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.


  1. Are you really advocating splitting stories into multiple pages just for the page views? As a user, this is obnoxious, and as a carrier of advertisement, it seems dishonest.

  2. Some readers, myself included, are annoyed by long pages that require scrolling all the way down one page to read. I'd rather click through a shorter page multiple times.

    Plus, some ads are set to rotate based on a certain number of impressions, so breaking a story up allows readers to see a variety of ads, rather than loading the same ad over and over. I don't think there's anything dishonest about that.

  3. Using multiple pages to get more ad impressions isn't just a little bit sketchy? It's even more annoying when Web sites with "slideshows" make you load a new page for each photo.
    You're not making readers view the same ads over and over, most frequent users have trained themselves not to look at them.
    Is there at least an option to view a story on one page?

  4. I definitely see your side of things, Megan, and most of the sites I work with do offer a link to read the entire article on one page.

    Whether or not it's a good advertising strategy isn't really up to me or many of the people who work in my field. It's the model that's been handed down and it's all some sites currently have to work with.

    Also, with media companies (including my own) laying off workers by the dozen, cutting salaries or folding publications completely, I don't feel guilty asking readers to click a few times to view content they're getting for free.

    And as for advertisers, I'm pretty sure they market ad campaigns on more factors than just how many ad impressions they'll get. I think advertisers choose a site based on its reputation as a reliable source of information, as well.

    Until someone figures out a better way to sell online advertising in the future, some of the things online content managers recommend are things that can help pay the bills now.