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The bad, good and ugly advice given to journalists on SEO

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How do journalists learn about SEO? Many of them will Google the term to find out what it's all about and how it will impact on their writing skills. When looking at the kind of advice there is for journalists online, it seems clear that many commentators from the journalistic side of the fence misconstrue what SEO is about, while SEOs themselves seem to be clueless about what journalists actually do, and about what writing responsibilities they have.

Journalists around the world will have rubbed up against the term SEO and been force-fed the importance of keywords and optimization, and how writing for the web is the Second Coming for this dying industry. The need to be read online and generate high levels of traffic and ad revenue are all important because that's what will save journalism. Most of us understand the necessity of learning this new craft but feel bedazzled by words like content management system, Google algorithms, anchor text and outbound links. Journalists may be masters of communication but they will always glaze over when geek-speak is being uttered in their presence. Many will go online to get a clearer understanding of what SEO is and what it means to them, and therein, lies the problem.

The bad

I Googled “SEO and journalism” and got over 953,000 returns. Top was a brilliant commentary from Charlie Brooker, a journalist, columnist and broadcaster based in the UK. In his article for the Guardian newspaper, published in July 2008 he gives an entertaining albeit false representation of what SEO is. The article entitled Online POKER marketing could spell the NAKED end of VIAGRA journalism as we LOHAN know it gives a clear indication of Brooker's scepticism. He seems to be under the illusion that SEO is about “slotting specific words and phrases into a piece simply to con people into reading it.” He goes as far as calling this demented. And he'd be right, why on earth would anyone in their right mind want to con someone into reading their article by using irrelevant keywords? Anyone with even the slightest bit of SEO knowledge will know that optimization is about using the most popular and relevant keywords in articles, especially in the headlines, sub-headings, title tags and linking text. It is by no means a con, it's a way of ensuring your articles are being found and read online.

Brooker says that because of the well discussed 'death of print' that the use of “attention grabbing keywords is becoming standard practice.” With this kind of attitude is it any wonder journalists are dubious about SEO? What's more concerning is that Brooker's article comes up first and third of the Google results for 'SEO and journalism' but sandwiched in between is a voice of reason which comes in the shape of the British Journalism Review.

The good

Shane Richmond, an online editor for the Telegraph in the UK, gives an excellent overview on how SEO is changing journalism. He says: “If you want your story to be read, you'd better make sure the computer knows what you're writing about. To do that you need to ensure your article contains certain keywords. That means not only the words that someone types into a search engine but also the keywords that the search engine knows are commonly associated with the search term.”

Richmond puts the ideas behind SEO into simple language and highlights the merits of using keywords in articles. Speaking plain English and from the perspective of a journalist, he doesn't muddy the waters by going in-depth on things like Google algorithms or the many factors which effect SEO.

He gives practical examples of what it's like writing for a newspaper and the realities of how SEO has and will change how journalists write for online editions. I like the fact he uses real examples in his article. The famous “Gotcha!” headline in the Sun newspaper is a classic example of the kind of headline that would never be replicated online because of it's lack of keywords. The Sun story is about how an Argentinian gun boat was sunk by the British Navy during the Falklands war in 1982. Richmond reminds us that if this headline were to appear online today it would read: “Gotcha! Royal Navy sinks Argentinian warship” or “Falklands conflict: Royal Navy sinks Argentinian warship.” Richmond shows his experience in the newsroom as he points out that: “For many a print journalist such tinkering amounts to butchery, and the insistence of keywords renders copy dry and formulaic.”

But he later qualifies this by reminding journalists (who would be his main audience considering he's writing for the British Journalist Review) that: “if you want your story to be found, you have to adopt these techniques.” “There's no room for argument,” he adds.

I like Richmond's approach because he gives advice on how headlines that are puns are out of the question, how drop introductions which are favored for feature articles are an “SEO nightmare,” because the keywords don't appear until much further down the copy. But he also shows that there's middle ground to be had. When it comes to drop intros which create suspense and build atmosphere into a piece, it may not be SEO-friendly, but a good stand-first (the subheading that comes after the main headline and before the introduction) with relevant keywords can help the search engines. It's a compromise but it's one that can be made as the medium of publishing transcends a digital platform.

He calls any resistance to adopt keyword research and SEO by journalists as “snobbery” because many misconstrue the process as one that requires you to write for computers rather than for people.

In what seems to be a veiled swipe at Charlie Brooker, Richmond concludes by saying: “SEO is value-neutral. It doesn't require you to dumb down, to fill your stories with the names of celebrities or to write 500 articles about Viagra every month. If you write about badgers, thermal dynamics, or parachuting you will want your article to be seen by people who care about those topics. SEO techniques will give your article a better chance of being found.”

The ugly (truth)

I found a couple of other websites which had some advice for journalists but they seem overwhelmingly concerned with headlines and how to write better ones for the web. I hate to throw a couple of spanners in the works, but I have never, not once, had to write a headline for a newspaper. That's the job of a sub-editor; they write headlines, they write the sub-headings and the picture captions and the stand-firsts. I have never had to write a title tag either; that's the job of the online editor, and they are likely to write the links too. So in many ways the advice given to journalists isn't really for us, it's for the production department or the online team.

In an article I found entitled SEO for Journalists: Headlines and Body Copy by Ciaran Norris he gives ten tips for journalists. It's a great article and I am not trying to detract from the value of it in any way, but I am pointing out that some of the advice (however well intentioned) isn't directed at the right people.

In Ciaran's article, of his ten tips, just three concern themselves with tasks that are the journalist's responsibility. For example; “When writing headlines and body copy, you should use full names of people, places, companies and products – avoid acronyms, abbreviations or jargon.”

I would agree whole-heartedly with Ciaran from an SEO viewpoint, but many newspapers have their own style guide which would mean using something such as “Barack Obama” in the first instance (like in the introduction) followed by “President Obama” or plain, “Obama” or “Mr Obama” in the rest of the story. In terms of companies and organizations you would take the same approach, mention the full name in the introduction or the stand-first and then it would be abbreviated from something like, The American Hospital Association to AHA throughout the rest of the copy. I understand the advice given, but realistically a newspaper's style guide is fairly set in stone, and if a journalist messed around with the style, then the sub editors, news editors or web editors would change it to match the style guide.

You could say that this isn't a big problem as journalists usually write the full name of a person, company or organization in their introduction and that's where Google is looking for relevant keywords. In fact Ciaran mentions this in another tip of his. He says: “Having an introduction or stand-first that uses the right keywords and summarizes the story in a clear and interesting manner can increase traffic – as it appears as the snippet of text in search results.”

I came across another article I liked called 30 SEO Tips for Newspaper and Magazine Publishers because its author seem to understand the audience they are writing for. The tips are good and concerned with the structure of a website, the importance of opening up the archives, navigation , how to write title tags and how RSS feeds and link building can help in terms of SEO too.

There really isn't that much solid advice for journalists about SEO because I think there's a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about what a journalist does and what responsibilities others have in the newsroom. A newspaper or magazine doesn't get published by a team of journalists, it takes a good production desk, designers, picture editors, a number of editors who work offline and online to get a publication together. Each department has to work together to get the product out, so to put the onus on journalists to learn about how to write for the web is unfair. Sub-editors, editors, picture desks and online editors all need to have this invaluable education.

You'll find more of Rachelle's articles on Rachelle Money's author page.

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.