While it’s an SEO professional’s job to know how to optimize for search and a journalist / news editor’s job to understand how to write stories, both have the same end goal: to drive traffic to their web publication.
To help both SEO and editorial teams succeed in this endeavor, I’ve found it hugely beneficial for SEO pros to provide foundational SEO training and regular office hours to their journalist comrades. The benefits I see in doing this are:
- It transitions the responsibilities of SEO professionals from a reactive clean-up after the post goes live to proactive work on advanced SEO strategies (since the editorial teams have your back on the foundational elements).
- It puts more power into the hands of the journalist to help market their content to new audiences.
In this post, I’ll cover eight things journalists should know about SEO – from how it works to the benefits of prioritizing it to some foundational best practices to bookmark for their future writing.
Thing to Know #1: SEO Is a HUGE Referral Source for News Publications’ Web Traffic
According to recent research, 68% of U.S. adults surveyed get their news at least sometimes from news websites and apps, and 65% said they get their news at least sometimes from search. In tandem, these statistics emphasize the sizable reward for journalists to prioritize SEO (in addition to the SEO team’s work).
Thing #2 to Know: Search Engines, Like Google, Try Their Best To Match Searchers With Relevant Content. And Using Literal Language Helps.
The goal of search engines is to match searchers with relevant content. To make a strong match, it helps to think literally about the keywords that you would use if they were trying to find their article. And then sprinkle them in critical areas throughout the piece.
While in-depth keyword research is excellent, journalists needn’t venture further than that. The SEO team specializes in keyword research – so you can leave that to them.
Do use relevant keywords, don’t keyword stuff
Google’s John Mueller elaborates on this idea, as covered in a December 2020 article from Search Engine Journal:
“It’s [keyword stuffing] not against our webmaster guidelines. It’s not something that we would say is problematic. I think, at most, it’s something where you could improve things if you had a better fitting title because we understand the relevance a little bit better.
I suspect the biggest improvement with a title in that regard there is if you can create a title that matches what the user is actually looking for then it’s a little bit easier for them to actually click on a search result because they think ‘oh this really matches what I was looking for.”John Mueller, as quoted in Search Engine Journal.
Another interesting thing to point out here is the play on words.
We see puns in social and print publications, and I get a kick out of them. However, for SEO specifically, they can confuse the search bots when trying to make a keyword + human match. For example, a 2013 LA Times article used the headline: The Prince of Wails Has Arrived for a story covering the birth of a royal baby. SUPER cute but not the clearest to Google on how to rank the page.
A more literal title – using search terms that people are likely to type in, such as “First Child of Prince William and Kate Middleton Is Born” –would have been more helpful to ‘ol Google. (I chose an old article on purpose here because I don’t want to put one of my favorite news publications on blast 🙂 ).
Ask yourself: “What keywords or key phrases will people ideally type in to find this article?” And then, make sure to repurpose them in the VIP areas of the page.
I admit that you sometimes can’t help yourself — as I did with my 2020 article: “NFL.com Fumbles its Website Revamp.” But the point is that literal language helps Google bots, but ultimately it is up to you as the writer to decide.
Ok. So now that you’re caught up to speed a bit let’s talk about what these “SEO elements” are that you should be prioritizing while you write…
Thing to Know #3: Have Your Title Tags And Headlines Match
First, knowing what the word “title tag” even means is essential… because that’s a pretty “SEO” term. A title tag is the blue text shown in Google search results. And to be best optimized for SEO, it should match the article’s headline. (If yours doesn’t, you may want to chat with your product team. But this is a typical “out of the box” CMS setup.)
Simply knowing that your article’s headline is supposed to double as its Google “advertisement” is helpful, in my opinion. But to get more specific, it’s best practice to:
- Include those keywords and key phrases discussed in this blog post’s introduction.
- Keep it under 95 characters and avoid punctuation, especially double quotes (“).
- Use names of important people, places, and events as close to the front of the article as possible.
While Google has gone on record saying it’s OK to have more than one H1 on a page, industry pro Barry Adams suggests only using one. This recommendation makes sense when considering Top Stories’ role within the news / editorial SEO niche.
Thing to Know #4: Keep Your Publication’s URLs / Subfolders Clean
I like to compare article URLs / subdirectories to a filing cabinet.
OK yeah. Not the best example of a “clean” filing cabinet, but you get the idea.
The content on your site should be neatly filed in different subfolders. And when a visitor lands on an article, that filing system should be reflected within the URL structure. Here is an example:
Travel and leisure files all of its airlines and airports content into one subfolder and then files its article underneath that. It’s OK to have one subfolder or several – as long as it’s filed in an organized way. You can get an SEO boost by setting URLs up this way, and it also helps ensure that breadcrumbs are consistent across the site.
