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Sept. 8, 2009, 9 a.m.

How Tribune Co. plans to rid itself of SEO-killing duplicate content

Last month, I wrote about how The Associated Press plans to leverage its network of members and customers with centralized topic pages linked to content distributed by the consortium. That post has sprung at least three noteworthy legs:

  • an intelligent comments thread on Wikipedia’s strength in search results
  • some informed skepticism of automated pages from Reuters’ Felix Salmon
  • an epic comment by Brent Payne, director of search engine optimization at Tribune Co., on the perils of duplicated content on news sites

This was all very exciting for me, because while I’m deeply interested in the mystical arts of SEO, it’s not something I knew tons about. Intrigued, I contacted Payne for more on how he’s dealing with a problem faced by all networks of news sites: multiple copies of the same article. When the Tribune Co.’s Washington bureau files a story, for instance, it may appear on lots and lots of pages across the company’s many news sites, diluting its power in search. And while Google attempts to make sense of duplicate content, publishers are still advised “to avoid over-syndicating the articles that you write.”

Payne said he’s readying a plan to rid the Tribune Co. of duplicate content. “The goal will be to always have only a single URL for a piece of content across all of our sites,” he told me in an email. For example, when The Los Angeles Times writes a story, it exists, of course, at latimes.com. But when The Chicago Tribune picks up the piece, the current system creates a duplicate of the article with a chicagotribune.com URL.

Under Payne’s plan, Tribune readers would instead visit the Times domain. Meanwhile, a cookie or URL parameter would make the page look like the Tribune’s site and serve the Tribune’s ads. One article, one URL, maximum SEO.

Though I’m hardly the one to judge, it sounds like a neat trick. As news organizations of all sizes act more like networks, they’ll need to make sure that syndication doesn’t, paradoxically, cannibalize their ability to be found by readers. (Another tool for avoiding the duplicate-content blues is the canonical tag recently adopted by Google and other major search engines, but that doesn’t work across domains.)

Payne also shared an unrelated but similarly smart SEO initiative he has implemented at Tribune Co.: Soon, when reporters and editors file a story, they’ll be required to include a phrase they think is most likely to lead a Google searcher to the article.

Payne is convinced that the SEO game is won by ranking high on the search results for three- and four-word phrases. So while he’s happy that The Chicago Tribune’s topic page for Barack Obama ranks on the first page when searching for the president’s name in Google, Payne is more concerned with doing well with phrases like “obama birth certificate,” “obama’s secret service code names,” and “michelle obama and new do” — to name a few searches that lead lots of readers to the Tribune Co.

Some additional advice from a guy who says he doubled the Tribune Co.’s SEO traffic between 2007 and 2008:

When you do SEO for a huge media company with more content than you can possibly digest with a team so small it’s frustrating, it’s all about what you can automate and what you can force the masses of content creators to do via the CMS to help be more intelligent about SEO. It’s about training the masses and finding evangelists for SEO from those groups that are trained and encouraging them when there are wins.

If you like the way Payne thinks, check out some more SEO tips in the slides of a presentation he gave this year to the Society of Professional Journalists. And last week, we shared some tips for optimizing content in Google News.

POSTED     Sept. 8, 2009, 9 a.m.
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