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How Brent D Payne increased Tribune sites’ monthly visits by a cool 20 million

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Key Points

  • Choose and prioritize your target keywords.
  • Map your target keywords to specific pages.
  • Use a page’s target keyword in its headline.
  • Link to target keywords’ pages using those keywords as link text, eg by using the headline.

Brent D Payne, as the Tribune Company’s in-house Director of Search Engine Optimization (and bald SEO legend), has managed a 20 million increase in monthly visits to its websites, including the Chicago Tribune and the LA Times. Payne tells Rachelle Money how these spectacular results have been achieved, including using keyword research to help give readers “the news we know they want”.

The Tribune Company has been in the press for all the wrong reasons in the last few months. In December 2008 it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from its creditors as it struggled under the load of a $13bn debt. The move came weeks after the company reported a $124m third-quarter loss, compared with an $84m profit in the same period of 2007.

With hundreds of jobs under threat many journalists have looked to the online editions of their newspapers for a glimmer of hope. For some it's the only part of the industry where there seems to be good news.

SEO success story

Brent Payne was the man given the task of increasing traffic to the Tribune Company websites and he's managed just that. “In 2007 we had 14m monthly visits from search engines, in 2008 it was 21 million and in 2009 it's 34 million”, says Payne.

SEO traffic has also increased its share of total Tribune traffic. In 2007 SEO accounted for 22% of traffic, in 2008 it jumped to 31% and in 2009 it stands at 36%.

So how did he do it?

Educating journalists to use keywords in headlines was essential

Educating journalists about the benefits of SEO and keyword research has not been easy. When Payne joined the Tribune he gave a presentation to a roomful of suspicious journalists and used a simple analogy to make his case.

He told them: “Consider the news stand of today. Even though you write a great article, if no one sees that article it doesn't really matter. Online you can take a news stand and put it in the middle of Times Square by doing good SEO, or you can take your news stand and stick it in the middle of Kansas by doing no SEO. It's your choice.

“I said to them that although it may not be perfect for you guys journalistically to put a full proper noun in a headline, it makes a huge difference to the number of people who read your quality content.” Payne said his presentation connected with only around a quarter of those in the room, but that didn't dishearten him. Instead he used this minority to gain wider support in the best way he could – by exploiting the journalists' egos. Payne explains:

“Every time the stories from that 25% hit the top of Google an email went out not only to them but to their bosses as well. I sent a short email which said great job, your story got the first page of Google, you have driven this much traffic to our site - and that reaffirmed to them that this (SEO) was the right thing to do.

"From there people started preaching SEO without me even being in the room. One journalist talks to another and before you know it, it spreads like a virus through the newsroom.”

But not everyone at Tribune is converted.

Journalists not considering SEO are now in the minority

“There are still some who are stubborn, but it's the other way round now: 25% are still refusing to take SEO on board.”

Some of the old school Pulitzer prizewinning journalists aren't interested, but I'm not standing over them asking them to drink the Kool-Aid. Most of the newsroom are doing it and seeing great results, so I refuse to battle with a minority of journalists.” When asked what his involvement is once a story has been written and is ready to be published, Payne replied: “I have full access to the CMS (Content Management System) and I can edit whatever I want, like title tags, headlines, sub headlines or even the story if I wanted to.”

However, that's not the best way to do it if you want long term success. What I tend to do is edit the title tag myself and I won't touch the headline. Instead I'll email or instant message the online editor and say this needs to be better optimized. They change it and it's nothing to do with me, it's them making that change.”

Using keyword research and SEO in breaking news stories

When a breaking news story surfaces and it's crunch time for a newspaper site that has to rank high for relevant search terms, then Payne will step in to rewrite headlines.

The death of Michael Jackson is the biggest news story of the year so far. Payne told me that in the hours after the story broke he scrambled to win the race to the top of Google’s Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) for the keywords 'Michael Jackson dead' and 'Michael Jackson death'.

“When Michael Jackson died I didn't win for 'Michael Jackson' which frustrates the hell out of me. I won for 'Michael Jackson dead', 'Michael Jackson death' and 'Michael Jackson obituary'.“

I nailed those but what I missed was 'Michael Jackson', and the reason was because there was so much competition. I got 10% of the queries on Michael Jackson but I also had a record day, despite having only a tenth of what I could have got.”

MTV, TMZ and people like won. And then someone who bought You have to sometimes realize that you won't win every time.”

Most people who do SEO won't have to contend with thousands of pieces of content being published on their website every day. In the 15 minutes Payne spoke during the interview, more than 300 content items were published on Tribune websites. That includes photos, columns and stories. 38,031 different items went out on Tribune feeds in one recent day.

