January 12, 2020 (Updated )
Welcome to a world where #content is king. You know the feeling – there’s so much of it flying around that no one even knows what day of the week it is anymore, and all your boss wants to know is where you’ve ranked on Google.
For journalists it can seem like something of a challenge, especially for those of us with an aversion to anything that sounds even remotely technical. However, while the days of writing your story and sending it to print with no further cares are mostly behind us, SEO isn’t as hard or as scary as you might think.
“It’s important as it gets your content out there and found by more readers,” explains Adam England, a freelance journalist and SEO writer. In a nutshell, that’s it: SEO is being mindful of how to make your story more searchable on the web and thinking about how your audience might try to find it.
Up for the not-so-challenging-anymore-challenge? Here’s our whistle-stop guide to the basics of SEO in the world of news and beyond.
Right, So Why Is SEO So Important?
SEO, or to give it its full name, ‘search engine optimisation’, crops up on a hell of a lot of journalism job roles these days. In fact, of the 194 jobs currently live on Cision Jobs right now, more than 30 specifically mention the need for SEO skills, while several newsrooms hire their own in-house SEO specialists.
Want to do more learning about SEO? This is only the start…
Got a thirst for SEO and want to know more? Our interviewees suggested checking out the work of Barry Adams, who runs Polemic Digital, up to the minute advice. And, for those with a boss they can persuade to foot the bill, we’ve heard good things about General Assembly’s SEO bootcamp. Coursera also offers a number of free SEO courses you can take online.
But career progression aside, in a digital world it kind of goes without saying why SEO is important. There’s a lot of information out there on pretty much any topic and you want people to be reading your version. That means more potential to create new loyal readers, newsletter subscribers or even paid members. Or, you know, just more hits and a happy editor.
Some studies have even suggested that SEO can be more important for your website than social – and while that might not be true for every website, it’s a valuable tool to have in your arsenal in the war for attention. A little bit of knowledge goes a long way.
What Would You Be Looking For?
For Mark Rofe of Rise At Seven, a digital PR and technical SEO agency, there are two key things for news journalists to get right. “Timeliness of the article is highly important,” he tells Journo Resources. “You want to make sure your article is out to ‘ride the wave’ of searches for that type of content.”
To put it another way, when you’re working on breaking news you need to be relatively speedy in putting your write-up together, so your article is up when people are searching for it.
You need to have something up by the time people are searching for more information, which is why you’ll often see newsrooms publishing breaking stories and updating them as they go. Publish too late and you’ll have been outdone by your competitors.
However, as with all things, this is a balance. No one is going to stick with a piece which gives them little or no information, so do make sure you’ve at least covered off all the basics you’d be looking for in the story.
“News articles tap into a wider cultural and industry landscape, and your article is part of that. Researching current trends is a good place to start – identify what people are talking about and build your content around that.
“All good journalism is about why you’re telling a story and how. When you write your piece, you should always be asking yourself: ‘What’s the one thing that your story is trying to show?’ Your data provides that.”
You don’t have to radically alter what you write in order to make it palatable to the gremlins running the search engines. People are still at the heart of SEO, and Google’s algorithm will prioritise content which is interesting and useful to people as long as it ticks a couple of fairly sensible boxes. For example, they’re looking for it to be well laid out, accessible and regularly renewed.
So, yes, you know where we’re going next. Timeliness aside, there are plenty of other things you can do to get your content ranking higher.
The Puzzle That You Actually Can Piece Together
Next up for Mark, it’s making sure you’ve got your headlines down. “If I had to give just one tip, it would be to make sure your headline is optimised so that it is ‘search friendly’,” he tells us. “What I mean by this is that a headline should incorporate words that people are likely to search for to find your article. These will typically include nouns, like the name of a person, place, or thing.”
In short, this is where all the stuff you may have heard about keywords comes in. As Mark alludes too, it’s just the search terms you think people will most likely be looking for when they’re trying to find something like you’re content.
To get to these you need to work backwards – what do people want to know, what questions would your audience ask, and what key nouns and phrases relate to the story.
Even if you’re not working on breaking news and have the next Watergate on the go, you still need to be thinking about how people will search for your story – and getting your SEO above whoever ends up following up on your work.