Also, the ending URL slug (what makes the article’s URL unique) should match the title tag. Travel and Leisure also do this well. You may notice that many publications will remove conjunctions within the sentence, which is also A-OK.
While tidy sub-folders should be the responsibility of the SEO team, having URL slugs match titles is typically within the journalist’s control. I have seen this go wrong when keywords are “artificially” stuffed into URL structures. Please, please don’t do that.
A caveat is that many top publications don’t necessarily have a squeaky clean “filing cabinet” and are still ranking well. So, this isn’t an end-all-be-all recommendation. But still, we’re talking BEST PRACTICES here, and this is one of them.
Thing to Know #5: Meta Descriptions + Stand-Firsts Should Be Treated Like Special Advertising Space.
A meta description is the black text shown in search results and plays a critical role in click-through rates from Google into the story. Once on the page, visitors will frequently see the news article stand-first. The purpose of the stand-first is to provide critical points from the story and encourage visitors to read the entire piece. Both pieces of text are exceptional ‘advertising’ spaces to reel in your readers.
The similarities between these two items are why I recommend coding the news article template so that the stand-first is pulled in automatically as the meta description if your publication doesn’t have stand-firsts add them, baby!
At any rate, here are some best practices that journalists should know:
- Know that Google only pulls in the first 1-3 sentences (~160 characters) for the SEO meta description. Use this space to include the keywords in the title tag and headline.
- Start your description with an action verb, when possible, to encourage higher click-through rates.
- Include secondary keywords that interest users, such as date/time/location.
For the SEOs reading this news article, note that I like to tag stand-firsts with an H2. For the SEOs reading this news article, note that I prefer to tag stand-firsts with an H2 tag – something to consider.
Thing to Know #6: Don’t Neglect Interlinking Strategy
Internal links refer to links from one of your publication’s pages to another on-site page. This, versus a link to your site from a different publication’s site pointing to yours — that’s an external link. (Check out Yoast’s piece here for more information on internal linking benefits.)
When we think about News SEO specifically, I like breaking up internal links into categories. The first is ‘section links’ from the homepage and category pages that feature top news articles, and the second is in-body links from one news article to another.
Surface-level, internal links are helpful for your site because it helps visitors find interesting content faster and encourages a longer time on site. Internal links are ALSO beneficial for a more technical SEO reason -by sending stronger signals as to the hierarchy, relationship, and importance of each page relative to one another. In other words, a page with dozens of internal links will be seen as more important than a page with no internal links.
But from a best practices perspective, how do you do internal linking “correctly”? Here are some quick tips:
- Section links: The anchor text to these news articles should match the news article’s headline.
- Section links: If an article’s preview text shows, it should match the stand-first/meta description and be clickable.
- Section links: The image should be optimized with the .jpg name being that of the headline and the alt-text and also be clickable.
- In-body links: Link to other contextually relevant news articles using keywords that you would like our site to rank for as the anchor text.
- In-body links: Add a few “featured” links at the bottom of the page to other relevant stories people may want to read next.
Thing To Know #7: It’s Hard To Rank In The Coveted, Top Stories Carousel Without Optimized Images
Search Engines, as they are shown prominently in top stories carousels. Optimizing your news articles’ images for top stories can help increase your chances of being featured.
Here are some quick tips to optimize your news images:
- Sizing: Google explicitly recommends that images be at least 1200 pixels wide and fall into one of these three aspect ratios: 16×9, 4×3, and 1×1.
- Alt-text: This text appears on websites if you mouse over the image. The text should match the news article’s headline.
- .jpg file name: This is the actual filename of the image. It should include the primary keywords of the story and be the same as the headline.
- Caption: Should describe what is happening in the photo in 1-2 sentences, using primary keywords where relevant.
I highly recommend reading Barry Adams’ piece here for more detail on optimizing for Google News.
Thing To Know #8: Perform a “Final Check” After Publishing… Just For Good Measure
Once you have published your news article, give Google 15 minutes or so, and then perform a site search for a query you’d like your page to rank on. A site search means typing [site:Example.com “Example Keyword”] into the Google search bar.
If your post shows up as #1, this is a quick way to tell if you did a good job optimizing for said keyword. 🙂
Funny enough, as I was wrapping up this piece, I stumbled across a LinkedIn post from Louise Story, Chief News Strategist at The Wall Street Journal, that read:
“You can only move the needle on SEO if everyone from your reporters and editors to your product managers and engineers focus on it.”Louise Story, Chief News Strategist at The Wall Street Journal
This summarizes my sentiment quite well: SEO isn’t just the responsibility of SEO professionals. It takes a village. And by knowing the SEO fundamentals of web writing, journalists can help extend the reach of the content they took such great care to create. I hope my blog post can serve as a bookmark-worthy resource for editorial teams and an outline for SEO pros looking to train their co-workers on the fundamentals of editorial SEO.