Why Journalists Need To Stop Resenting SEO


Whether you’re an SEO, a journalist, or someone who fancies themselves both (holla!), I’d encourage you to read Nikki Usher’s recent post about the impact SEO is having on journalists. In her piece, Nikki tries to get an “in the trenches” look of how journalists really feel about SEO and their views about how it’s affecting their work.

The short of it? They don’t like it. In fact, you may even call them openly resentful. Because they are.

The reporters interviewed by Nikki (note: none of them were named in fear they’d lose their jobs) expressed complaints about having to use “SEO-powered words” [you know, like “keywords”] in headlines and leads, being forced to write “pithy blogs” for traffic, and omg-resentment at how much power “SEO people” have in the newsroom. They feel as though the over-focus on SEO is forcing them to write more-robotic sounding pieces and they’re being exhausted with the constant need to produce content, to produce traffic and to promote pieces using social media.

Not to be snarky but, hi, welcome to my job. And I don’t even get to call myself a journalist.

I received my degree in Print & Multimedia Journalism in what seems like another lifetime ago. Before I found the SEO industry, I worked for newspapers and online news outlets like Boston’s local ABC-affiliate. So, while I was never a reporter for the Washington Post, I do have some understanding of the demands that are placed on journalists. That said, their complaints sound like something you’d hear from a child who doesn’t want to go grow up.

They sound a heck of a lot like whining.

The Web and SEO have changed journalism. It’s made it increasingly important that your content is findable by the people who want to find it. You can drag your feet and try to ignore that OR you can embrace it. Because being a journalist who is fluent in SEO is only going to make you better. It’s only going to bring you more traffic, more attention, and further connect you with the people you’re writing about. As a journalist, isn’t that what you’re after anyway?

Instead of bellyaching about how much it sucks to grow up, here’s what journalists should be doing.

Learn how to write an SEO-friendly headline: One of the biggest complaints from journalists seems to be that SEO is killing their headlines. Instead of being poetic in titles, journalists now have to use “SEO-powered words”. While I love a good pun as much as anyone, the “SEO-powered words” get your content found. Not using them loses you traffic.

When U.S. Airways Flight 1549 crashed into the Hudson River, The New York Times was the first outlet to break the story. For some reason, they didn’t use the term “plane crash” in the title and created something clever instead. The result was that no one saw their story. All of their readers and their potential readers were searching for “plane crash”. They missed out the thousands (millions?) of people who were frantically searching for information about what had happened. You can’t do that. And yet it happens with papers every day.

Write your content, then SEO it: I get it. I live and die by my words, too. But you die faster when your words aren’t SEO’d because people can’t find them. Your news article is only art <em>to you</em>. You will not kill it or your integrity by spending a few extra minutes to put keywords in your URL; to write a compelling, keyword-rich Meta description; to using Title tags and headers; to use a keyword research tool to see what terms users are actively searching for, etc. It doesn’t mean you have sold out to the SEO gods. It means you care enough about your content to help it be found. It doesn’t matter how great your story is if you lock it in the basement.

Create permanent URLs: You have things you cover regularly – local elections, local holiday events, the summer travel guide, etc. These should live on one URL so that they’re given the opportunity to accrue link juice and actually rank. For example, maybe you publish your 2010 Summer Travel Guide at [domain.com/summer-travel-guide] and let it stand there for awhile in all its glory. When that guide is out of fashion and it’s time to publish a new one, give the new 2011 version the established URL and archive the old one at [domain.com/summer-travel-guide-2010]. This gives your most current version the strongest URL, with the most juice and helps people find it year after year. If you know you’re going to talk about the music event that happens in town each year, why keep starting over with your SEO efforts? Set yourself up for future wins.

Learn how to push your content via social media: Newspapers have always had to push their content for traffic. Before it was strong-arming partnership deals or making sure that your paper was available in popular markets. Well, now your market is the Internet and your audience is the different demographics of people who live there. Tweet your content, Facebook it, YouTube it, Stumble it, Mixx it, Digg it and do your best to push it out and get it to the people who want to read about it. Learn how to use these channels and how to build networks on them. If your company doesn’t have an infrastructure that makes it easy for readers to share and pass your content, fight for them to create one. Be your company’s evangelist.

Monitor happenings with Google Alerts/Twitter Search: Whether you’re a local beat reporter or just tasked to stay on top of a certain issue, setting up Google Alerts or saved searches can ensure you’re notified anytime someone is talking about these topics. You’ll be alerted to new developments, to events, to rallies, to potential new sources, to informational posts, etc. Back in January, A George Washington and Cison survey reported that 65 percent of journalists were already using social media and 52 percent were already using microblogging sites like Twitter. If you’re not using them, you should be. It’s a powerful way to find your own sources and keep an ear to what’s happening as it goes down.

