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Local Newspapers Need To Embrace SEO To Survive

It’s no secret that newspapers have been struggling with the disruptive innovations introduced by the internet, and this has resulted in some level of accusation towards Google and a circling-of-the-wagons mentality by the industry. But, what if they were to go in the opposite direction, with fuller engagement? Here’s one tactic for how to go about it via SEO.

In the last few years, I’ve visited a lot of newspaper websites for various projects. These sites are most frequently the online arms of what were once strictly printed local newspapers. When visiting these sites, I’ve been struck by the technical clunkiness of most—they’re typified by poor usability, layouts still closely influenced by traditional print newspaper layouts, dysfunctional on-site search engines, and content management systems hamstrung with badly-formed page templates.

Naturally, these sites are not optimized for search engines nor to make their content readily findable via search. It’s unsurprising that the sites are search-unfriendly. The newspapers probably feel highly conflicted in regards to search—the nostalgic desire for successes experienced in the past have made them grow unhappy with the internet paradigm, and they’ve worked each other up into a frenzy to hold Google responsible for their troubles. It’s hard to expressly invite a perceived enemy into your house on one hand while issuing invective against him on the other.

(I have also encountered newspaper sites which have optimized by some degree. But, these seem fairly few, and even some of them have only taken faltering steps in that direction. The exceptions are some of the biggest players such as the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and other juggernaut newspapers—which are doing professional jobs at optimization.)

I’m very sympathetic to the dilemma newspapers are experiencing. I recall a time not long back when newspapers felt that internet yellow pages companies (”IYPs”) were as much of a threat as Google (see Local Media Face Growing Threat from Local Search Competitors Like Google, Overture and Yellow Pages, New AIM Group Study Reports and Search Engines Make Local Landgrabs, Leave Newspapers Out In the Cold), back when yellow pages companies had a considerable head-start over newspapers in online engagement and ad sales.

Since I used to work at an IYP, I also experienced firsthand what it was like to see a veteran print industry work to evolve to fit in the changing landscape while still being influenced strongly by legacy technologies. Technology wasn’t the only issue: organizational resistance toward seeing where things were headed, or even relatively insightful observations that there might be a risk in not engaging more aggressively also held the IYPs back. Since newspapers perceived the threat beginning such a long time ago, it’s disheartening to see that as a whole they have struggled to develop an effective adaptation for online—particularly the smaller, local market papers.

So, what’s to be done?

While there are a great many areas where online newspaper sites might improve and increase revenue prospects, one of the greatest untapped potentials on newspaper sites in my opinion is the news archive section. Even among poorly optimized newspaper sites, some articles may vanish into a walled-garden archive section at some point, going dark for search engines. Combined with very poor on-site search utilities, it’s as though these articles don’t exist at all for consumers.

I can’t count how many different newspaper sites I’ve visited where I’ve searched for articles which I knew existed, yet the on-site search engines could not locate them. In some cases, the “live” sites had search engines separate from archive search, yet offered no explanation to users as to which should be used and in what cases. Do articles pass into archive after one year? Two? Three? Why can’t the on-site search show them, regardless? In many other cases I’ve found articles by searching in Google, but the article is no longer available when I click through to the newspaper site, and searching within the site fails to reveal it. Did the article “expire” and pass into the archive graveyard or something? No messaging on the resulting error pages reveals this, nor suggests viable means for locating the article.

Newspaper folks: this is your main product! It’s all well and good to try to keep Google from making everything free and putting you out of business, but at this point there’s an even greater danger in locking away your content to the point where online consumers cannot even find—if a searcher doesn’t even know it exists, it’s certain they won’t be engaging with your site to try to obtain it, regardless of whether it’s provided “free” in return for ad impressions, in exchange for “free registration” or provided in return for some subscription fee.

How many articles are locked away in these old archives?!? It surely varies from newspaper to newspaper, but the potential numbers are staggering. While clicks on pay-per-click ads on newspaper sites may add up slowly, there’s no doubt in my mind that if newspapers dramatically expanded the content they have available to search engines, the clicks and associated revenue would increase. These newspapers must not realize the potential they’re sitting upon!

I acknowledge that current news is going to be the more popular content on newspaper sites, but there’s likely at least half as much traffic potential in the legacy content under the theory of the long tail. According to that theory when applied to newspaper website traffic, yes, there’s far more visits per contemporary news story than past ones, but the cumulative traffic from thousands and thousands of past news stories can equal or dwarf the traffic from the more popular stuff.

