It has been a tumultuous year for us all, and no more so than in the search results with multiple major Google updates that have significantly impacted all publishers. Journalists have known for a while the importance of using tools like Google Trends to help target our copy and spot opportunities to drive additional audience. But the pandemic, along with those Google updates, has really accelerated the focus on news SEO as an essential discipline. In short, if you are in the news publishing 'game' and you are not investing in news SEO, then your growth is likely to be severely stunted going forward.
Here is an overview of some of the recent changes that have impacted us all and are being hotly debated by SEO experts and publishers alike.
The 'titlepocalypse': Google dictates your page titles
In August we discovered that Google, with no prior warning, was making significant changes to web page titles, which, for you and me, meant that suddenly a lot of our headlines began to look very strange in the search results.
Previously, publishers had full control over these page titles via the < title > tag in our code, and, in most cases, just replicated whatever was in the < h1 > field (which in most content management systems is your article headline). But now, Google has begun to introduce other signals to construct how that title appears in the search results, the logic being that quite often a page title does not accurately describe the actual content of the article. This has led to all kinds of monstrosities with H2s, anchor text, picture captions (and much more!) all appearing instead of your carefully crafted headline.
Here is an example of a Capital FM article that suffered from this calamity, although Google has now reverted to the original headline.
After the Google page title update:
So, what can you do? The general feedback from the SEO community is to sit this one out until we return to some kind of normality. After all, do you really want to go to all that hard work of 'correcting' your page titles, only for another Google update to happen? Plus, as I mentioned above, in some cases the page title has now reverted back to the original.
But the real rub of the whole affair is this: it is just one more example where publishers have had to rapidly adapt to an unannounced Google update. It is a shame because elsewhere, Google has really made huge leaps forward in penalising websites that publish misinformation, but here they seem to have caused a lot of headaches for credible publishers. After all, how many Google users have now seen those corrupted headlines and thought they were editorial mistakes, rather than Google's? In the current climate of journalism mistrust, this is not the ideal time for any of this to happen.
Author schema update: helping Google understand you are ‘legit’
Also in August, Google made an update to its article schema to allow publishers to include a link to an author’s bio page on each article they write for that publication. This might sound like a small thing, but it just sends another signal to Google that you are the writer of that article, that this article is an original piece of work, that you have written lots of other stuff and that you are part of a trusted news organisation.
For such an important SEO feature, it is surprising how many credible news organisations still do not have their article schema updated to help Google understand that you are publishing unique and valuable content all the time, together with an About Us page with details of the editorial team involved. Which brings us to…
Publish all you can E-A-T
It is in Google's interest to ensure that the quality of its search results remains high and one of the ways it defines that quality is via the principle of Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness (or EAT for short).
I will not go into too much detail on this as there are some excellent summaries elsewhere but the gist of it for newsrooms is this: if you are writing similar articles to everyone else on a topic and you are not making concerted efforts to add value to those articles, then do not expect the rankings you had previously.
Now, this needs to be treated with caution: there is often a degree of separation between what Google announces and the reality of the search results. But it does indicate that Google (like Facebook one could argue) is rapidly shifting away from curation towards originality. If you are not writing distinct, audience-targeted articles that address specific audience needs, then attracting audiences is going to become a lot harder in the future.
Top Stories: more fish in an ever-decreasing pond?
Also this year, Google announced that was going to remove the requirement that all publishers had to follow the AMP method of article delivery to appear in the Top Stories box at the top of the search results, a major source of traffic for all news sites.
Now that this requirement has been removed, you will see many publishers in that top box and, let's be frank, less dominated by news websites. As a result (but it has not been proven yet) news journalists may see a decline in clicks from Google for their articles, but the action here is to, as always, read the articles that are getting those top positions and ask yourself: what is this article offering that my article is not?
Core web vitals
Connected with the removal of the AMP requirement has been the shift to ‘Page Experience’ as a ranking factor in the search results. This basically means that if your website articles are slow loading or perhaps the structure of the page changes significantly in the loading process, it can impact how Google treats the page.
Previously, Google had said that this would not be a ranking factor, but just part of creating a more valuable and efficient ecosystem for us all. But as recently indicated in this report, there can be real negative connotations if core publishers do not carry out this work.
It is just another example of how SEO is such a holistic discipline that requires constant refinement and improvement across a whole range of editorial and technical features.
To learn more, check out my recent Brighton SEO talk where I tackled some of the challenges involved in inspiring teams to go the extra mile for news SEO.
Other useful news SEO resources
Steve Wilson-Beales is head of editorial and SEO at Global, which reaches over a billion newsfeeds every month through its brands including LBC, Heart and Capital FM. You can follow his SEO updates @stevewbeales
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