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Sept. 14, 2010, 1:30 p.m.

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.

POSTED     Sept. 14, 2010, 1:30 p.m.
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