Google search

How to... searching with Google

Credit: Richard Masoner on Flickr. Some rights reserved
Journalism has an unhappy history with SEO. Actually, all online content has an unhappy history with SEO.

SEO practitioners have sucked the life out of much online content – for whatever reason many writers have ended up having to concentrate on what is popular in search engines rather than what is interesting or important. Many writers have also got the idea that SEO involves stuffing keywords into their articles at the expense of great writing.

Profitability may mean that these two pressures never go away. But as a journalist, SEO doesn't have to mean you compromise what you do. It is just a way to make sure that your content has the best chance of being found by new readers.

So here is how search engines really work (I've used Google as the example throughout, although these principles apply to most search engines).

Types of search

When you search for something, what Google takes account of depends on what sort of results it thinks the searcher wants.

Google actually has more than one type of search result. Depending on what you type in, Google may show normal web results, news results, pictures, a video, a map and so on.

And this is about more than just the format of the content.

For instance, search for Six Nations in February (when the rugby competition is on), and Google will show news results at the top of its results page.

Google works out automatically that something newsy is happening then and so promotes news results
Search for the same words in August and no news results are shown. Because there are so many more searches in February, Google works out automatically that something newsy is happening then and so promotes news results. Come the summer, when few are searching, it goes back to just showing just web pages.

There is nothing you can do about how many people are searching. But you can do something about the factors that Google takes account of in deciding the order of its results.

SEO for normal web search

For its normal web results, Google takes account of factors such as:
  • Whether the page contains the words being searched for – so it is important to avoid jargon (unless you are writing for a specialist audience), to use people's full names, and to spell abbreviations out in full at least once (use Royal Bank of Scotland as well as RBS, for example). It is also important not to overdo this. Don't go stuffing repetitive words into your stories.
  • How many links there are to the page. Google sees links to a page as "votes". The more links, the better a page will do in general (and Google also measures the importance of the linking site – links from the BBC are worth more than from a new blogger). You can't influence this directly for other websites (although if you break an exclusive, for instance, you'll tend to get more links than if you just write a follow up story.) But if you write regularly for a site, remember to include links to other relevant pages on that site (don't get accused of linking for money though).
  • The words used to link to the page. If I link to this page using the words "SEO for journalists”, it is more likely to appear for that search term than if I link to it using other words (it is possible to overdo this – you don't want Google to think you are trying to trick it!)
  • The importance of the site you are published on. If your story is published on a site that Google sees as important (ie. has a lot of links from other important sites), it is more likely to do well in search engines. Likewise, if Google thinks a site is low quality, it doesn't matter how well you are doing on the other factors.
To understand more about how Google's web search works, check out the SEO ranking factors on a site called SEOMoz (and for terms you don't understand, check out its SEO basics advice, which is much fuller than I have given here). You can also try searching just UK SEO blogs to get more UK-based advice. I have written before about how journalists can use SEO and this Econsultancy article still holds true.

SEO for news

For its news search results, some of these factors don't apply – in particular with a breaking news story, no one will have got round to linking to it yet.

When deciding what news results to show, therefore, Google takes account of other factors, such as freshness (favouring recent stories) and originality (by trying to highlight the original source of a story). If you think these two factors point in different directions, you are not wrong. It is common for national news organisations to copy smaller sites' stories and outrank them in Google. This problem is exacerbated by Google News giving a boost to trusted sources. There are some things you can do about this and Adam Sherk has a good set of Google News optimization tips.

You can also find information about video SEO if that is the sort of news content you produce.

What else to consider

I have mentioned some of the factors you can probably control as a journalist – the words you use, how quickly you publish a story and so on.

There are a lot of things you can't control or depend on the people running the site you work for.

One key thing is to meet the criteria to even be accepted into Google News (there is a help section on how to achieve this). Even once you are in, you can have technical problems with how your stories are displayed – more on this at my news:rewired write up.

There is also the choice of what you write about. Journalists may complain about SEO people dictating what they cover based on what's popular in search engines.

Taken to extremes, this turns news sites into followers of other people's stories.

But there are lots of ways you can use data about how people to search to work out what is interesting or how people are looking for content you are already producing so you can tailor it to your audience. This data is as much about optimizing sites for humans as for search engines.

SEO and social media

One last factor to touch on is social media. Twitter and Facebook accounts aren't just a matter of personal branding these days – some editors won’t even hire a journalist who doesn't have a social media presence.

But search engines are increasingly looking to include social signals in their decisions about content to show in their results. Just as links are a sign of content’s value, so should retweets and Facebook likes.

The good news for journalists is that, leaving aside all the other SEO advice, it is still great journalism that gets people talking about stories and sharing them via social media.

Next: This has covered some of the basics of SEO for journalism. I'll be taking an in-depth look at headlines and SEO next and explaining why, contrary to popular belief, there is nothing wrong from an SEO perspective with headlines like "Gotcha”, "Wacko Jacko dead” or "Swedes 2, Turnips 1" – as long as you know what you are doing.

About Malcolm Coles

Malcolm Coles is a former editor of Which? Magazine and Which? Online, the UK's biggest consumer paywalled website. These days he is an SEO and content strategy consultant. You can also find him on Twitter.

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