Last week the BBC announced it was to start optimising its headlines in an attempt to gain greater visibility in the search engine results pages, so I thought I’d take a look at journalism and the web.
Over recent years, many online news providers have had to adopt search engine optimisation (SEO) best practice into their articles in order to maintain their audience figures.
Yet I often see journalists and even some bloggers bemoaning the need to optimise their work, as though it means all the quality has been drained out of the article and replaced with Google-appeasing nonsense.
That’s why the first of my points is perhaps the most important. As long as it’s done well, SEO will not make your articles unreadable.
SEO is not the enemy of good writing
Believe it or not, the purpose of SEO is not to destroy your writing’s artistic integrity, it’s to make sure people can actually find your work to appreciate its genius.
I think that SEO is often misunderstood by professional writers, especially those who began their careers offline in the world of print and are suddenly having to adapt.
They end up believing that they have to cram key phrases like ‘Britney Spears’ into their serious article exposing the flaws in the government’s economic recovery plan. That’s obviously ludicrous.
Search engines are like a newsagent, they are where people find your copy. By bearing SEO tactics in mind, you place your article at the front, right next to the till.
Headlines hook more than humans
Journalists use their headlines to hook readers into the story, to convince them of the importance of reading this particular article.
However, most news websites will use the headline as the page’s title tag, which is one of the places that search engines look to assess the relevance of your article to someone’s search.
That means that if you can get the kind of words into your headline that people will search for, you’re more likely to gain a larger audience.
So, instead of something funny but inexplicable like ‘King faces whopper grilling’, use explanatory terms like ‘Mervyn King defends Bank of England strategy’.
Is SEO the end of the pun?
To an extent, this is bad news for the grand old tradition of the journalist’s pun. Look at a recent example. Poole Council replaced their town centre Christmas tree with a green cone that plays music and flashes inbuilt lights.
Naturally, almost every newspaper covered this story with the headline ‘Elf and safety’.
However, I heard the story on the radio and then Google News’d it at work. I searched for ‘Christmas tree health and safety’, so ended up reading one of the few articles that didn’t make that joke in its headline. (The Telegraph ran with ‘Poole axes real Christmas tree for safer fake one because of health and safety'. There’s a paper that gets it.)
I think SEO doesn’t need to be the end of the pun completely, though. There’s no reason a paper couldn’t use creative headlines for its print copy and optimised headlines online.
Use a keyword rich introduction
If your news story has a standalone introduction then make sure it’s filled with relevant terms. That doesn’t mean you have to make it incomprehensible to people, that will damage your reputation as a writer and increase your bounce rate.
To an extent it’s good journalistic practice, you want to summarise the main points and elements of your story to inform readers (and now search engines) what your article contains.
Write for your audience
There are some great ways of attracting inbound links to your article and getting it Tweeted or mentioned on social media sites like Digg or StumbleUpon. The web audience laps up ‘top tens’ and other list-type stories and are more likely to share these with their friends.
So, if you were planning to write an article about where to go for a winter holiday, for example, considering writing it as a ‘Top ten winter holiday destinations’ or ‘Five fashion crimes to avoid on the piste’.
These lists also allow you to use sub headings, which make an article more easily read by the online audience and are a great way of giving your targeted keywords an extra boost. Search engines pay attention to sub headings.
Consider keywords without curtailing quality
Your article doesn’t have to be stuffed with likely search terms but you can make it more search engine friendly.
Don’t abbreviate companies and phrases (unless they are as well-known as the full description, like SEO), and aim to use people’s full names.
This helps your article cover all the possible terms people are likely to search for and reiterates its subject relevance to the search engines.
If you’re writing about the very latest development in an ongoing saga, it makes sense to link to your previous articles to give some background.
When you do so, don’t just link using useless text like ‘click here for my previous article’ or ‘for more information click here’ – use your headlines or relevant keywords.
Search engines look at the hyperlinked anchor text to help assess the relevance of a page to certain keywords. By linking using your (already optimised) headline, you give your last article an SEO boost.
Watch the competition
If your newspaper isn’t making its content work hard enough, your competitors certainly will. When even the mighty BBC News has to work to keep its articles visible in the search results, you know that there’s no room for complacency.
Soon, journalists who can’t write optimised copy for the web will be under-skilled for their changing workplace. In an industry that’s shedding staff writers all the time, that’s a dangerous position to be in.