Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Title tips: Writing headlines for search

Writing headlines that are optimized for search engines isn't complicated. The same principles that applied two years ago are still, for the most part, in use today. But I think it's important that journalists understand the difference between a page title and a headline and where these elements appear on different search results pages.

None of the following information is earth-shattering SEO news, by any means, but I find myself explaining it a lot to editors I work with.

The page title is the text that appears in the top-left corner of your web browser:

The headline is, quite obviously, the headline of your story, but notice in this example it is different from the page title above, even though it is the same story:

An article from two years ago explains why it's important to get the most important words at the front of your page title, as this is the text that a search-engine results page (SERP) will display. However, Google News displays its results based on the actual headline, not the page title, so it's also important that the most important information comes at the front of your headline, as well. [NOTE: Some content management systems (CMS) do not allow you to specify a different page title from your headline, in which case, your headline becomes even more important to SEO.]

For the above example, readers searching the web for information about truck driver salaries will immediately see "Truck driver salary study released ..." at the beginning of the title and will immediately know what the article is about. If that same article were to appear in Google News, the most important words of the headline, "driver pay study," are at the end and therefore are not as likely to be seen (or clicked) by a search-engine user.

Most news sites seem to be catching on to writing SEO-friendly headlines in their news articles, but where I most often see room for improvement is on a journalist's own blog, which often is hosted by a different content management system (CMS) or does not pass through the same SEO checkpoints as a normal article.

I often see vague blog headlines like, "An Artist's Passion," "Big Bottom Line," or "Shifts In Behavior." All of those are examples from a blog about the trucking industry, but if you were to see those headlines out of context in a Google News results page, you would have no idea. For example, if you type "shifts in behavior" as a Google News search query, you will find a wide variety of results.

A good test for journalists is to type their headline into Google News before the story is published. If you see results that are similar to the topic you're writing about, it's probably a good headline for search. If you see the exact same headline multiple times, you should rewrite it to stand out from the others, possibly by putting different keywords at the front of the headline. If you see a random assortment of topics, you need a new headline.

Headlines are one of the most important places that an article's search ranking can be influenced, so there's definitely a lot more to it than what I've written about here. There are tons of resources available on the web for writing web headlines, and I'm sure I'll have more to say on the topic in the future.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Duck Duck Go search engine looks promising

In addition to its great name, Duck Duck Go appears to also be a promising new search engine. Thanks to kishizuka for pointing it out on Twitter today. I haven't had a chance to spend much time with it yet, but its simplicity is refreshing.

I also like the "Search it on" options that appear on the right rail of your search results. This gives you the option to submit the same search query on a number of sites, including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Ebay and many more.

Duck Duck Go is definitely worth checking out when you get a chance.

Here's another article about it: Why a duck? Exploring Duck Duck Go

Monday, April 27, 2009

Is SEO journalism an oxymoron?

A great article from about the relationship between SEO managers and journalists brings up a lot of good points about finding a happy medium between writing for search engines and for your site's loyal readers. Having worked on the print side for a number of years for a group of web-challenged weeklies, and while currently working for a company trying to refocus to a "web-first" business model, I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of this dilemma.

Part of my current job as an online content strategist involves training editors on the importance of search-engine optimization (SEO) techniques and writing for the Web strategies. One of the most frequent questions I get is, "Why should I change the way I write in order to attract readers who may only visit our site once and never come back?"

These are readers that one of my co-workers accurately refers to as "search-engine tourists," and while they are very important, editors often don't understand why. This is probably because editors either don't have access to or don't care about online analytics data. If they cared or had that access, they would see that anywhere from 50-70 percent of their site's total traffic comes from these search-engine tourists, who usually view one or two pages and are gone forever.

I've never worked in advertising, so I admittedly don't know all the in's and out's of online advertising, but most current models center around selling ad impressions, meaning every time an ad is loaded on a page, it counts as one ad impression. When trying to meet the number of ad impressions promised to a client, those search-engine tourists that make up more than half of your site's traffic obviously become just as important as your loyal readers that visit the site every day.

That's the short answer, anyway, when I try to explain to editors why they should care about SEO, as well as why they should be including inbound links in their articles and breaking longer stories into multiple pages. We're trying to squeeze out as many page views (and ad impressions) per visit as possible to increase revenue.

As for changing writing habits and style to influence search-engine rankings, that's a much more difficult adjustment for writers to get used to. After all, with the exception of the inverted pyramid, which is a good SEO starting point, we were never taught any writing techniques that might influence an article's search-engine ranking.