So, how should news archives be optimized for search?

Here are a few tips to get you started:

Optimize titles & headlines. This is one area where newspapers should utterly dominate! Reporters and editors often write beautiful article headlines which succinctly describe the topic and grab readers’ attention. But, the headline prose is squandered on some newspaper sites which either repeat the newspaper’s name for the TITLE text of all pages, or cram it up with the date, newspaper name and other “branding” messaging before the article title.

This amounts to almost criminal misuse of the title tag. The title is often the link text that’s displayed in search engine results when pages on your site are found to match the search term, and it’s displayed at the top of the browser window when a user visits the page. Also, in HTML there is a particular tag called the “heading” which is intended for just what it sounds like—used as way of identifying the heading and subheadings on a page, and it should be used when displaying article headlines. There are six different heading tags available (each uses different font attributes to add or decrease emphasis), but the main one you need to know is the <h1>, which is perfect for use in displaying an article’s headline on the page. The article headline should also appear at the beginning, not end, of title tags, and be displayed in H1 tags on the page for best usability and search engine friendliness.

Link to all of your content. To this day, search engines still rely heavily on links to pages to discover and index content. For good usability and crawability, I recommend designing a hierarchy of pages on your site so that users may click from the homepage to a page which provides a short list of top level links (such as links by dates or category of type of news story). Those top level links can link down to subcategory pages which link down further to each article ever published by your newspaper. Such a hierarchy of links is mainly for human site users to navigate down into all of your content, but it also helps the search engines understand the site structure, apply relative priority weighting of pages, and also to semantically categorize content.

Create and actively maintain sitemaps. Although the category pages I mentioned above are often loosely referred to as sitemaps, “official” sitemaps files (those created using a formal standard acknowledged by all of the major search engines) are lists of links to your pages that search engines use find all of your content. These should be used in conjunction with the hierarchy of links provided for human users. The sitemaps help insure that the search engines can find all of your pages.

Focus on creating evergreen URLs. Search engines tend to respect pages that have been around for a long while, and frequently changing the physical location of pages confuses both users and search engines alike. So, try to design article URLs which remain stable when an article is pubbed all the way through to when it’s archived for the long term. People also tend to link to articles, which helps search engines to decide how popular a page is. If you change the URL, then the link “votes” for popularity will no longer point to your article.

If you must change URLs, use 301 redirects. If your system is full of legacy processes which require you to change article page URLs once a current news article is moved off into the archive, then at least redirect the original URL to the final location instead of just delivering up an error page. Most users who click through won’t stop to poke around to try to find where something was shifted-to—they’ll just abandon your site to try to find info elsewhere. And, that redirection command should be a 301 “permanent” redirection in order to insure the search engines apply the original URL’s popularity weighting to the new URL.

Offer a “first click free” option. For those newspapers which require registration or subscription prior to showing archive content, read up on Google’s “First Click Free” program. This process allows Google to crawl your site content and index it, and a person who clicks through from Google can view and read the first page for free, but you can then require payment or registration for subsequent pages.

Create a subscription designation with Google. If you set it up with them, Google will allow you to have content crawled, but when users click through they must pay or register to see any of the article. This is less-preferred by Google since it’s a less satisfactory user-experience. If going this route, I’d recommend displaying a good-sized chunk of the article to users that click through, as a preview. In that way, they’ll feel a little less disappointed, and may be drawn in further to pay a subscription to see more.

Improve on-site search Just as a usability matter, consider using Google’s site search if your internal site search doesn’t work well. Once the pages have been optimized as I’ve outlined above, you could implement Google site search and perhaps improve your site’s overall usability.

There are certainly many other areas for optimization for newspapers, and this is not an exhaustive list of SEO improvements which could be done for articles. Simply exposing hidden and non-indexed archives would be a good start.

Google is trying to find additional ways in which to help the newspaper industry, such as its plan to roll out a micropayment system within a year. Micropayment is FAR better, in my opinion, than attempting to require someone to purchase a month-long or yearly subscription when they might want to access only a single article. I’d also suggest improving classified sections or partnering with many news sites for a multi-site subscription.

The local newspapers have lost a lot of marketshare to online news sites and aggregators, but evolving to improve their popularity and traffic in the internet economy could help them to take back marketshare and increase revenue. SEO helps with promotion and expansion of audience. If you’re a local newspaper in need of increased business, seriously consider beefing up your search engine optimization game.

By Chris Silver Smith
Published November 9, 2009

From Search Engine Land:
http://bit.ly/1WjFFZ