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Quill & Scroll: Connecting Your Story to the Web

Tyson Braun, search engine specialist with EngineWorks, a Portland, Ore., search engine Internet marketing firm


By Tyson Braun

The Internet is vast but can fit each of us. Our news can be precisely what we are interested in reading, and “The Office” is on when we’re ready to view it.

A challenge for this made-for-consumers medium is the need to locate the information. Some day, literally every bit of information produced will be posted on the Internet. Wading through the mass of information becomes crucial.

So where do journalists fit in? The answer is to play by the new rules and adapt to today’s news consumer. One way to accomplish this is to write with Search Engine Optimization (SEO) in mind.

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SEO Background
Search Engine Optimization was born shortly after search engines. It is the process of “optimizing” Web content so the information can be organized and located by search engines like Google, Yahoo, Ask.com, etc…. A significant amount of the Internet is invisible to search engines because its content producers do not adhere to Web standards when uploading content to their Web sites.

The Writing Process
News stories begin with an idea, often developed by research. Before a story idea passes the lips of a good reporter, substantial work has already been done to identify such factors as angles, sources and new developments.

Often this research includes looking at other stories, online. This entails typing basic keywords into Google, Yahoo or LexusNexus.

For example, I wrote a story about motorcycles and college scholarship athletes during the summer of 2006. This was after Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger crashed his motorcycle and would miss a significant part of the season. Riding the bike was a violation of most NFL contracts, including his. It was possible that Roethlisberger’s ride could have cost him millions in fines.

As a reporter for the University of Iowa Daily Iowan, I decided to write a feature on the relationship between dangerous activities (such as riding a motorcycle) and scholarship status. Universities significantly invest money into athletes. Were there rules about motorcycle riding and other high risk activities related to college athletes? I Googled it. I couldn’t find a related story, but found some useful information. I learned about a few similar cases, but my story clearly had a niche.

Many story ideas begin this way. A little time online using search engines goes a long way. Eventually, you write the story, it runs, you’ve got your clip, the end.

But now that more readers are going online for their news, another element needs to be considered while writing stories. In addition to being about interesting topics, they need to attract eyeballs. This requires compelling headlines as well as all of the elements that will get it through the editing line and to production. Online news stories also require another element. The story must live on online, and be found by those who do not yet know that a story contains the answer to what they are searching for.

SEO and the News
Using my example, the motorcycle story, it first ran in 2006. But it remains online in archives and may be of interest in the future. Further, as long as it’s online, it has the potential of producing advertising revenue. Stories attract potential customers to ads.

Advertisements run next to online stories, and the great advantage of this arrangement is that ad revenue from a story never stops. A findable story lives on forever. But what if a story cannot be found (is not in the results of Google, Yahoo! or other search engines)? Then the advertiser isn’t paying for its views.

The larger question then becomes does the story really exist if it can’t be found?

When articles can’t be found on initial queries into search engines, it begs the question of how did the search engine choose the results? The World Wide Web contains billions of unique pages about everything. Search engines dissect the queries and spit back answers in milliseconds. How engines rank results is one of the great marvels and currently the puzzle of the SEO industry.

Writing to be Found
All is not lost! There are some basic strategies to help ensure a story “works” and can be found online. The first step is determining the story’s “keywords.” Keywords represent the story’s topic, and are how readers will find the story while searching. For my motorcycle story example, I could’ve used keywords such as “college athletes and motorcycles,” or “motorcycle violations scholarship money.” By using these words in sentences throughout the story, its overall theme is declared.

While deciding on keywords, use resources such as Google’s Keyword Tool to discover how often people use your keywords. You may learn that a synonym under consideration for use as a keyword is 10 times more popular than another. In my example, instead of “college athletes,” “NCAA athletes” is how people may view them. Knowing what people are looking for is an essential step to selecting a story’s keywords.

Possibly the most important element to SEO is the Title Tag, which could be the same as the story’s headline. Cute, ironic, or cliché headlines that catch attention at newsstands may not work online. Newspapers often craft dual headlines: One for the newsstand and one for the Web site. Use keywords in the headline and keep online searchers in mind.

Another element to consider is sub-headlines throughout the story. Search bots scan the HTML (Hype-Text Markup Language) of Web sites to “see them.” Sub-headlines written in bold scream to these bots “these are important words right here!” Use this opportunity to insert the keywords that represent the main point of the article.

A word of caution: Search engines are becoming sophisticated and an outdated strategy known as “keyword stuffing” will be recognized and punished. If a story doesn’t read well because of an overuse of keywords, it will most likely be recognized as trying to game the search engines and be devalued. A keyword rate of about 2 to 4 percent is considered to be “natural” and is a good rule of thumb while writing a story.

NY Times Approach
Today, a few major newspapers are utilizing SEO for their Web sites, including The New York Times. Marshall Simmonds, chief search strategist at The Times, oversees all of its elements related to SEO. Simmonds divides the SEO work into two “buckets” – one that deals with the technical side such as crafting HTML Tags, and another with the writing and editing.

“Without well-written, researched headlines that reach to both endemic and search users, our content is effectively invisible. We train, set strategy, work with editors, producers, designers, IT (information technology) folk, and measure results,” Simmonds said.

Linking Sites
It’s abundantly clear, this is important work. Here’s another tip: Search engines factor in a story’s relevancy not only by the keywords on the page itself, but by its popularity. The engines can tell if other Web sites link to the page. A good analogy of a link’s value is a “vote.” If site A links to site B, site A is essentially “voting” for site B; it must contain quality and useful information, otherwise why would site A send its readers there?

Many social media sites such as blogs, Facebook, YouTube and Digg allow Web site owners to promote their sites. This is very important as their sites can relay viewers to stories. Also a link to sites raises their “authority” in the eyes of search engines, thus rewarding them with higher rankings on search results.

An important component to keep in mind about links is the “anchor text” of a link. The anchor text is often blue and underlined; it’s the words that are clicked on to reach another page. The wording of the anchor text should give a clear indication of what the linked page is about. A colossal wasted opportunity occurs when a site links to another with the common anchor text “click here”.

Looking Ahead
Many news organizations are beginning to teach writers to create their stories with SEO in mind. Today the process is still in its infancy as our news consumption shifts online. “Writing for SEO” could soon be a class taught in journalism schools, and its elements standard practice for every piece of content submitted to the Web.

Tyson Braun is a search engine specialist with EngineWorks, a Portland, Ore., search engine Internet marketing firm. Visit www.engineworks.com for more information.

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