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What impact is SEO having on journalists? Reports from the field

Last week, I wrote that SEO and audience metrics, when used well, can actually make journalism stronger. But I got pushback from journalists who complained that I was parroting back management views rather than the on-the-ground experiences of the reporters who have to deal with SEO-crazy bosses. So the natural next move was to gather more evidence.

It seems that whether SEO makes your journalistic life miserable you depends on how smart your news organization is about using SEO — and how your news organization does in making you feel invested in the process of combining SEO with quality content production. Organizations that understand the power of SEO and social news to drive traffic — rather than chase traffic — will keep their reporters in the loop and make them happy. Even if an organization has a good SEO strategy, it still needs to be communicated effectively to the newsroom, so journalists don’t feel like they’ve been turned from trained professionals into slaves to Google Trends.

Some journalists I communicated with (who shall remain nameless so they can keep their jobs) say SEO is pushing them to the brink. The demand that every story generate traffic creates, in their minds, horrible pressure to produce work that will be measured only by how much it is read. The more they can seed their work with SEO terms and then promote their work on social media platforms, the better their metrics and the happier their bosses. But that formula can make for some very exhausted journalists.

I emailed with one unhappy Washington Post reporter. She described a scene not unlike the one described by Jeremy W. Peters in The New York Times, with the majority of morning editors’ meetings focused on looking at web numbers and “usually, making coverage decisions based on that.” The reporter’s complained:

If my blog has an awesome day, I get complimented on it. If I spend weeks digging into a really juicy story, I don’t hear anything from anyone (well, unless it gets picked up by Gawker or it gets epic levels of hits). So what should I spend my time doing?

There have been several instances when reporters (or content producers) have been told by [SEO people] to drop everything they are doing and file some pithy blog post about the hot topic of the moment, which usually fades by the time we can get a story up.

She was also frustrated that that the new SEO people in the newsroom seem to have “unilateral power” and The Washington Post’s commitment to SEO was changing the way this reporter was writing.

“We are told to put SEO-powered words in our headlines, which I understand, even though it takes the life out of our heads,” she continued. “But every now and then, we have also been told to get these SEO-charged words into our first sentence or lede of a story. Wonder why a lede suddenly sounds robotic? This is why.”

But then I spoke with another Post reporter, who said “SEO has not really affected my work that much.” And while he has opinions about SEO, the reporter said that he does not “have a first-hand account of how SEO has hurt or helped me.” Have his editors not cracked the whip? Or has SEO become a natural part of his work?

Whatever it is, these two reporters aren’t thinking about SEO in the same way — which would seem to indicate that Post management could probably stand to improve the way it communicates with its staff about what it wants. Mixed communication about innovation is a common issue at times of change and the Post should not be singled out — their newsroom just happens to be one I reached out to.

Different newsrooms, different perceptions

I then turned to the crazy and wild world of online-only publications, thinking that SEO might be unusually disruptive for their journalists working under the commands to boost traffic and engage with audiences. I found this hypothesis to be untrue, even at traffic monster The Huffington Post and aspiring traffic monster The Daily Beast. For another perspective, I also spoke to the kind folks at GigaOM, the tech news blog, where technology is nothing to fear, and who actually went on the record. First, HuffPost, where my source emailed:

SEO guides the content we decide to write, but only to a certain degree…at HuffPost in particular, I know this is true because of how effectively we utilize organic SEO. Almost all of our posts are written, or should be written with SEO in mind…Sometimes SEO can determine an entire post. We have people in the office that are pretty hot on the top Google searches, and sometimes an entry will be created to utilize the traffic we get some traffic.

To be clear, organic SEO is the way that SEO works based on algorithms and natural searches. So HuffPost is really good at playing this game. But to play this game, one has to be aware that the algorithms are always changing. But does SEO do anything to their reporting or writing or actual gathering of news at HuffPost? My source:

I would say that SEO rarely impacts the actual reporting that we do. For a website as large and as SEO focused as HuffPost, instances of certain words within the article won’t actually help the search value of a post.

What about at The Daily Beast, which aspires to HuffPost levels of hyper-readership? Are work practices changing there? The source I spoke to didn’t find SEO or audience metrics onerous, simply seeing them as a small part of his job. And like my source at HuffPost, this was not an assault on journalism but the new reality — and one that didn’t actually affect the content of stories.

As my source told me, SEO gets used in pretty predictable ways, adding tags into stories and putting the SEO term in the URL slug — which isn’t same as the headline. But this journalist says the pressure of SEO has no significant impact on what he chooses to report or on how he writes.

The value of metrics

The folks at GigaOM were positive about how SEO was helping to change the way they do things — for the better. Probably because they understand the argument I made last week — that paying attention to the audience brings you in better touch with what the audience cares about. And they’re smart about how to use SEO to their advantage. Liz Gannes, a senior writer for GigaOM, listed off in an email her understanding of how SEO was affecting her work:

Metrics only get you so far…if there’s no spark of idea driving a story and voice behind it, it’s bound to be boring.

