massive amounts of traffic Google sends their way. Quite the contrary, some media moguls are actively hostile towards Google.

There’s no denying that the news industry is in a state of crisis, with revenues dropping consistently without a reliable alternative revenue stream in sight. Paywalls are a solution that is currently at the centre of attention, and the Times has just begun its own paywall ‘experiment’ (though they would call it a ‘business model’) whose success or failure will probably dictate the course of the UK newspaper industry for the foreseeable future.

Yet what the Times seems to have failed to realise is that the only successful newspaper online paywalls have been those that provide their subscribers with two things:

  1. Specialised and time-sensitive content that can’t (easily) be gotten elsewhere
  2. Content that is vital for professionals, and thus can be declared as a business expense

The Times offers neither of these, so it will remain to be seen whether their anti-Google paywall approach is successful. Early indicators aren’t encouraging.

Pageviews are King

So with paywalls as a no-go for now, pageviews are still the online news industry’s primary metrics for success. Pageviews translate in to ad impressions, and those in turn translate in to cold, hard cash.

And with Google as the biggest driver of pageviews to news sites, you’d have to be a particularly thick journalist to ignore all that SEO mumbo jumbo. No SEO means fewer pageviews, and that in turn means less revenue. But then I’m an SEO so my view may be more than a little biased.

Fortunately some journalists understand SEO all too well.

About Barry Adams

Barry Adams is one of the chief editors of State of Digital and is an award-winning SEO consultant delivering specialised technical SEO services to clients worldwide.