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Sept. 23, 2010, 1:30 p.m.

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.

POSTED     Sept. 23, 2010, 1:30 p.m.
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