Until very recently, the most a journalist could hope for after pushing a perfectly polished piece out into the universe was feedback from (at best) a few dedicated readers or haters…Metrics give us a peek into what happens to our stories after we hit publish.

Metrics have helped Gannes think about ways that other reporters, editors and bloggers can use metrics to do better journalism:

— Recognize new and emerging topics
— Figure out the peak times of audience interest so a story will find its audience
— Help readers who have found old articles see a more recent one through links
— Understand when an article is clear and readable, or when it’s become too complicated
— Identify good sources of referral traffic
— Know when to get involved in comments and social media, potentially as inspiration for further articles.

Is SEO foe or friend for the journalist? Constant harping from editors, driven by fear of the future and the need to monetize the web, can make it feel to some journalists that SEO is destroying news judgment and their craft. But the best solution to this complaint is to figure out how to use SEO more effectively to make journalism better — and make the lives of journalists easier.

Metrics can be good for journalism and for journalists; it just takes putting aside the fear of the now to think about future strategies for building good content that will keep readers coming back. As I’ve said before, good content and high readership levels are not mutually exclusive: good stories will be found, and SEO can help.

What to read next
Mark Coddington    Aug. 22, 2014
Plus: Controversy at Time Inc., more plagiarism allegations, and the rest of the week’s journalism and tech news.
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  • Eydie

    The controversy, I believe, is that there’s an either/or mindset on the part of old-school journalists as well as SEO experts who have little to zero understanding of what makes an excellent piece of writing or reporting.

    The journalists fear, sometimes rightly, being told to write in a way that cramps their compelling style, or worse, being told what specifically to write and not write about.

    The SEO experts, sometimes can’t understand that good writing means that you don’t repeat the same key phrase or word over and over again instead of using synonyms. Or they don’t realize that an article merely repeating highly-searched phrases instead of, you know, explaining them, would turn off writers from ever visiting a site again. (Example: A story offering tips on healthy dieting should NOT include multiple variations of the phrase, “To eat a healthy diet, you must buy and consume healthy foods,” which I angrily encountered in a top-hit while doing a Google search recently.)

    The upshot is distrust, particularly on the part of the old-school journalists who fear digital media rather than embrace it as the next evolutionary step in their profession. I’ll mention “using SEO techniques” when describing my success in raising Mobile Marketing Watch’s readership during my chief editorship, and some journalists will look at me wary-eyed and say “well we don’t do that here.”

    I tell news editors and writers this: You should never bow down to SEO conventional wisdom. Instead, take the techniques and apply it to a story that’s well-researched, well-crafted, and well-written. SEO will snag the readers for your site–and good journalism will keep them there.

  • Dale Lovell

    This is a very interesting piece and something very close to my heart having worked as an online journalist and latterly as an SEO.

    SEO should compliment existing journalism and content. At it’s best SEO and keyword research help journalists research what an audience is looking for – and what types of information they want to read about.

    I thoroughly agree with @Eydie’s last comment: ‘SEO will snag the readers for your site–and good journalism will keep them there.’

    This is the methodology we use for all of our clients – good copy and relevant editorial first, SEO tactics second, and it works in creating results, increasing inbound links organically and keeping people onsite for longer.

  • Gina Chen

    I think another problem with metrics is that news organizations often don’t really understand them or how to use them.

    So it lead to false starts to do things one way, when really the metrics were suggesting a different approach. Misunderstanding how online metrics work, I think, creates an atmosphere where as Nikki, you put it so well: News organizations are chasing traffic, rather than driving it.

    For example, metrics may show entertainment news is getting the most hits on your news site. So knee-jerk reaction is to provide more entertainment news, perhaps at the cost of other topics.

    The problem is: You don’t really know that’s what the metric means. Sure, lots of research has shown that people like entertainment news, and throwing up a Brangelina story will drive traffic. But much other research supports the idea that people want local news on their local news site.

    The metric may not be saying: Focus on entertainment news. It may be saying: Do a better job of displaying, promoting, showcasing your other topics, so they get the traffic they deserve.

  • Rasmus Himmelstrup

    Excellent and well written post!

    As @Eydie and I see it the main problem here is that several old-school journalists tends to believe that the old way of writing still works. This is still true – but to offline media. When writing online other metrics defines the quality of the post. One of these could be SEO.

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  • Kevin Heisler

    @Nikki – Congrats on your excellent reporting on challenges the media faces when optimizing their sites for search engines — in addition to the more important mission of engaging their readers, breaking news stories in the public interest and building a loyal audience. You’ve pinpointed the primary SEO issue that’s often ignored: SEO succeeds or fails based on people, not technology.

    Style guides by journalists invented SEO as practiced in the newsroom. The inverted pyramid, the anecdotal lead and the BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front) formed an important foundation for SEO content strategies. Google’s web snippets and Yahoo/Google/AOL News, as well as The Huffington Post, leverage the way that reporters write. Including keywords that define a topic in a headline or graf makes sense.

    Google Instant is compressing long tail keyword searches, so it’s unlikely that far-fetched keywords not pertaining to the core subject will find their way into news stories. Nor should they.

