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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Why SEO and audience tracking won’t kill journalism as we know it

[I'm happy to introduce Nikki Usher, a new contributor here at the Lab. Nikki is a Ph.D. candidate at USC Annenberg and, before academia, was a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and elsewhere. Here she tackles the question of using metrics in journalism; later today, we'll have a different take on the same topic from C.W. Anderson. —Josh]

Last week, The New York Times featured the scary tale of how some newspapers, including The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, are (shockingly!) changing their coverage after using online metrics to figure out what their audience wants to read. And Gene Weingarten, in an amusing takedown of search engine optimization, insinuated earlier in the summer that just by putting Lady Gaga in his column, he’d get more hits.

Jeremy W. Peters had another Times piece about much the same concern: young journalists doing “anything that will impress Google algorithms and draw readers their way” and the scary “big board” that Gawker keeps in its newsroom tracking the 10 most popular blog posts, along with pageviews per hour.

This concern that audience tracking, writing for Google, and SEO will somehow destroy the ability of news organizations to keep news judgment apart from audience demands is misplaced. Instead, being more attentive to audience demands may actually be the best thing that news organizations can do to remain relevant and vital sources of news.

With monetization tied to clicks, and real-time Omniture data a feature of more and more newsrooms, it’s easy to worry that audiences will dictate news coverage. But how about the opposite argument: that journalists, for too long, have been writing about what they think their readers ought to know, and not enough about what their audiences want to know.

Journalism has always depended on having an audience to consume its work and has spent much of the past century trying to figure out exactly what that audience wants to know. Now, journalists have better tools than ever to figure out who their audiences are, learn what they want, and in real time, track their behaviors in order to be more responsive to their needs. This isn’t a bad thing — it turns journalism away from the elitism of writing for itself and back to writing what people are actually looking for.

But what about the concerns that journalists are going to spend all their time writing about pets, or Lady Gaga? The truth is that many of the newsrooms I’ve spoken with are smarter than that. They aren’t abandoning journalism principles; they see metrics as a way to ensure their journalism will be read.

SEO at the Christian Science Monitor

In my academic work, I’ve been following the evolution of The Christian Science Monitor as it has moved from a print daily to a website with a print weekly. Over the course of this evolution, I’ve watched the newsroom grow increasingly sophisticated about audience tracking. When I asked John Yemma about his views on SEO, he had this to say in an email about its impact on the newsroom:

Search engines remain a powerful and preferred tool for online readers. We have no choice but to become adept at SEO if it helps us reach readers where they are. This is nothing new in the news business. In the pre-Web days, newspapers periodically redesigned and reformatted. Editors frequently admonished reporters to write shorter, to use simple and direct language, to “think art” when they were on an assignment — all in the interest of reaching readers.

SEO, at its essence, is about editors thinking the way readers think when they are searching for news. At the Monitor, as at almost every other publication, we work diligently to emphasize key words. But that is only one tool in the toolkit. We try to respond quickly when a subject we know well (international news, for instance) is trending. This gives us an opportunity to offer related links that invite readers to dive deeper into our content. If SEO is about acquisition, related links are about retention. In the past year, we have tripled our online traffic with this strategy.

Does that mean we just write plain-vanilla headlines or merely follow Google/Trends? No. A clever headline can still be a powerful draw, especially on our home-page or in social media. And we still report stories that we know are important even if readers don’t agree. But we are much more attuned these days to what readers will respond to. If our journalism is not read, our work is not effective.

Trend tracking at TheStreet.com

At TheStreet.com, the organization has hired an “SEO guy,” John DeFeo, to monitor trends on Omniture, watch search terms, and optimize TheStreet’s content after it is written so it can be found via search.

The result: Traffic has improved. When I was in TheStreet’s newsroom conducting field research, I did see DeFeo make a suggestion that someone bang out a quick story on a children’s Tylenol recall after seeing it trend on Yahoo. But should we see that as being overly responsive to audience demands? Or should we see it instead as a chance for TheStreet to provide its unique comment on what such a recall might mean for Johnson & Johnson stockholders — and at the same time know that the story will have a chance at reaching an audience because it is trending?

Glenn Hall, editor-in-chief at TheStreet, defends SEO journalism as being the core of the basic principles of journalism itself. In an interview, Hall said:

Good journalism is not mutually exclusive with SEO. We have proven over and over again that our best journalism tends to get the best page views. SEO is a tool to make sure the best stories get noticed…SEO increases visibility where users are looking. People consume content differently than they used to through a newspaper.

Hall explains to his staff that SEO is in line with the best practices of journalism. He believes that simple declarative sentences, clear and to the point, makes good sense for both journalism and SEO. And, as he notes, SEO doesn’t have the final say on a story’s success or failure: “It doesn’t matter how good the SEO is if the content isn’t good.”