In a pretty logical next step, the more specific these are, the more likely what you write is going to head up in the rankings. For example, “graduate journalism jobs in Leeds” would have much less competition than “journalism jobs” as it’s a bit more niche.
Want a bit more help planning your keywords?
If you’re fully ready to fall down the rabbit hole on SEO, you can get a bit of a helping hand as to what keywords might bang for you. Google Keyword Planner is free, as is Google Trends, and will help to give you a steer on what to pick.
Keyword Sheeter, is also a totally mad tool that just pulls in thousands of Google autocompletes for any search term to give you some inspiration. Finally, if you’re getting serious, you can look at programmes like SEMrush.
If you fancy a bit of SEO bingo, these longer keywords are called “long tail keywords” compared to their “short tail keyword cousins”. Without going too much into it, it’s worth thinking about which type of key words will work for you.
It depends on a lot of things like how established your brand is on Google already, or if the content is fleeting or evergreen, but there’s quite a lot of reading out there. Basically, don’t always be taken in by the shorter keywords and think they’ll give the best results.
How It All Pulls Together To Make A Lot Of Purple Ducks
So, you’ve got an idea of a keyword and you’ve whacked in into your headline – what next? Surely that can’t be it. Well, no.
Speaking to Journo Resources, head of SEO at Broadplace Advertising Martin Nolan explains how basic search optimisation is also good for the user. “Structure the content properly,” he explains. “It just makes sense.”
For example, it’s about things like putting descriptive headings throughout the content. “It lets the reader the reader know what’s next and make it more scannable,” he explains.
Similarly, make sure you’re linking to related resources. “This lets them explore more about the story,” he says. “If you’re not doing it, you’re knowingly making your content worse, which isn’t the goal, is it?”
Don’t be afraid about linking out to other websites either – you’re looking for a healthy mix between the two, and sending people to other authoritative domains reflects well on you. Equally, make sure the text you use to link is snappy and relevant to where you’re sending people. For example, “click here to see an infographic“, is better than “click here to see an infographic”.
And, then it’s also about your good friend the keyword. We’re talking about including it in things like:
- Your Headline: As we mentioned before, you need to be getting your keyword in here. Most CMS will let you set a separate SEO headline to the one your users will see. On WordPress, the Yoast plug-in comes pre-installed to let you do this.
- Your URL: Normally this will mirror your headline, but you might want to edit it to be shorter and focusing on the main points.
- Meta-description: Again, you’ll be able to set this in Yoast if you’re using WordPress, but this is just the basic informative summary of your article that Google can see.
- Images: Images also need text! Make sure you’re uploading them as opposed to just copy and pastings, keeping the size fairly small, and give the file a relevant name and caption – and if the image links to your key word, use it in the alt text (which you should always be filling out for accessibility purposes anyway).
When reading SEO pieces you’ll probably also hear a lot about ‘keyword positioning’ and ‘keyword density’. Basically, it’s the idea that the best place to be keyword heavy is towards the top of your article and in the headlines and sub-headings – and that you should be using the keyword often.
However, as we mentioned before, don’t drink all the Kool-Aid. Search engines get smarter by the minute and they’re pretty hot on figuring out when you’ve just stuffed a page full of keywords rather than actually writing for a human. “Keyword density isn’t important at all nowadays,” adds Mark.
“Maybe it was it the Nineties or early Noughties, but Google is far too sophisticated now. The content itself should be written for humans – words shouldn’t be shoehorned in there.”
“Consider how you’re measuring the success of the article and tie your approach to that,” adds Laura Slingo of Seeker.Digital. “SEO is about more than just keywords — it’s about expertise, authority, and trust. Does your news piece provide an opportunity to communicate those values?”
The SEO Adventure Continues…
Of course, there’s a whole other world of granular details you can dive into if you want to know more, but even a lot of knowledge can go a long way in a fast-paced newsroom.
And, before we leave you, a last reminder to avoid thinking of SEO in isolation. Google ranks based on authority, trustworthiness and expertise across a number of areas, so getting a lot of positive mentions and shares on social media will also help, as will other sites mentioning you or linking to your content.
And just once more for those at the back – these techniques are simple, and easy, but none of it will work without a brilliant base of content first. It’s still all about the journalism.