Tuesday, November 24, 2009

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.

Friday, November 20, 2009
I just read an article in Advertising Age about Make Better, a new multiplatform project U.S. Elle is taking on in a partnership with Reebok. They include a link to ellemakebetter.com, which is just a placeholder right now that features the three DVDs they’ll be selling.

The problem? Really, how many of us are going to keep checking back to see when the site finally appears? What ELLE should have done: include a sign-up form to receive updates on the program. Easy list-building, and a head start on getting people to the site.

Don’t miss opportunities like this. It’s the little things that really add up.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Thanks to D.B. Scott and Graham Scott for pointing me to a recent Wired article on Demand Media, a company using proprietary search analytics to create article and video ideas/titles – then corresponding content – to overpower the internet (and Google) with the answers to people’s very specific questions.

Demand is focusing on quantity over quality, and I’m not suggesting you go that way. And focusing on SEO at the expense of other traffic sources is in my opinion shortsighted. But there are a few thing that branded media sites can learn from Demand:

• Give your readers what they want

There’s no room online for the pet projects that no one actually reads. Even if you think an article/series is the best thing ever written, that’s not worth much if it gets a fraction of the traffic of the rest of your site. It’s simple math: with limited resources, put what you have toward what has the most impact.

• Don’t be afraid of going niche

People search for the oddest things – and it’s information they really want. So don’t think you have to regurgitate the same old mass-audience content year after year online. That’s why we have archives. Build a good base of evergreen content, then branch out into the more specific and esoteric. Demand, for instance, claims to have done well with the search phrase “Where can I donate a car in Dallas?” Think of (and research) what similar keyword phrases are a good fit with your brand and site.

• Don’t put in more effort than you need to
I’m not saying you should sacrifice quality – far from it. I’m a strong believer in having your website meet the print product’s standards. But only to a point. You don’t need to spend hours tweaking every word on the screen. Make it good and then move on to the next project. And this is especially true of video – web video doesn’t have to even come close to TV production standards. Why waste the time and money?

• Aim for trust
It may seem like Demand is spewing out content with little care for how good it is (and I’m sure that’s sometimes true), but there’s still a lot of trust inherent in their brand. Take YouTube, for example:

[Google] has struggled to make money from the 19 billion videos on YouTube, only about 10 percent of which carry ads. Advertisers don’t want to pay to appear next to videos that hijack copyrighted material or that contain swear words, but YouTube doesn’t have the personnel to comb through every user-generated clip. Last year, though, YouTube executives noticed that Demand was uploading hundreds of videos every day — pre-scrubbed by Demand’s own editors, explicitly designed to appeal to advertisers, and cheap enough to benefit from Google’s revenue-sharing business model. YouTube executives approached Demand, asked the company to join its revenue-sharing program, and encouraged it to produce as many videos as possible.

The bottom line? Demand knows what it does and does it well. Can you say the same for your site?

Friday, November 06, 2009
I know I talk about Twitter a lot, but I wanted to share a couple of cool Canadian media Twitterers.

 First up – Lisa Tant of Flare. If you’re on Twitter, follow her and learn from her. Why? First of all, her posts are genuine – you really get a sense of the woman behind the magazine. And second, they’re an inside look at the most glamorous the Canadian magazine industry gets – and admit it, we all covet that at least a little bit. And third, it’s fun. Some samples, for instance:

January cover approved today – one of smoothest meetings ever. Normally we bicker over words and sometimes fight over image – not this one!

I think I’m one of the few who hates GLEE. Tried to watch an episode but erased it after 15 minutes – found it painful and mind-numbing.

Picked up my dress for Thursday night’s gala. Thank you Joeffer – simple, stunning, gorgeous & Canadian of course.

Keep in mind that this isn’t the official Flare account, but I love how it adds personality to the magazine.

Another quick hit I wanted to share is the background page for CBC Radio 3. They have multiple people tweeting so created a wallpaper that would show who they were – with initials for identification. Simple but effective.

Picture 1

Wednesday, November 04, 2009
There’s an article up on vanityfair.com on a new online ad format that’s been making the rounds – the push-down. (You can guess what it does.) They also give a good overview of some other “newfangled” (i.e., not standard banners) ad units that are being used.

The key, as they say, is not to cross the line from effective to annoying. I’ve always thought that annoying vokens (those ad units that walk, fly or float across your screen) will turn readers off your site and brand – but then, they bring in more revenue than standard banners, and we all need more revenue from our sites.

What do you think about these ad formats?
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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