    @Eydie @Rasmus @Dale You each made great points about integrating SEO into the workflow. There’s natural resistance against any change to the status quo. Not every SEO has an understanding of the newsroom and it’s great to see Dale’s extensive media background. We’re lucky because our CTO started out as an editor at a publication. I served as executive editor of an online trade journal, Search Engine Watch, and made my share of mistakes introducing SEO concepts into the traditional way of writing — even for a cutting edge trade journal covering the space.

    @Gina interesting point about web metrics, where editors can wind up driving using the rearview mirror. You’re absolutely right that so much more can be done to “display, showcase and promote” news, features, images, audio, slide shows and videos. It’s an exciting time to be in the media business.

  • Dan Weisman

    As someone who is a longtime journalist — dating back 30 years — and also a new media journalist with my own happening site Ah-Ha Rancho Santa Fe News at, I have a true working perspective on this issue.

    For starters, I am very interested in driving traffic site to my site, so am aware of, and fairly knowledgeable about, SEO. However, I also am very interested in posting quality work.

    Newspaper operations such as Washpo etc. which have management that doesn’t understand web-native needs employing so-called SEO experts who don’t understand journalism is a combination of the worst possible worlds. That’s why you get these situations with reporters not understanding what to do being hounded — at least that’s how it’s coming across here — by so-called SEO experts who are equally clueless.

    Let me tell you how I approach this. And I am someone who knows, considering I get 3,500 daily views and 1,900 unique visitors while centered in a community of 4,500 people.

    I do not become a slave to SEO, but use it judiciously. So, I try to be savvy about the types of words and trending topics that are popular by checking analytics and social networking feeds. Then, I incorporate what seems good at the start of headlines and top of the story, standing-alone from the body of the story.

    Frequently, I use bold-face and pull-out quotes reflecting the headline at the very top, as well as start tags with what seems SEO-friendliest.

    But I do not compromise on something, or content, if I believe it is important. Frequently, it’s just common sense. I might reverse the word placement on a headline to start it with SEO words, but maintain the integrity of the headline. It takes a deft touch, that’s all, and a talent for nuance.

    Again, when it’s done with common sense, the SEO touches work seamlessly with the content and don’t disrupt, in any way, the integrity of the presentation. Of course, I also am gung-ho about the use of video and graphics, so this, too, aids, in driving traffic.

    Long story short, newspapers attempting web content have problems because they combine the clueless (about the web) with the equally clueless (about journalism).

    As you alluded to, web-native operations such as HuffPo and myself on the local level are highly efficient and successful because we are the journalists who get it, and we’re the ones who will be standing a few years from now, while the clueless ones run around chasing their own frustrating tails or go out of business.

  • Rodrigo Stockebrand

    As an SEO, particularly for news sites in the U.S. and Latin America, this is also very important for us to understand as well (specifically- the reason why editors push back). We have to dig deeper into the impact that our recommendations will have on the actual ranking and not just push an ideology of best-practices for the sake of just doing our job. Many things like keyword prominence and proximity do have an impact but it’s part of a larger whole (including many other technical pieces that have a greater impact). Additionally, search engines have made immense strides in the way they index pages and detect keyword stuffing, therefore the usual approach to article SEO is now a different world. Concepts such as Latent Semantic Indexing and Latent Dichlectic Analysis (related to Markov models) are the new way of writing content that is both user-friendly and optimized for search engines.

    Point is this, we SEOs need to take a step back and make sure that we are making the best recommendations to our editors; recommendations that will truly make a dent in the SERPs. Last thing we need is an article that is not indexed AND not read.

  • Rafael Rez Oliveira

    Metrics doesn’t necessarily means that journalism should be guided by audience only.

    When SEO is used as feedback of the reader’s mind and needs, it can be useful to guide writers and editors to related-but-not-obvious approaches.

    Great discussion, learning tons with Nieman Lab.

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  • Camella Lobo-Internet Exposure

    I am a former journalist and current blogger for an interactive (web design and online marketing) agency. I blog about all things related to the services we offer our clients to drive SEO and display our authority, which is something, along with any type of content marketing, whether its for a magazine, newspaper or landscaping service, has reached a critical mass.

    The thing that strikes me about this sort of controversy around “new journalism” is that old school writers and journalists are even the slightest bit hesitant to adapt to the necessities of marketing their content. It’s not like this is the first time the concept has surfaced. As journalists, We are constantly changing the way we create headlines, sell lines, sub heads etc., to grab the attention of our prospective readers, regardless of the medium in which it is delivered. There has always been a marketing strategy behind the way we package and display our content.

    Our readers are on the web, not in the supermarket line waiting to be grabbed by flashy headlines and typesetting. They’re (primarily) using search engines, not newspaper stands.

    We must adapt to the way our readers find and consume our content. There is no other option.

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    I think SEO always creates positive impact!!..

  • seer weer

    Actually, perhaps all newspapers around the globe ought to start being attentive. As much as I would like to cry over the death of journalism and they have it so hard, sales are down, people are no longer purchasing newspapers etc.

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  • Anonymous

    The demand that every story generate traffic creates, in their minds,
    horrible pressure to produce work that will be measured only by how
    much it is read.

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