Most SEOs are really keen to explain their tips and tricks to whomever will listen. Goodness knows we at Distilled love to, anyway.
But we thought it would be interesting to see how people outside of the industry view SEO. And since the internet in general has proven tricky for the news media, we're going to start what we hope will be a popular new feature by talking to a real-life journalist.
Adam Westbrook is a freelance multimedia journalist based in London. Audio, video, photo and written journalism - he does it all, all whilst maintaining his kick-ass journalism blog and growing his Twitter following. He even makes time to lecture at Kingston University and run The UK Future of News Group, which he founded in November 2009.
So imagine my delight when he agreed to talk to me about SEO and its impact on journalism.
Of course, I had done one course during my undergrad that sort of touched on doing interviews, so I'm sure he was more intimidated than I was.
We met in a pub in Covent Garden, and after ordering our Coca-Colas and chips, we leapt straight into the interview, both of us eager to talk about the role of SEO in the future of journalism.
SEO - A journalist's perspective
MC: Why is SEO important for journalists?
AW: Well, it’s definitely important for journalists, and a lot of emphasis is put on it, but the core of what we do is content. Our value, the value that we give to people is in content. So SEO is important because it makes sure people can see that content.
I can’t remember what the figures are, but news sites like the BBC get a huge amount of traffic from Google, so you have to make sure Google finds you first.
MC: How do you optimise then? Does SEO inform how you structure your story?
AW: The biggest challenge with SEO is changing the headlines and first paragraphs, but sub [editor]s work on that more than journalists. It’s kind of sad, actually: part of the joy of being a sub was coming up with the puns and jokey headlines, but until they develop a search engine that has a sense of humour...
It’s kind of interesting, though, because that leads into discussions of paywalls. They make only the headline and the first paragraph visible, so you have to make sure all your keywords are crammed into the first paragraph and the headline.
And since so many subs are being let go – which is unfortunate, but they’re usually the first to go – journalists have to do the SEO more and more. So when they write an article, they have to write three headlines: one for the paper, one for the television ticker and one for the website. They may soon have to write three versions of the article, too.
MC: Obviously you use Google a lot to research.
MC: Does your use of Google search inform how you optimise your content?
AW: Yeah, increasingly. But really, I’ve only started thinking about SEO in the last year or so.
It’s difficult for individual journalists. Subs have a scientific approach to words, like this works and this can’t, and journalists, especially the older ones, are hesitant to change the way they write for search engines. If they like the way a paragraph is structured or a turn of phrase, they don’t want to get rid of it.
And there’s also the time considerations of having to write and research a story to a deadline, all while making sure the SEO is there. It’s tough enough, and journalists just don’t have the time to think about SEO too much.
Again, subs do most of the SEO work, but they’re being let go. Basically, journalism needs to discover how to make money again. And SEO is definitely a part of that.
It’s a bit of a vicious circle – you need the subs to do the SEO to make the money, but you need the money to hire the subs, and that’s just the story of journalism altogether. But there are going to be big changes to the industry coming from startups and individuals.
SEO for multimedia journalism
MC: As a multimedia journalist, you often do video and radio reports. How do you optimise those types of reports, since they don’t have any written words?
AW: That’s a really interesting question. The thing is, radio isn’t making enough of Google. NPR in the States is doing a great job of this. They type up every transcript and post it on the page alongside the radio broadcast, but that is a very time-consuming process. But radio in particular needs to do this.
MC: So how do you get people to see that content, if Google can’t read it? How do you get it out there?
AW: Mostly just regular visitors seeing it and telling other people about it.
And Google is really missing a trick with archived content. All the news sites have all of this really awesome content that’s just kind of hidden from Google.
Like on the Independent’s NewsWall, you can do an image search by date, so when you search for something, all these images of the articles pop up. I mean, again, there would need to be text that Google could read, so the scans of really old articles and that sort of thing would need to be typed up.Eventually the solution will be to take that out of human hands, to make programs that can do it automatically.
The new generation of journalists
MC: So you’re teaching kids who have been using the internet for most of their lives. Do they have an instinctive or intuitive grasp of SEO?
AW: [Laughs] Uh, no. No, they aren’t more aware of SEO or online publishing. The digital literacy of these kids is appalling; they all use Facebook and stuff, but most of them have never read a blog or anything like that. But I think it’s because education lags behind a bit. They just haven’t had the chance to learn about this kind of stuff. I sort of have to teach them about how exciting the internet is.
When I worked at the radio station [96.9 Viking FM in Hull] I’d read out the news and it was like, meh. Then I started my blog and would get so much more excited about the five or six comments I’d get than the idea that 90,000 people were listening to me. And I have to teach them that excitement and how to use it.
They have to be bloggers, and bloggers have to ask, ‘Is this really worth it for my readers?’ Other journalists don’t have to ask that, so we have to teach them the skill to do that.
Journalists and social media
MC: Okay, just to change tack a bit. What about social media? How crucial is it to journalists?
AW: Social media is changing journalism in two ways: one is by news gathering – finding stories, case studies, quotes – I mean, loads of articles are just a collection of quotes from Twitter or whatever.
And then two is, well, journalists aren’t thinking about social media in the right way. They use social media to talk to their readers, when they should be talking with the readers. I read somewhere that eight out of ten tweets should be @replies, some kind of dialogue. They should be talking on the same level as their readers.
The BBC called it The End of Fortress Journalism. News media had always been like loads of different castles, and the journalists would stand at the turrets and shout down at all the little people wandering, and those people would come over and listen. But now, those castles have crumbled, the journalists are on the same level, but they’re still acting like they’re shouting down at people.
So it’s no longer about broadcasting; it’s about conversation. It’s about more transparency, too, in how we gather the news, the processes, sources, all of that.
Attracting journalists' attention
MC: As we all know, Peter Horrocks, the director of BBC Global News, has said that social media is absolutely essential for gathering news. So what can a person or company do to make their content appeal to journalists.
AW: In terms of PR, journalists always fall back on press releases.
So companies need to follow the same rules as publishers: make your PR seem like actual conversation or news that no one else has found. Make it uncommercial, more human or personal. Journalists hate being sold stuff – even thought most of what we put in the news, we have been sold on.
MC: Likewise, is there a way to optimise content for journalists to find it through search engines?
AW: It’s the same principle. It’s about being natural, transparent, making it all seem like natural conversation.
MC: Any final points?
AW: Yeah, there’s now more information than ever, but a scarcity of attention. You have to make sure content is SEO’d, so people can find it, but it has to be interesting enough to keep them. SEO can’t build up crap content.
Celebrity Big Blubber - hugovk
Vicious circle - metamerist
NewsWall - search.indepedent.co.uk
Cute puppy - iklash/
Bouncy castle - kris247