Posted on Feb 12, 2012 in More Visitors: SEO & SEM | 0 comments

In Blogging Writes thus far I have discussed the state of the newspaper industry, and started to present some of the innate strengths that the industry can leverage in order to survive. But I also want to dedicate a good few postings to very practical matters, balancing between those that drive news revenue and those that drive visitor traffic and reader engagement.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and its paid counterpart, Search Engine Marketing (SEM), are critical for the success of a news site. They are one of the primary drivers of online traffic (circulation). No matter how good the editorial product, word-of-mouth viral growth will always need a boost from SEO.

There are many web sites that discuss SEO, and there are many especially bad how-to sites (based more on myths and just plain voodoo than on fact). As an SEO expert it’s tempting to write about SEO generically and try to dispel some of the common misconceptions, but that’s likely to drive some controversy and confuse the point of this blog.

Instead, I’m going to focus on the art and science of SEO as it relates specifically to the news industry. This will be a multi-part series, covering the following topics:

Part 1: Why optimize for search?

Search, the act of looking something up on a search engine like Google or Bing, ranks second to email use as the most popular activity online. Over 50% of Internet users perform a search on a typical day. In fact, search is well ahead of other popular internet activities, such as checking the news, which 39% of internet users do on a typical day, or checking the weather, which 30% do on a typical day. (source: Jim Jansen, Pew Research/Internet and American Life Project, 2010, based on original research by Deborah Fallows, PhD. )

Why is this relevant to news? Search has become increasingly important as the starting point for news consumption. As early as 2010 the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism reported:  “Younger generations especially begin their news consumption through search.”  (The State of the News Media 2010)

Many editors and publishers mistakenly think that their Home page is the main entry page to their site. As a result, they think about the site design and architecture in terms of its flow from the Home page. But that is deeply flawed thinking.

In the news industry, where brand loyalty is generally low (the subject of yet another Pew Research report), and content has become highly commoditized, the home page can represent less than 1% of overall direct traffic. Direct traffic is traffic that originated elsewhere, so this measures how visitors first come to your site.

If you are like most online news outlets, as much as 90% of the direct traffic to your site comes from a search engine like Google or Bing, directly to your individual story pages. How does this effect your thinking about site visitors and their traffic patterns?

First, it means that home page design is far less important than once thought. It is true that the home page is important for your brand identity. Often the very next page a visitor clicks on, after landing on a story page, it serves to introduce the visitor to the important and breaking stories of the day, as well as to orient them to the overall organization of the news site.

But if the home page is too often the second page visited after reading a story, this can also indicate a serious flaw in the story page template design, especially as it relates to “stickiness.” (And as we will discuss in a future post, there are ways to measure this stickiness, just as there are ways to measure your home page and story page traffic statistics.)

Because they are usually the first page the visitor encounters, story page templates need to be designed to keep the visitor on the site. They have to serve as:

  • guide pages, leading the visitor to additional relevant content (relevant to the original search topic),
  • teaser pages, introducing the reader to other featured articles that editorial would like to promote, and
  • navigational pages, not only introducing the reader to more stories, but introducing them to the overall editorial structure of the site, especially how it is organized into topics in order to facilitate casual browsing.

Each story page must be highly optimized for SEO. Without that SEO boost, your story pages–the most common entry point to your news site–will fail to rise in the search engines. The site will fail to reach its traffic potential, and all your hard work in producing quality content will be greatly diminished.

Remember, a search engine like Google is in effect the real home page of a news site!