Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Six things every journalist should know about SEO

Today we've got a guest post from Rob Maurin of Toronto SEO Workshop. Enjoy!

Search engine optimization (SEO) sounds about as sexy as pocket protectors and Pentium chips. That’s unfortunate, because good SEO can be a game changer, for independent bloggers as well as newsroom editors, freelance writers and anyone who handles the words that end up on the screen.

SEO is the craft of playing Google’s game – writing your web copy in such a way that Google will like your story better, and place it higher on a search result page, than that of your competition.

Old-school editors and writers can get a little defensive about SEO. They feel it infringes on their own wordsmithery, or it strikes them as marketing or tech (i.e., “not my job”). But while they’re arguing, someone else’s web page is getting pageviews (and, yes, ad impressions), and that person is securing a career in the new media landscape.

The best news in all of this is that the fundamentals of SEO – and particularly the elements that lie within the control of an online editor or writer – can be easily taught, and using them doesn’t mean a compromise of your editing or writing. Here are 6 practical SEO lessons for writers and editors.

1. Keywords over cleverness
Nine times out of 10, writers and editors would rather be clever and creative than clear. Unfortunately, Google (though a brilliant piece of machinery) isn’t all that good at wordplay. Even common headlines that work well on magazine covers, like “10 ways to blast belly fat,” are lousy SEO headlines, because nobody goes to Google on the first day of their weight-loss resolution and punches the words “blast belly fat” into the search bar. Quite obviously, most people use keywords (i.e., search terms) like “weight loss tips,” “diet plans” or “lose weight.”

Your best ally in figuring out what terms to use in your writing is the Google Adwords Keyword Tool. For a screencast demo on how to use the Keyword tool, check out TorontoSEOworkshop.com, or visit our YouTube channel at youtube.com/TorontoSEOworkshop.

The Keyword Tool was built to help advertisers create better ads, but it also helps editors and writers discover what words real people around the world use when searching for certain kinds of stories online.

A quick look on the keyword tool shows that your pool of potential monthly readers is 5 million if you use the words “lose weight.” You can also see that it you choose “weight loss” instead, your pool grows to 16 million, and “diet” puts you in the running for 37 million searches. All else being equal, I’d rather get a slice of the “diet” group than the “lose weight” group, so I can now write my headlines and web copy accordingly.

You can use these heavy-hitting keywords in conjunction with your clever titles too. Just change “10 ways to blast belly fat” to “Diet Tips: 10 ways to blast belly fat” or something like that.

2. Know where to use keywords
It’s self-evident, but the best places to use keywords are in all the traditional display copy spots: headlines, subheads, captions – any place where you would normally have your print typeface differ from your body copy typeface. In our weight-loss example, weave the word “diet” into as many as those spots as you can, without it becoming obnoxious to your human reader. You’ll be giving Google clear signals that your story is a good one to serve when those 37 million people a month search for something with the word “diet.”

3. Links matter
Google cares a lot about the number of links around the web that point back to your website. (In SEO terms, those are called “inbound links.”) All else being equal, Google will give preference to a site with lots of inbound links over one with fewer links, with the pretty convincing rationale that lots of links means lots of people are recommending the story or the site. This is as good a reason as any to get on social media like Facebook and Twitter: when you spread your story, you’re doing more than encouraging readers to click today. You’re planting the seeds for inbound links that will boost your Google rankings.

4. Good stories get links
The same things that made stories great a decade or two ago are the  things that make people want to link to you now. Be interesting. Be scandalous. Be creative or funny. Be an expert, a news-breaker, an insider, a pest… All the same traits that have defined great writers and editors will make for the best stories, and the best stories get more links and better Google ranking. In this way, Google is very fair.

5. Good SEO is good for people
In a print world, art directors and editors work hard on packages that hang together as a whole, so even a story with an unclear headline will make sense to the reader who can pick up on visual clues like strategically positioned images. But when that story goes up online, the cleverness usually becomes a liability. Stripped of context, it’s just not as clear as it could be.  On top of that, the rumours are true: readers online don’t browse around the same way they do in print. It’s a results-oriented medium, and directness is a virtue.

These points go hand in hand with SEO: by making your display copy clear and direct, you overcome problems with clarity, you give the readers direct information to pull them into the story, and you play nice with Google. Win-win-win.

6. Throw SEO away in favour of the human user
This much has always been true in media and it continues to be true now: you can’t sell out your readers. Don’t cheat them for an advertising buck, and don’t cheat them for an extra bit of SEO traffic. For success in the long run, you need to make sure your user experience is a good one. Squeeze as much good SEO in as you can, but if SEO is truly at irreconcilable odds with the user experience, ditch the SEO.

Rob Maurin spent 15 years in magazine editorial before making the switch to online content and strategy. He’s currently running the Toronto SEO Workshop, and will be offering an “SEO for Writers and Editors” training session in December and January. Contact him at info@TorontoSEOworkshop.com.

- Kat Tancock
About Me
Kat Tancock
Kat Tancock is a freelance writer, editor and digital consultant based in Toronto. She has worked on the sites of major brands including Reader's Digest, Best Health, Canadian Living, Homemakers, Elle Canada and Style at Home and teaches the course Creating Website Editorial at Ryerson University.
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