Therefore, it's easy to see why a journalist might think using targeted keywords multiple times throughout an article is repetitive and why doing so "handcuffs" the reporter's writing style. But I also believe most strong writers possess the creative skills necessary to use keywords seamlessly throughout an article without a reader realizing that's what you're doing and without hurting the quality of writing.

Reporters can still be creative and find different ways to tell stories even while they're focusing on using SEO techniques throughout an article. Like any other writing style, it just takes practice.

New SEO For Journalists Twitter location

For reasons unknown to me, the original Twitter account I created in conjunction with this blog is no longer accessible by me and has apparently been Twitter-jacked by someone named "Jaja Je Lah." Rather than waiting to find answers from Twitter, I've gone ahead and created a new Twitter account at If you've liked what you've seen so far and would like to follow me there, please do. Thank you.

Friday, April 24, 2009

5 SEO tips for Google News

There are plenty of things web developers/producers can do to ensure their news sites are indexed by Google News, but reporters often don't have much control over how their sites are structured for search-engine optimization (SEO). They do, however, control the most important variable: the article content.

Here are some simple SEO tips to help with Google News rankings:

  • First, make sure your site is being indexed by Google News in the first place. From the Google News search bar, enter "" (Here's an example using

  • If your site is not being indexed, then you'll need to submit a brief form to Google News to be considered for inclusion. You can find this form by clicking on the "Help for Publishers" link in the Google News footer.

  • Write to get ranked. Basic SEO writing strategies apply. Include the most important keywords at the very front of your headline. Use these words again in the lede of your story (and in your deck, too, if your site uses one) and once or twice more within the first few paragraphs. Reporters and editors like to argue that this detracts from their writing style. I don't agree, but I'll save that topic for another day.

  • Link to related articles and sites. Find others who are covering the same topic and don't be afraid to send traffic their way, even if it's a direct competitor with your site. It promotes the use of the web, increases SEO value and the chance that site will reciprocate in the future. If you reference a company, make sure you embed a link to its website within your copy. Companies monitor not only who is coming to its site but where they are coming from. If they notice a lot of referrals coming from your site's domain, they may be more inclined to link back to you or even, in some cases, consider becoming an advertiser.

  • Another tip I hadn't heard before reading this article is to include stock ticker symbols in your article, which can help Google News identify what your article is about. I've started doing this lately for some sites I work with and have noticed our referrals from Google Finance have also increased. I've asked editors to include a stock symbol in parenthesis on first reference and it seems to be paying off.

Please let me know if you've had success with any other SEO techniques for Google News.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Social media is not always as easy as it should be

Social media and how readers use it within news websites is something I got to thinking about this evening while jogging through my neighborhood in Gladstone, Mo. (aka The Happy Rock).

It probably had something to do with the fact that, while also running, I was pushing The Toddler in a stroller, which was attached to the dog, Gilda, who was trying her best to keep up with The Fearless 7-Year-Old (who I usually call "Bob" even though that's not even close to his real name), who was pedaling away on his bike up ahead.

It was a lot to keep track of when all I really wanted was the exercise after a long day of sitting at a desk. Sometimes I wonder if readers are overwhelmed by the number of social-media options they're presented with on a news website when all they really want is to read the news.

If you like the news, you might Stumble it, or Digg it or email it or just say "Fark it" altogether because there are too many damn options. We want readers to "follow us" or "become a fan" when some of them may still be learning the social-media ropes or are completely uninterested.

I don't think we should assume readers know what all this social networking stuff is about (I can barely keep up myself), and I think it's a good idea to help readers understand 1) what social media services your site utilizes and 2) how and why they might want to use them.

This also provides some search-engine optimization (SEO) opportunities, depending on the site and its core audience. Using one of the trucking B2B sites I work with as an example (again), I recently built my own version of a social media newsroom. It's a very simple page that lists and describes each social media service we use on the site and why readers might be interested in using them. The page, which is titled "Social Media for Trucking Industry Professionals," is also loaded with targeted keywords so that anybody that might be searching for social media for truckers or fleet managers would likely find our page.

I think it's an easy way to gain a little bit of SEO value for your site while also providing a valuable service to some of your readers.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How to make Twitter content searchable

News organizations using Twitter has become more than merely a social-media experiment. It's now an important medium to distribute online content, not unlike Google or other search engines and content aggregators. It's easy to set up an RSS feed to syndicate content to Twitter, but there are also a couple things you can do to make that content more searchable on sites like and

But before a news organization can make its Twitter content more searchable, it needs to stop thinking of Twitter as a social networking tool and as more of a search engine (as this article explains).

