News SEO: optimising for robots is all about the people

Some people in the news business get very wary of SEO in general. There seems to be a perception that content farming and low-quality stories are a sort of natural consequence of making sure your stories can be found via Google. But in fact there is a wide spectrum of approaches here, and news organisations make editorial judgements over whether to cover something that’s interesting to the public just because the public is interested. No Google robot forces a newsroom to make that choice, just as no print-sales-bot forces the Daily Star to splash on scantily-clad women and celebrity gossip.

If your editorial strategy is to chase search terms, then you’re not optimising for robots – you’re optimising for the millions of people online who search for certain sorts of stories. Websites like Gawker and the Mail Online create content to attract the potential millions who read celebrity gossip or who want the light relief of weird Chinese goats – and many of those people also care about the budget or the war in Afghanistan, because people are multi-faceted and have many, many interests at the same time.

If your production strategy includes making sure your headlines accurately describe your content, make sense out of context and use words people would actually use in real life, then you are optimising your content for search. Not for robots, again, but for people – potential and actual readers or viewers – some of whom happen to use search engines to find out about the news.

For example, search optimised headlines may well have the keywords for the story right at the beginning. Google lends greater weight to words at the start of a headline than at the end. But it does so because so do people. If you’re scanning a Google search results page, you tend to read in an F shape, taking account of the first few words of an item before either engaging further or moving on. [Edit: via @badams on Twitter, a more recent study backing up the F-shape reading pattern.] Google’s algorithm mimics how people work, because it wants to give people what they’re going to find most relevant. Optimising for the robot is the same thing as optimising for human behaviour – just as we do in print, taking time to design pages attractively, and taking account of the way people scan pages and spend time on images and headlines in certain ways.

News SEO is a very different beast from, say, e-commerce SEO or SEO for a small business that wants to pick up some leads online. Once you get beyond the basics it does not follow the same rules or require the same strategies. Link building for breaking news articles is worse than pointless, for example; your news piece has a halflife of a day, or an hour, or perhaps a whole week if you’re lucky and it really hits a nerve. Social sharing has a completely different impact for news organisations that want their content read than for, say, a company that wants to sell shoes online. For retailers, optimising for the algorithm might start to make some sense – if the only difference between you and your competitors is your website, then jostling for position in the search results on particular pages gets competitive in a way that news doesn’t. For news, though, optimising for robots always means optimising for humans. It’s just a matter of choosing which ones.