Find your local community online: Many towns are becoming increasingly connected. There are forums where residents get together to share resources or gripes, the Web site that was put together about the construction happening on Main St., or the social community residents use to talk about local news. These places actually exist. Seek them out and become part of that world. Get involved in these conversations and build up your reputation as someone who listens and reports on the stuff that matters. When you do, you’ll not only already have your sources in place, but you’ll also be increasing your promotional army when you report on something found in their community.

There are so many opportunities for newspapers in SEO and social media that it’s downright frustrating to see them ignoring them and whining that SEO is ruining their creativity. SEO isn’t ruining your ability to be a good journalists, it’s giving you the tools you need to become a better journalist. Nikki ends her article asking whether SEO is really friend or foe for journalists and, in the end, decides that it doesn’t really matter. The best thing, she says, for journalists to do is to figure out how to use SEO more effectively to make journalism better. And that’s the core. Journalists and newspapers can continue to complain that the Web and SEOs are ruining things…or they can evolve and learn how to use these tools to improve what they were doing. You decide how your time is better spent.

Your Comments

  • Phil Buckley

    Fantastic! I worked for one of the big newspaper companies and one day my head exploded that the headline for the local Christmas Parade story had the headline “Yule Procession” – really? REALLY!?!

    This blog post and Nikki’s should be the last thing the hand out to kids leaving J-School and the next thing they hand current journalists along with their latest pay-cut notice.

    Keep flogging this one Lisa, it ain’t dead yet.

    • Lisa Barone

      It sounds so common sense that if the story is about a plane crash, that you should use [plane crash] in the title, but writers get fancy or clever. That’s something I’ve had to tone down in my own writing. But in the end, the article isn’t about how clever I think I am. It’s about the story. And if you want people to find the story, then you have to use the write words. That’s not even SEO, it’s just good reporting.

      • Arnie Kuenn

        Ya the one real life example I gave to the ASU peeps (see my comment below) was a headline I saw in the Phoenix paper that went something like “Record Precipitation in Valley” after we had a big rain storm. I asked them if anyone really searched for “precipitation”. Would a better title be “Phoenix Rain Totals Set Record” or something like that?

      • Adam Sherk

        In the NYT Hudson River example, the reason the newsroom opted not to use “plane crash” was because it technically wasn’t a plane crash. I don’t recall exactly what it was classified as, but essentially the pilot successfully brought the plane down in the river. So there was a concern about accuracy. But the reality is that everyone was searching for things around “hudson river plane crash” so neglecting that phrase resulted in a major loss of search visibility and traffic for the NYT article(s).

  • Hugo Guzman

    Solid post and solid example.

    There’s an equally egregious example, which was written by a Pulitzer winning journalist over at the Washington Post (how embarrassing):

    P.S. I’ve come to the realization that moronic journalists/bloggers misunderstanding SEO seems to be an endless source of sticky, viral blog fodder, so I actually sort of welcome it in a way (though I realize that it’s not really very good for the SEO provider/agency industry).

  • Carly Messmer

    Thank you for this post! I’ve worked with several journalists who think they are ‘above’ blog posts and editing their articles for SEO. It’s beyond frustrating when 9 times out of 10 they’ve lost the potential for traffic because they want to be cute with their title tags.
    Your posts are a great example that you can have creative and compelling content that drives traffic.

    • Lisa Barone

      Thanks, Carly. Really, it’s not only journalists who ruin their search potential with cutesy titles. Bloggers do the same thing. I guess it’s a lesson we ALL have to learn. :)

  • Hugo Guzman

    P.S. I just realized that one of the references Nikki makes (regarding the Washington Post) is the same misconception (that you need to optimize the title of an article) that Gene Weingarten mentions in the embarrassing article that I linked to in my first comment.

  • Arnie Kuenn

    Hi Lisa,
    Quite timely. I am working on a presentation for the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism next month (http://cronkite.asu.edu/events/all) and will reference this post in my the presentation.

    I presented there in April and this (SEO vs what professors had been professing) was the hot discussion topic. They invited me back, so evidently even though it hurt for some of them to hear what I had to say, they understand the “new reality.”


  • Hugo Guzman

    And lastly, let me just point out, once again, that there’s a difference between the title/headline of an article and the title tag of an HTML page that houses said article.

    You can write a “cute” or “clever” article headline until the cows come home. As long as the title tag of that page includes the right keywords (“plane crash” in the example that you give here) the search engines will find it.

    And everybody’s happy…

    • Lisa Barone

      A very fair point. If you can get a journalist to craft both, it’s the best of both worlds. However, that doesn’t always happen. :)

      • Hugo Guzman

        It doesn’t always happen, and sadly, it’s usually because of poor management decisions.