In some cases, Twitter searches are a far more valuable search medium than Google. For example, last month, prior to the University of Missouri's Elite Eight NCAA basketball game against UConn, my cable service started to cut out. I knew it was likely one of two things: 1) our recently mobile infant had been playing Cable Baby behind the television or 2) Time Warner Cable was having issues. Assuming the latter, I hopped on and searched for "Time Warner Cable Kansas City" and immediately determined that other customers in my area were experiencing the same problem.

The speed at which a user can find very specific information is Twitter's primary search advantage, and that's obviously a very powerful tool for news organizations trying to distribute online content. Sure, it's annoying to see faceless groups using Twitter to spew advertisements for herbal supplements or clueless salespeople who want to share a "buisness oppurtunity [sic]" with you, but news media should not shy away from using an RSS feed to update a Twitter page.

In the last six months, 95 percent of the online news I consume has come from headlines I see on Twitterfox, which is a handy little Firefox plugin that makes it incredibly easy to keep up with any person or group that you follow on Twitter.

Media outlets should use sites like Twitterfeed or HootSuite to automatically feed their content to Twitter, and they should also take advantage of the prefix options these services provide in order to make their content more searchable.

For example, one site I work with covers the telecom industry, so it's important that all of their tweets are accessible to people who might be searching for telecom news. Therefore, each of this site's tweets are prefixed with the words "telecom news" (not exactly rocket science, huh?). For another site that covers the trucking industry we use the prefix (you guessed it) "trucking news." Now, to see the value of this prefix, check out the results from for "trucking news." Almost all of the results you'll find are from Twitter pages I've set up for a variety of B2B sites that cover trucking. In many cases, finding the right prefix for your Twitterfeed is one of the most important steps in making your content searchable.

The second SEO tactic for Twitter is to use standard SEO practices on your story headlines. When I post a story online, I try to think of the two most important words that describe that article and put them at the very front of the headline. Let's say somebody is searching Twitter to find the latest information on the "broadband stimulus." If that phrase is at the beginning of my headline, that's the first piece of information Twitter will display after the prefix. Including the most important keywords at the front of your headline is also one of the most important SEO tactics you can use to ensure your content ranks high in search-engine results pages (SERPs).

These are all strategies I've used with a number of sites recently. Over the last two months, I've seen Twitter referrals double from using these methods. Of course, I'm always interested to hear about how others are optimizing Twitter content for search.

A few more thoughts on using Twitter:

  • While it's good for news sites to feed content to Twitter, editors should also be interacting with their audience with separate, personal accounts. Generally, I do not want to interact with a faceless news feed, and that's OK, but editors should also make themselves accessible on Twitter.
  • Don't worry so much about how many followers you have. If the content that's posted is valuable, they'll come. If your content is searchable, people will find it anyway.
  • Don't over-promote or spend too much time on Twitter. Make sure your content is there for readers who might want to access it that way, but don't annoy readers with too many promotions for it.

Topic pages: Tips and strategies

Topic pages certainly aren't anything new in the online media world, but I often wonder why more news sites don't utilize them. Topic pages, which can be defined as pages that aggregate content relating to a specific subject, provide a service to readers and also help increase search-engine optimization (SEO) value for your site.

Topic pages provide three primary functions:

  • Give readers a valuable resource to find additional information about a subject.

  • Build SEO value by linking to related content within your site.

  • Increase a site’s stickiness (the average number of page views consumed per visit), which ultimately can lead to more revenue by serving more ad impressions for a site.

Content managers often stress the importance of building link density within an article's body, but what I've found is that some sites I work with just don't have enough related content to do that.

For the sites I work with, I've started creating topic pages for as many subjects, companies, organizations and other similar content that I can identify. Here's an example of one list of topic pages I've built for a B2B site that covers the trucking industry. The list is actually becoming so long that I will probably have to come up with a better way to organize it.

The idea behind building these pages is that every time one of these topics is referenced in an article, I automatically have a strong inbound link to point readers (and search engines) to. Here's a live example of this strategy in action. Notice that within the first three paragraphs of this story, there are a total of five inbound links, none of which existed before creating topic pages for this site.

There are also a few SEO tactics I employ for each topic page that I build, which can ultimately help your topic pages rank higher on search-engine results pages (SERPs):

  • Using a keyword-rich title for the topic page (IE: Cargo Theft Prevention News, Information).

