Search engine optimization (SEO) makes journalists groan if my experience of a busy newsroom in a national paper is anything to go by. Journalists will bristle at the idea of ‘stuffing keywords’ into their copy, while managers who often don’t understand SEO themselves rail about falling circulation figures and the need to get the extra traffic good search rankings could bring them. These two sides often line up in a messy battle that can easily be avoided. The truth is that there are many parallels between SEO and journalistic writing and that SEO really can be a journalist’s best friend.
I was working in a newsroom in Scotland when a very senior journalist asked me what all this SEO stuff was about? Journalists by their very nature demand information at rapid gun-fire speed. They and editors alike want the most complex of subjects summarized in a sentence which is easy for them to understand. So the pressure was on when said senior journalist turned to me for answers.
Rachelle Money: “It’s about creating keyword rich content,” I said feebly.
Senior Hack: “What?”
RM: “You know, like when you’re writing your top line you make sure all the most important words are in it, well, it’s the same kind of thing.”
Senior Hack: “Right, so all this crap about writing content for websites, what they really mean is writing stories, which is what I’ve bee doing my entire career?”
RM: “Pretty much.”
So what are the parallels between SEO and journalism?
From the conversation with my colleague you can see that it’s the vocabulary used that makes SEO seem a world away. The SEO mantra: ‘content is king’ is one shared by journalists. We’ve always believed writing to be incredibly important. The SEO wants to create great content and the journalist wants to write a good news story.
Both SEO and journalist want their articles to be read by as wide a readership as possible. It’s important that they appeal to readers and generate some debate. Maybe it’s the journalist’s ego but we want our stories to cause a stir, we want people to respond to them through comment sites, forums and blogs. That means our stories need to be found on the internet in the first place, and that’s why SEO has to become our new best friend. Put simply, we can use SEO to make sure that many more people read our stories.
Journalists have to write their top line of a story which acts as an abstract for the whole story and pulls the reader in, making them want to read the full article. That’s exactly what an SEO will do; they will place keywords into the introduction and headline to make it attractive to the search engines. We both do the same thing, but SEOs use keywords geared to search engines, and journalists use words which are key to the story. All the meaning is packed into the top third of the article – just like SEO’s – we both write in the inverted pyramid style, where you write from the general to the specific.
In articles journalists will quote good sources which are reliable. You can find a parallel with SEO’s in how they link to authoritive resources on the web.
Keywords in a headline
Words, of course, are the most important part of a journalist’s work. We express ourselves by using the best words to hand, and those words are ones that carry the most meaning. For example, the opening sentences to an newspaper article acts as an abstract of the full story. So the headline taken from the Guardian newspaper online, reads:
“Wikipedia row escalates as internet watchdog considers censoring Amazon US over Scorpions image” and carries the additional sub-heading:
“The Internet Watch Foundation may add Amazon US to its list of sites ‘blocked’ for hosing a picture of an album cover by The Scorpions.”
I have underlined the words that I think are key to the sentence making sense and conveying a fair representation of the story itself. Important words that carry meaning are used by SEO’s all the time, but they want ones that are searched for the most. This is probably the biggest difference between the two disciplines.
The Guardian headings have led me to believe they may have been SEO’d before publication. If an SEO was writing the above headline they would likely keep Wikipedia at the beginning of the sentence because it’s one of the most searched for website in the world. It was a clever choice too to include Amazon and Scorpions in the headline rather than something more generic like ‘website’ instead of Amazon or ‘German rock group’ instead of The Scorpions.
Could a reader really tell the difference between a headline written by an SEO and a headline written by a journalist or sub-editor? Probably not. All anyone wants is to be able to read a headline and understand what the story is about, the clear communication of any idea is the most important aspect of writing. I think more journalists need to understand that keyword research and SEO are helpful tools for them to use and not are not obstructive to the writing process.
Introducing SEO to the newsroom
The big problem with bringing SEO into the newsrooms is the way in which it’s introduced. It seems to me managers do little more than a few Google searches on SEO, gleam some information off the web, shove some buzzwords and phraseology into a training session, and pray no one asks them any difficult questions about SEO. The fact is, many managers and editors of publications haven’t the first clue about SEO. What they should do is find a way to integrate SEO into a journalist’s work-flow, they should introduce the concepts and principals behind SEO in the journalist’s own language. They should call out the similarities of SEO and journalism while pointing to the clear benefits it will bring. This is quite a challenge for these managers, because many have never worked a day as a journalist, and have little idea of the modern pressures of working in a ‘streamlined’ newsroom with reduced staff. If only management could find a way to introduce SEO to journalists in a more positive way, instead of making it sound like an alien imposter.
There are many misconceptions around SEO as journalists feel that it is some kind of underhand method of manipulating their articles. It’s this mindset which creates a barrier between journalists getting a good handle on optimization. It’s time to show how journalism and SEO are really very alike. Just as my conversation with the senior journalist suggests; the mantra ‘content is king’ comes from the same ethos journalists carry – telling stories are a core part of our everyday lives.
It’s clear journalism is moving to a place where print is increasingly overshadowed by online news. If the media are to make this journey successfully and keep their readership loyal they must reach out for help from other professions ‘in the know’, and that includes SEO specialists.