Search engine optimisation tips for journalists - from Malcolm Coles

Never mind phone-hacking and use of private investigators – the real ‘dark arts’ of journalism in the modern age centre around the practice of search engine optimisation.

SEO consultant Malcolm Coles provides a handy primer on “writing the news that people are looking for” in Face the Future, an excellent new collection of essays edited by John Mair and Richard Keeble . There’s loads of useful stuff in this book about how to survive as a journalist in the turbulent new media age. (It’s published on 4 April, price £17.95 – ISBN: 978-1-84549-483-4)

This extract is reproduced here with the consent of the publisher.

It’s on my WordPress-based blog, rather than our site’s main content management system, because it’s a lot easier to put links in on here and because…you guessed it, it’s better for SEO!

By SEO consultant Malcolm Coles:

Whatever your view on the big strategic questions about paywalls and online brands, there’s no getting away from the fact that millions of people use the internet every day as their primary way to access news. As you can’t move on the internet without someone tracking you, this means that there is a huge quantity of data available about what news stories people are looking at and looking for – often in real time.

As an individual journalist or site publisher you can use this data to optimise your stories for news searches. You can work out what news stories people are interested in and how they are searching the internet to find them. You can tailor your stories – what you write and how you write about it – to your desired audience. And this makes it more likely that people using the internet to find their news will read your story rather than a competitor’s.

Microsoft has fortunately shut down its Xrank site which thought the band Ash was enjoying an unexpected renaissance in 2010 when the Icelandic volcano erupted Some of the main sites that work well in the UK are listed below, but there are all sorts of services devoted to monitoring real time interest in different ways. You can find a useful list, which is periodically updated, at www.adamsherk.com/seo/search-trend-tracking-tools/.

Yahoo Buzz

Buzz is the Yahoo service where users submit and vote up interesting news sources. Yahoo has announced it is shutting it down. But while it’s still going it’s one of the better sources of accurate data on what topics people are searching for – though it has more of an entertainment than hard-news bias.

The best way to use it is to take the terms and type them into Google News, which does a better job than Buzz of showing you what the latest news is on a particular topic.

Google Trends

Google Trends sounds good. It’s not. The page is divided into Hot Topics (UK) and Hot Searches (USA). The UK list is based on news stories and mentions in Twitter and FriendFeed. However, it’s often heavily polluted by American topics, especially American football. Hot Searches is based on real time search data but, obviously, is about America only. For a news or celebrity journalist, however, it can be good early guide to international or American news stories (although it’s often influenced by American TV programmes and sport events). For everyone else, I would probably avoid it. It’s not useful enough to be worth the effort of checking regularly.

AOL Hot Searches

AOL Hot Searches are a similar concept to Yahoo Buzz – but the list is often very different to the topics that Yahoo suggests. The “Top searches” box in the top right hand side is more topic than personality based, and so feels a bit newsier than Yahoo Buzz – but from my observations, it seems a little bit behind the times in terms of what’s happening right now. But it’s still a useful source of data. And further down the page are lists of top celebrity searches, top gadget searches and then, further down still, top TV, music and health queries. Again, the best advice with these is to type the names and topics into Google News to see what the current story is.

Twitter trending topics

The news and questions that people tweet now is often what’s searched for in a couple of hours’ time. So by looking at trending topics on Twitter itself (and you can choose various countries and cities to narrow down this data) or services such as whatthetrend.com and trendistic.com you can see what’s capturing people’s interest.

On a day such as the one that the football transfer windows closes, trending footballers’ names often reveal transfers that are about to happen before mainstream news sites do. The downside of this is that all sorts of rumours that are not true end up trending, of course…

Surchur.com

Surchur describes itself as the dashboard to right now. It tries to aggregate signals from a variety of sources to give a league table of the current hot topics online. It has an American and entertainment slant but, despite that, often highlights interesting topics.

Own analytics data

Most companies that run websites have some sort of analytics package installed – software which tells you how many people have visited your site, where they came from, what they typed into search engines to find your site, and even what they are looking for using the search box on your own site.

It’s often a good idea to check this data for your own site first thing in the morning – as there are often valuable clues as to what people are looking for. Check for out-of-the-ordinary search terms – seeing what unusual phrases people are searching for (even if there are just a few visitors) can be a good guide to what new topics they are interested in.

Other news sites

You can also make use of larger news sites’ information. Many news sites show you what topics people are interested in on their site. The Daily Telegraph, for instance, lists “hot topics” under the main navigation on its home page. Many of the main section pages of the Guardian have a “hot topics” list along the bottom. BBC News has a section where you can see which stories are most popular by section – and hour by hour. Yahoo shows you which of their stories have been emailed the most and viewed the most. And NewsNow also has a list of hot topics.

Working out how people search

One issue with many of the tools listed above is that they tend to deal in quite general topics. Most of them will tell you what subjects people are currently interested in – but they won’t necessarily tell you the most popular phrases that people are typing into search engines around those topics.

It’s important to find this out because of the way search engines work, especially news search services such as Google News. The key thing you need to know is that including the words that people search for in your headlines makes it much more likely that your stories will appear in the search results. For instance, if your headline had been “Wacko Jacko karks it”, Google would not have shown your story to someone who typed “Michael Jackson dead” into its search box shortly after he died.

People often search like this – using a topic or person’s name and then adding a more specific word or two (such as “dead” or “affair” or whatever) related to what they are interested in. It’s those more specific words you want to find and include in your headlines. That way you have got more chance of your pages appearing in the results when people search.

So how do you find out that, for instance, people were more likely at the end of January 2011 to search for “Egypt protest” than “Egypt news”, and for “Egyptian museum” than “Egyptian army”?