  • Providing a keyword-rich description at the top of the page to help search engines identify what kind of content can be found on the page (this also helps readers).

  • If the topic page relates to a specific company or organization, I will include a direct link to that group’s website, as well. Again, this is valuable for SEO and readers.

The only drawback to using topic pages is that they do take time to create and maintain. In order to remain a valuable resource for readers, topic pages need to be updated regularly any time a new article is published that fits in that subject category. A good content management system (CMS) will usually allow you to create archive pages, which simply require you to “tag” the story to a specific category in order to update that archive page with the latest content.

These topic pages often don’t have a lot of bells and whistles, but that’s another thing I like most about them.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Why I don't pay for print

Just a few moments ago (while I was reading some news online), a man knocked on our door holding a clipboard. He was soliciting print subscriptions to The Kansas City Star.

After getting through his intro and asking if I was the guy that used to live in our house, he asked if I had ever considered purchasing a print subscription to the Star.

"No, I read the Star online," I told him.

"How often do you read it online?" he asked.

"Every day," I said.

He then went on to explain that a print subscription comes with some kind of "e-edition" or something that apparently isn't available to me now. I politely told him I wasn't interested and said, "Thank you," before returning to my computer and an article I had found using Google News.

Of course, nothing I'll say here is news to anybody. While I still enjoy the look and feel of a newspaper, my affection for print is no longer strong enough to spend money on it. The content I want to read in the Star is available for free, so paying for another online edition seems pointless.

But, to be honest, even if it wasn't available for free, I still don't think I would likely pay for an online subscription. More than likely, I would find the info I need somewhere else.

Unfortunately for journalists and publishing companies, that's the reality of today's online world. Oh, sure, as a journalism undergraduate, I would have argued tooth and nail the value of journalism in a democratic society, that newspapers and other respected media outlets are important components of our communities. But going on eight years since graduation and working in the increasingly depressing world of B2B media, my view is much more cynical than it was in 2001.

But I had no reason to believe otherwise in college. Even in one of the country's most-respected journalism programs, I never once heard the word "blog" in a journalism class and the only thing I learned from the "online journalism" course that was offered was a very basic understanding of Dreamweaver and how to use a search engine.

I actually still have the book from that class, "Introduction to Online Journalism." One of the first sentences in the preface states, "There are credible people who argue that the Web is the most potentially powerful communications development since the invention of movable type. That remains to be seen." I think the current state of print media has more than answered that question. The book, published in 2001, describes in detail how to use a search engine but mentions nothing of how to write for a search engine, something too few journalists understand these days.

Learning to write for the web and understanding how search engines work is something I hope this blog can occasionally help readers do, as well as inform about other online journalism trends.

These days, it's all about page views, unique visitors, ad impressions and "revenue-facing" strategies for the web, and most of these aren't going to be enough to support the large media companies we've come to rely on for free. Content producers are going to become smaller, more resourceful, and journalists will need to know how to hard-code a hyperlink to open in a new browser window as much as they'll need to know how to cite their sources.

Online journalism is something I wish I would have taken more seriously in college, but as much as we talked about the Internet's "potential impact," we never really learned the skills we needed to adapt and survive. I'm still learning myself, and I hope others will help join in the discussion.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Work Samples

Below are excerpts from various online traffic reports I’ve recently put together for Penton Media Web sites that I work with.

From July 2009:

During the last two days of July, Fleet Owner recorded its highest traffic of the month with 14,787 page views (8,517 on 7/30 and 6,270 on 7/31). Two things resulted in the spike: 1) a renewal e-blast generated approximately 750 page views, and 2) a package of content was created around Sean Kilcarr’s Smith Electric Vehicles lead story that totaled more than 2,000 page views over that two-day period.

The lead story alone brought in modest numbers with 304 page views. However, because of Sean’s work in sending me photos and three videos from the event, we were able to create a landing page of content featuring a photo gallery, the lead story and three videos. This content package as a whole generated more than 2,000 page views, as opposed to the 300 we would have had without the video and photos. In addition, the three videos that were included have been viewed more than 750 times since they were added to the site. You can see a screen shot below:

From July 2009:

One search-engine optimization (SEO) practice I’d like to discuss in more detail with editorial is to create a glossary of industry terms, to be used in conjunction with our Topic Pages.

This glossary would include as many industry terms and definitions that we could come up with that would live on the site as evergreen content. Glossaries provide a valuable service to readers and also help tremendously in search-engine rankings. For more information on how glossaries can improve a site’s search ranking, please read this article: How Glossaries and FAQs Can Improve Search Engine Rankings.