When you are responsible for that much content your SEO process must be watertight.

Payne's SEO process for the Michael Jackson story

  1. First Payne decided which website should own the story and be linked to by the other websites. With Michael Jackson's death this was the LA Times.
  2. Successful SEO needs inbound links from other sites and Payne can create links from over 50 Tribune websites to the one version of the story. As these are substantial sites, that’s a lot of link power. Eg, The Chicago Tribune linked directly to the LA Times Michael Jackson story.
  3. Michael Jackson dead was chosen as the primary target keyword.
  4. Payne worked directly with the journalist working on the story. He helped edit the headline, eg making sure Michael Jackson dead was in the headline and not the King of Pop is dead or Wacko Jacko.
  5. Relevant old stories were 301 redirected to the lead story. Eg, ‘Michael Jackson may be dead’ and ‘Michael Jackson believed to be dead’ stories from the same day were redirected to the lead story.
  6. Google crawls the home page every three minutes. Putting links to the now redirected old stories on the home page made sure that Google passed all their link power to the new lead story.
  7. Keyword research was used to find the best keywords to use on static pages like the home page, category and sub-category pages.
  8. Traffic and SERPs rankings were monitored to see results, find new trends and adjust on-page optimization accordingly.
  9. A record day for traffic was enjoyed.

Online is helping offline deliver the news people want

Payne says that he has seen online search behavior change fundamentally the way publishers produce news for both on and offline.

When asked if he has ever told an editor to change a story on the front of the print newspaper as a result of what people were searching for online, Payne replied: “It's not my role to do that but I see it happen all the time. I am good friends now with the online editor here in Chicago, and absolutely what happens online sways what happens offline.” He adds:

“Our mindset has changed from aiming to deliver the news we believe people should have to give them the news we know they want.”

What you can learn from Brent D Payne’s SEO process, by Mark Nunney

Unlike Brent, you might not work with a large network of newspapers’ websites. But you can still learn from Brent’s SEO techniques, and Wordtracker SEO Mark Nunney adapts those techniques for you below:

  1. For your site as a whole and for each of your products and services, choose which keywords you are going to target. Eg, when Michael Jackson died, Brent’s primary target keyword was Michael Jackson dead. But note that he also chose a range of other popular keywords containing and about Michael Jackson.
  2. Map your chosen target keywords to specific pages. Brent chose one news page to target Michael Jackson dead. Then he used his ‘static’ pages like relevant category pages to target other Michael Jackson keywords.
  3. You can do something similar. Let’s use an example that is deliberately a long way from covering the death of The King of Pop. Perhaps you have a shoe shop. You might sell Nike shoes and you know a new model is coming out: I’ll call it the Nike Example.
  4. You know Nike Examples are going to be searched for as sure as Brent knew people would search for Michael Jackson dead. Make a page for the Nike Example that targets the keyword Nike Example.
  5. Optimize the page for Nike Example.
  6. Find more Nike keywords to target with your category (eg Nike shoes) and subcategory (eg, Nike running shoes) pages. Like Brent used his category and subcategory pages to target more Michael Jackson keywords.
  7. Go to Wordtracker's Keywords tool, enter Nike as the seed keyword. See the first 10 of 1,000 results in the grab below: Brent Payne Nike example
  8. Delete any of the keywords that are irrelevant to your website and save the results to study at your leisure and update over time as your customers’ tastes change and new models are launched.
  9. Now choose the keywords you want to target and which pages to target them with. Map one primary keyword to one page.
  10. Chances are you don’t have a network of websites like Brent does, but you can link to your new Nike Example page from your site’s home page and all other key pages.
  11. You can also do a little link building. For example, you might write the definitive article about the new Nike Example and use your social media network to promote that article.
  12. When linking to a page on your site, use its target keyword. Eg, use Nike Example when linking to your new Nike Example page. This includes internal links from your own site and external inbound links from other sites.
  13. Never stop looking for new keywords because SEO never stops.

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About Rachelle Money

Rachelle Money is a freelance journalist based in Scotland, UK, who worked for Wordtracker from 2007-2009. She wrote extensively about keyword research, search engine optimization and link building

Rachelle is a contributor to The Web Content Recipe book

Nowadays, Rachelle is Communications Manager at Scottish Renewables.

She graduated from the Scottish School of Journalism in 2005 where she was awarded an internship with two national publications - The Sunday Herald newspaper and The Big Issue magazine.