Google AutoComplete

When you start typing words into Google, a box appears with suggested searches – showing what Google thinks you might be looking for based on popular previous searches and the letters you’ve typed so far. If you type “Kate Middleton is”, then Google offers you “Kate Middleton is hot”, “Kate Middleton is ugly” and “Kate Middleton is a commoner” as suggestions.

Putting famous people’s names in followed by the word “is” is a good way to take the temperature of how well liked someone is. Try it with Prince Charles, Nick Clegg or Katie Price. When you start typing into the normal Google web search box, the suggestions Google gives are based on long-term data about what people are searching for. Do the same on a Google News page, however, and the suggestions are based on much shorter-term data – what people have been searching for in the last few days.

Some experiments I did with unexpected events (such as celebrity deaths) show that the Google News suggestions will update within just a few hours for events that suddenly trigger huge numbers of searches. You can use these suggestions to work out what words people are using to search for news stories.

For instance, when Katie Price and Alex Reid were separating, if you typed “Katie Price A” into the Google News search box, it was the tabloid language of “Katie Price Alex Reid split” that Google showed as a suggestion – rather than separating or divorce.

This then becomes self reinforcing – when people start to type in a search term about Katie Price and Alex Reid, they will click on what Google suggests if it’s close enough to what they had planned. So people who were planning to search for “Katie Price Alex Reid separation” end up searching for “Katie Price Alex Reid split”. If you were writing about this, then to maximise the chances of your story being found in Google News and similar services, you should use the words people are searching for in your headline: in this case “split” rather than “separate”.

It may seem a small thing – but choosing the right word and maximising your chances of being seen in Google News searches, can lead to tens of thousands of extra readers. It just takes a few seconds work to do a check like this – I would recommend doing it every time you write a news story.

Webmaster Tools

If you have a Google Webmaster Tools account – which is free to set up – you can see data about which of your pages appeared in Google’s results for which search phrases. The data is always a few days behind but if you are in the middle of a long-running story, it can be a good way to understand how people are searching. That is because the data shows you exactly how many people have searched for different phrases, even if a previous article of yours was on page three of Google’s results and hardly anyone came to your site from it.

This data will show you search terms that you’re neglecting to use – so look for relevant phrases with high search volumes and then use them in your headlines.

Experian Hitwise

The Experian Hitwise Data Centre is a good place to keep an eye on. It shows weekly updated figures on top search terms and sites in a few sectors, such as retail, travel and computing. The data is usually a week old but by monitoring it over time you will get a sense for how people search (as long as the subjects you’re interested in are covered).

Similar to the Karan Gillan data earlier, it showed that one of the top 10 searches in the week that Kate Middleton announced her engagement was “Kate Middleton bikini”.

Google Adwords keywords tool

Google has a tool that shows you search volumes related to phrases you type in. There have been issues with the data it shows and, for most journalists, it’s not a great tool to use, as it is not geared to news searches.

Google Insight

Google Insight lets you look back at a defined period and compare search term popularity. You can check any time period from 2004 up until (almost) the present (you can’t see data for the last few days – so you can’t use it for real time). However, if you are writing about something that has happened before, you can type in some search terms and see how popular they were relative to each other last time an event happened.

So let’s say you write about a reality TV show – by plugging in various combinations of likely search terms from last time the show was on you would probably discover that people tend to search for “show name + year” – they hardly ever search for “show name + series”.

In the last couple of years, news organisations cottoned on to this and started to write their headlines as “show name year: the actual headline” (for example, “I’m a Celebrity 2010: contestants enter jungle”). This meant that until late 2010 (when television stations just about realised this) many news organisations would routinely appear higher in Google’s results by doing this than the TV channels’ own websites – which tended to talk about the series number rather than the year.

At the start of 2010, Holy Moly was the top Google result (above the Channel 4 site) when you searched for “Celebrity Big Brother 2010” and saw a huge increase in traffic as a result. Almost everyone has cottoned on to this particular trick now. But by mining the data like this, you can look for popular search terms that your competitors are not yet using and use them in your headlines. Google Insights also suggests top search terms related to those you put in, so it’s another starting point for data about how people search.

And finally, you can use the data to see when people start searching – so if you are writing about a known event – the Budget, a TV show, a sports event – you can see how far in advance search-related interest started to build last time it was on. (You can see interest in Celebrity Big Brother started about two weeks before the show did from the earlier graph.)

Promoting your content

At an individual journalist’s level, optimising your content for search is about doing the two things I have discussed here: working out what people are searching for and working out how they are searching – and then writing about stories in a way that matches this.

Technical considerations can largely be left to those running the site (unless you are a small organisation when you should take an interest too). But there is one area where journalists, if they want to do well in search terms, need to concentrate: and that’s social media. There are many attempts to “game” search results by people hoping to make a quick buck. And many of the quality signals that search engines have traditionally used – such as how many other websites link to a particular page – don’t work for brand new news articles (as no one will have had a chance to link to them).

So search engines are increasingly turning to signals from social media – such as how many times a story is re-tweeted on Twitter or liked on Facebook – to help them decide which stories they should be showing more prominently in their news results. Exactly how the different search engines do this, and which ones do what, is still something of a mystery. But they definitely are doing it, and the use of social media signals is only likely to grow.

This means that, to promote your content in news search, you also need to promote it to humans via sites like Twitter, Facebook, Digg, Reddit and others. It will not be enough to use the right words to match how people search. The future of news search optimisation will be about getting real people to share your story so that the search engines can recognise that it’s a valuable piece of content.

The good news is that there’s no tool that is going to make people want to do that – apart from good journalism.

Malcolm Coles is a search-engine-optimisation and content-strategy consultant based in London. He has helped many large and small organisations with their digital content – one of which is Holy Moly, mentioned here. He blogs at www.malcolmcoles.co.uk and you can find him on Twitter as @malcolmcoles.

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