        I actually had the head editor at an extremely large publishing empire tell me that he didn’t want to implement an extra module in their CMS, which would allow for custom crafting of title tags on an article-by-article basis because “our writers and editors don’t have time for that”.

        So basically, being able to target the phrases that drive the most traffic on each and every article (while allowing the writers to keep their fancy, clever headlines) isn’t worth the extra 30 seconds it would have taken to fill out one extra line within the article submission form in their CMS.

        This is why mainstream journalism is in trouble, not because of SEO, Google, etc.

        P.S. All of you need to remember that it’s the Title Tag, not the article headline/title, that shows up in Google’s search results. So if you don’t have that title tag optimized, it really won’t matter what you put into your headline. On the flipside, if you do take the time to optimize your title tags, you’re free to use as much creative license as you want within your article headlines/titles.

        A good example of this is the way Aaron optimizes his title tags while still opting for creative or brief article headlines:

        I use the same technique on my blog and it seems to work pretty well.

  • Tim Staines

    I’m sending this to all of my clients who write their own blog posts and web copy. This is more than just “what journalists should be doing” this is what every web publisher of any kind SHOULD be doing.

    Thanks for writing this, seriously.

  • Scott Golembiewski

    Great piece Lisa!

    SEO = good content, period. Look at what these news sites produce, typically it’s a paragraph or two, rarely any good imagery, outbound links are all ads, they don’t dare link to a similar piece on a smaller blog (who’s often creating better content), so they blame SEO because they don’t want to produce the level of quality that helps searchers gain knowledge.

    If a big media company can’t understand that it’s about the user, then they slowly lose ground as they should.

    What I consider good: images, infographics, links, structure, scanability, passion, experience, depth, big picture, powerful, insightful, opinionated, talent, unique, ideas, quotes, guides, steps, metrics, meaningful, brief, etc…

    It not easy trying to produce each piece of content with the power it needs to have to become relevant, so instead of covering “everything for everyone” perhaps big media companies should rethink how they publish their content.

  • netmeg

    All the whining in the world will not change the truth behind “Adapt or die.”

  • Zach Prez

    Thanks for the tip about permanent URLs. Great idea to keep link juice flowing to a common topic while archiving the previous version via the slug. I can see this really working well with event pages. Rather than name the event page event-name-2010.html, start the recurring event with a permanent URL of event-name.html and then add a year when it needs to be replaced with the next event.

  • Brad Shorr

    It’s been depressing to witness the decline of newspapers and print media in general. I just don’t understand it. Journalists produce valuable, high quality information. You’d think they’d want to do everything possible to put it in the hands of people who want it, and that’s what SEO is all about.

  • Hugo Guzman

    Sorry, Brad, but I just can’t buy that.

    Journalists routinely:
    a) produce stories that are just rehashing an AP bulletin
    b) produce stories that poorly researched and therefore come to poor conclusions (see my example in my first comment above)
    c) produce stories that cater to a particular demographic or are in line with the social-political leanings of the mega-corporation/conglomerate that owns the publication
    d) produce fluff pieces that are very generic, shallow, and late to the party in terms of their point of view and recommendations. A perfect example of this is the “Time Magazine” effect in investment circles. http://www.businessinsider.com/great-news-for-housing-market-time-magazine-just-published-cover-story-saying-you-should-never-buy-a-house-again-2010-9

    The truth of the matter is that many ex-patriots of the journalism establishment are now the foundation of independent (mostly blog driven) media, and they bring the same attention to value and quality as their slower, less-agile, bureaucratic, and corporate-sellout counterparts from the mainstream. They also have learned to adapt to the new age of revenue generation that the internet has brought into existence.

    And this is why the mainstream print publishing establishment is dying (it’s also why the mainstream TV establishment will also crumble once television become just another online media channel).

    But not to worry, because the journalists that are truly talented and dedicated will survive, and even thrive. It just might not be as part of the old crusty brands that many of us grew up with in the pre-internet era.

    • Brad Shorr

      Hi Hugo, I guess like in most things there are degrees and it’s difficult to talk in generalities. The kind of journalism I had in mind when I wrote my comment is The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times international news coverage, some of our local papers which actually do a good job, and certain industry publications that I find to be pretty solid. But as far as SEO is concerned, the whole issue is irrelevant in terms of what confuses me. Whether or not we think journalists produce good quality information, they think they do. Therefore, they should leave no stone unturned in delivering their content to eager readers. Instead, they resist it: it makes no economic sense.

      • Hugo Guzman

        I agree on both point, Brad.

        Generalities are no good and not using SEO properly is also no good.

        And as I mentioned, good journalism will always existing (in my opinion). It’s just the brand names that will change.

        • Scott Golembiewski

          Brand names will certainly change – they will become personal names.

          Because individuals can report better and more accurately than big organizations that are struggling to find out whats wrong.

          Hmm, kinda cool…. get small, agile and smart or die.