The new news is social

Nick Bilton, the Times tech blogger, writes in his new book, I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works about the “consumnivore” — an information-hungry consumer who wants the latest news now. But for this new information consumer, information isn’t just a quest for information. It’s also a social experience, shared with people from Twitter, Facebook, email, or other social media. In other words, if you aren’t looking for news, the news will find you. Good journalism will still be found, even without the high-energy SEO pumping of a daily newsroom — largely, I think, because of the new power of news as a social experience.

This isn’t a myth. At the Pulitzer celebration at The New York Times on April 12, 2010, New York Times Magazine editor Gerald Marzorati noted the following in his celebratory speech for sharing the Pulitzer with Propublica for Investigative Reporting for a story about a New Orleans hospital during Katrina: “[Long form journalism is] our most viewed and most emailed…It does matter to readers. It stops the reader. It slows the reader down.”

Was Memorial Medical Center, the hospital in the story, a hot search term? Probably not. Were 13,000 words likely to produce the quick hits of information that the consumnivore hungers for? No. But the story still reached a substantial audience, person to person. And as it was read by more and more people, it likely climbed up Google’s rankings for those people who were searching for articles about Katrina.

So, if used properly, SEO and audience tracking make newsrooms more accountable to their readers without dictating bad content decisions — and it can help newsrooms focus on reader needs. What is a story if it is never read? SEO won’t kill journalism; it will only enhance how we find and use news.

                                   
What to read next
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  • http://mattbaume.com mattymatt

    This is right-on. SEO can be done right, or it can be sleazy. Good journalism deserves an audience, and there’s nothing necessarily unethical about guiding readers to your work.

    I’ll start to worry when I pick up a New York Times and the top headline is “The 22 Hottest Mesothelioma Lawyers as Chosen by Lady Gaga.”

  • http://blog.scoutanalytics.com Matt Shanahan

    Good to see more models of analytics used to guide publishers. SEO for audience development should become a core competence. An important factor for publishers to monitor is conversion. If the SEO traffic doesn’t convert to loyal audience members, the revenue model based on that traffic is tenuous.

  • http://www.verticalmeasures.com/services/content-development/ Arnie | Vertical Measures

    I am working on a presentation for the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism next month (http://cronkite.asu.edu/events/all) and found the above info a great resource. I will be sure to point the attendees to this article.

  • http://perfectmarket.com/ sc

    Right. My colleague Tim Ruder, who ran SEO for Washington Post, was quoted at the end of the NYT story referenced by Nikki (above). Point being that with good SEO can come improved audience insights but also additional revenue opportunities. A lot of news organizations have already socialized their newsrooms around SEO and page view targets, but a lot of the traffic these efforts generate is empty calories (e.g., celebrity drug busts). But we’ve found with papers like the LA Times that important hard news topics like immigration actually drive real revenue (we’ve seen the equivalent of $40+ CPMs on such topics). So with data gleaned from more nuanced analytics, news organizations can actually pay for more meaningful coverage.

  • http://www.onlinenews.design Online News Design

    It’s basically a management thing; it could be used to pressure newsrooms to make compromises on their editorial values and judgement or it could be used ethically and intelligently to position and extend the reach of news content.

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  • Dirtt

    Looking forward to your upcoming work Ms. Usher.

    Allow me to call out the people who ‘run’ the Pulitzer. The story about the N.O. hospital is what you consider ‘hard hitting’ investigative journalism?

    The real HARD HITTING investigation should have been about the levees and how political corruption allowed Katrina to become “Katrina.”

    The shame at the NYT has no bottom.

  • Jay Horner

    SEO will not kill journalism. What will kill journalism is the inability of journalists to make a decent living. With Websites continuing to decrease the amount they’re willing to pay journalists–partly because readers balk at paying for content and advertisers seem to think they should pay less for online ads–it’s going to become more difficult to get people who are able and willing to put in the time and effort required to produce quality journalism. I have a real fear that we’re witnessing the beginning of the end of a news media that is of any real value to society.

  • http://newstogram.com Neil Budde

    At DailyMe, we’re big believers in data empowering editors and publishers to give readers more of what they want. Our Newstogram platform powers an analytics dashboard that can inform editorial decisions and our recommender algorithms match each user to the content most relevant to him or her.

  • Carly

    This is a thoughtful and interesting article. I find the anti-SEO hysteria of certain individuals/organizations reminiscent of the Luddites. Some people just seem to be afraid of new technologies.

  • http://lindroux.wordpress.com Lindy Roux

    Spot on! I love this perspective and couldn’t agree more. The smarter we get, the better we can deliver.

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  • http://twitter.com/mlicudine Michelle Licudine

    I’m so glad to have discovered this post. I was recently moved from marketing to the newsroom specifically to help make better use of Omniture data to help editors and writers learn what *local* readers want.

    And, search still drives a significant portion of our traffic, making ongoing SEO training essential.

    Hope you won’t mind if I borrow a few quotes to help champion the cause!

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  • BestAppsAustralia

     All media need to jump on the power of what the “App” can do. http://www.BestAppsAustralia.com.au

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