The explainer: Tricks of the trade to help readers find your website

People buy the same newspaper every day, but online it’s a different story. Readers might have favourites among the thousands of available sources, but if they’re using a search engine they could end up reading almost any publication, PR site, news agency or blogger. With technology encouraging the readership to be fickle, you can help your stories to be found and read by placing them near the top of a search engine’s results.

For a journalist, optimisation is a new name for an old trick. We’ve always written and edited to suit the format, producing catchy front pages and headlines to attract the reader’s attention, and, lest it wander, loading the first paragraph of a news story with the most important facts. Optimising for search is simply a way of adapting existing practice to the new way that people find and choose what they want to read.

Achieving a high rank in search engines is an inexact science. The criteria they use are constantly refined to improve the accuracy and relevance of results. Google says that its mission is to make the world’s information universally accessible and useful: many old methods of optimising copy – stuffing it with high concentrations of key words, for example – satisfy neither criterion.

What works?

Such ‘black hat’or underhand optimisation techniques are frowned on by search engines and readers, and a journalist shouldn’t even consider them. But there are ways to write and publish stories that will help them rank highly.

It’s worth checking a few basic technical requirements. Submitting a news feed to Google News will give you additional highly-relevant traffic, but make sure that your site fulfils the criteria.

Search engines are increasingly moving toward ‘blended results”, where images and video content are presented alongside text links. Including appropriate media with your stories may increase your visibility – if done well, it should also improve your site.

Language

Before tinkering with the language in your articles, have a clear idea of the search terms for which you want them to be found. Think about the words that a potential reader might type into Google or Yahoo. Make sure that you include these key phrases in your headline with the minimum of padding: ‘Interest rate rise stretches first-time buyers”, for example. The URL and page title for your story should also include your headline text.

It pays to research popular search terms. If you have a choice of two suitable phrases, for example, find out which yields the most results. You can do this with Google by performing a search for ‘Google Suggest’and following the top link. Now, as you type a new query into Google’s search box, you’ll see the number of pages that match the term.

This tool also reveals other popular phrases, which can give you a better understanding of what others are writing about.

Linking

Search engines take particular note of links to one site from another, especially if the originating site is perceived to have authority. An incoming link from a highly-ranked site such as BBC News will enhance the authority of your site, although going out of your way to court it is clearly unethical. Appropriate outward links also provide smaller, but appreciable search and usability benefits.

When writing directly for the web, make sure that you insert any outward links around the appropriate words within your body copy, rather than in a side panel or at the bottom. For example, if you want to link to a company or organisation, embed your link around its name when you first write it out in full.

Finally, encouraging your readers to bookmark your content using social sites such as Digg, Delicious or Reddit is a good alternative way for your site to be found. Spamming these services with links to your own articles is unethical and largely pointless: they, along with Wikipedia, instruct search engines not to pass on authority with their outgoing links.

You’d be right to conclude that many of these suggestions just sound like good journalistic practice. Search engines exist to serve the reader and it’s no coincidence that they’re at last beginning to reward good writing above crude attempts to manipulate them.

Increasingly, what pleases a search engine is what pleases the internet-going public, leaving journalists free to concentrate on getting the story itself right.

Simon Handby is a journalist at Brighton-based digital marketing agency Spannerworks, and a contributor to blog.hackbash.com.

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