Omniture data is a great way to illustrate the value of this type of content. This PDF report shows how many people came to the TO site in July while searching for queries like, “What is broadband,” “what is 3g,” “what is ev-do,” etc. For each newly created topic page, we are also including a “What is” question at the top of each page (see image below). Currently, these questions link off-site to definitions hosted on other glossaries. Ideally we would like to use our own glossary to link to these definitions.

In order to create a site glossary, I need to have the editorial team send me a list of terms and definitions, similar to what we did for Topic Pages. These definitions DO NOT have to be long. In addition to improving TO’s search position, I think a glossary would also be a valuable resource for the new Connected Planet brand as the site expands its coverage.

Here is an example of another Penton site that is already using a glossary: The primary change I would make would be for each definition to have its own page, which would help build page views and search-engine ranking.

Other Penton sites have taken more of a FAQ/Tutorial approach to these pages: This style would be great if we have the time/resources to do it.

From March 2009:

Twitter referrals also increased sharply in March with 109 and an additional 65 from, which includes referrals from Twitter. FO was able to really utilize Twitter during the MATS show after starting what’s called a Twitter hashtag for the event known as #mats09. A hashtag is a small set of characters that people using Twitter use to keep track of a single event or subject. After we started the #mats09 hashtag, more than 50 users used the hashtag through the event and more than 300 posts included the hashtag. You can see all the results here:

Using Twitter for event coverage like this is very valuable because it provides search results in real time, rather than Google, which displays results based on a complicated search algorithm that does not update instantaneously. It’s a search method that will be more and more popular as it catches on, so I expect to see more referrals from twitter in coming months. Just to give an example of Twitter’s search value, last weekend I was having issues with my cable television service during an NCAA basketball game. Rather than play around with my box/cords, I search for ‘Time Warner Cable Kansas City’ and immediately found that other subscribers in my area were having the same issue. So, as far as FO’s content goes, if a big news story is breaking, people are likely going to be talking about it on Twitter, which is why it’s important that our content is available there.

From March 2009:

During April I’ll be continuing to expand the site’s topic pages in order to provide more place to link to internally on the site. This article is a great example of why this is something worth doing:

If you look at the first three paragraphs, you can see there are a total of 5 internal links within them and two more options below that to read the entire article and a related video. Those links resulted in an additional 477 page views, which does not include additional page views readers might have consumed after clicking through. Having more places to link to internally will only help increase our site’s stickiness, which did increase sharply in March. Studies have shown that readers are most likely to click on links when they are inserted into the body of an article, rather than in a rail or content block, and this seems to support that theory.

From May 2009:

Sean Kilcarr’s Trucks At Work blog totaled 8,696 page views, up slightly from March’s 8,590 and up 70 percent over April 2008. Trucking Between the Lines totaled 614 page views, down from 1,309 in March, and Trucking Straight Talk recorded 1,032, up from 484 in March. While the same SEO principles we preach for news articles also applies to blogs, one of the most important factors in blog traffic is in frequency. If a blog is not updated regularly, its traffic will fall off very quickly.

Also, I would encourage FO’s bloggers to pay more attention to their blog titles and make sure they are a bit more SEO friendly. Each blog title should in some way let a reader know what the blog is about. Vague, two-word headlines that could relate to anything do not help search-engine readers, who make up the majority of our site’s traffic. At the same time, blog titles should not be longer than 30-35 characters. We recommend placing the two most important, descriptive words at the front of the title whenever possible. Please feel free to contact me with questions.

From June 2009:

Fleet Owner’s newest blog, Trucking Straight Talk, had its best month by far in June with more than 6,800 page views (compared to 1,584 in May). The reason for the increase was Brian’s two blog posts on the FedEx/Brown Bailout controversy. Brian started with a post on June 9 titled “FedEx calls foul on Big Brown.” It was a short post that offered a clear opinion on the controversy, and the result was more than 2,200 page views and 3 comments from readers. Based on that success, Brian followed that post with a follow-up blog (“Is FedEx playing fair?”) on June 17 that brought in another 2,900 page views and 6 comments. Brian’s “Brown Bailout” blogs also did very well in the search engines, as more than 1,400 visitors came to the site after searching for “brown bailout” or other variations of that query.

Because this was such a hot topic, following up with another blog post was a very good idea, and the increased page views and comments shows why. That one topic brought in more than 5,200 page views for the blog. Using the blogs to address controversial topics or to complement our lead story is always a good idea and always seems to generate more discussion among FO’s readers.