    • bigyaz

      Hard to take you seriously as some kind of expert in journalism when you use terms like “ex-patriots.”

      As for Gene Weingarten’s “embarrassing” column — the point of which you obviously missed since you have no sense of humor? Send us a Tweet when you win a Pulitzer Prize, as Gene has.

  • Sarah Lundy

    I disagree with Hugo. I work for a daily newspaper and I get defensive when I hear an SEO consultant spew about journalists today. That is not productive. I want people to find and read my stories online. I want to understand SEO. However, I struggle to serve two fathers – one is online and the other is the print version. Both have different needs and styles. Right now, both have different readers who are just as deserving. Which one do I give more time to? I think that’s the source of frustration for some daily newspaper journalists and it comes out when they learn more about SEO.

    • Scott Golembiewski

      “I want people to find and read my stories online”

      What do you write about and how can I find you? You should dominate page 1 for your name…. ok well it’s easier when you have a name like mine. ;)

      Doing a Google Search for “Sarah Lundy”- is that your twitter account? OSsarahlundy?

      Question #1 – Why is it not linking to a blog?

      You don’t have to live in 2 worlds, that’s impossible.

      What you do need though, IMO, is to make it easier for people to find *You* – where is *Your* blog where you post regularly, on a domain that *You* own.

      I am willing to help others understand SEO, but first I wanna see some skin in the game, ie. you must publish on your own domain. :)

      • rick

        Did you even read her comment? She works for a newspaper. She’s not going to write and publish the stories they’re paying her to report on on her own domain.

        • Scott Golembiewski

          Wow, are you her boss? I can hear it now.

          Boss: “So what’s this about a blog Sarah?”

          Sarah: “I want to connect and build relationships that are not solely attributed to my role here at the newspaper”

          Boss: “Well, maybe we can find someone that doesn’t have these wild ideas and they will only write what we tell them to write.”

          Sarah: “Yep, and I’ll bet that for every piece they write, and you edit, the public will never see it for what it’s worth, retread / reposted garbage that keeps those advertising dollars rolling” – “with all due respect” :)

          Not trying to get into a debate here – just trying to point out the importance of everyone investing in their own identity online.

          I’m not saying quit your job tomorrow, but think about all the content you might be adding to Facebook, Twitter, News Blogs, that could be on a site you own and for an audience you’ve earned.

    • Scott Golembiewski

      Go buy sarahlundyblog.com and I’ll setup and host a wordpress blog for you for free, it’ll be live as soon as you point the domain name to the IP address I give you.

      Within a week or less, you’ll be at the top of Google for Sarah Lundy.

      You said you wanted people to find you. :)

      That’s an easy one.

      Now if you said, I want people that are looking for how to knit sweaters then you could go buy sweaterknittingblog.com (yes thats available too… :)

      Only it may take 1-2 weeks to be at the top for “sweater knitting”

      So it comes down to who your intended audience is, what they like to learn about, and how you can create content that keeps them coming back.

      Doesn’t mean you have to write for search engines, just means having an idea of how they work will move you along a little quicker on your own as opposed to being at the mercy of some big media company that doesn’t get it.

  • Brian Harnish

    Fantastic post Lisa. While I sometimes struggle with the necessity to KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) when my creativity wants to butt in to my writing and keep me clever, I know all too well the importance of developing copy that will allow people to actually find it. And here draws another conclusion that I find is explained in-depth in your article – that keyword research is of utmost importance in developing a successful online marketing campaign. Without it – you can pretty much kiss your results good-bye, or deliver half assed results to your clients. I’d much rather deliver superior results – and really the only way to do so is to perform keyword research and utilize those that everyone is actively searching for. No matter that you want to rank for “Joe’s Amazing Obamatron,” or “The Extraordinary Precipitation Extraction Device” if it’s not something that someone’s actively searching for, it would be pointless to rank for it anyway because traffic is going after something entirely different!

  • Paul Yokota

    Journalists need to recognize that findability is the key to anyone reading their work in the first place. Besides, reporters have always had headlines imposed on them by editors, and are trained to work within a certain framework (inverted pyramid, et al.) Heck, Bloomberg even has a formula for exactly what should go in each paragraph, where the quote goes, etc. Journalism is not freeform writing, it’s always required a framework, and the sooner journalists see the value of SEO as a framework, the better off they’ll be.

  • Mitch Bartlett

    Newspapers need to also cut the overhead. They don’t need massive amounts of employees to publish a newspaper. Technology has replaced many of the non-journalist positions. They also don’t need the huge spaces they rent out. Journalists can work from home and these companies can rent out a small office and printing facility to get the job done.

    Instead, they fight the new publishing model and try to keep doing things the old way. They just aren’t keeping pace with technology on multiple levels.

  • Angela Atkinson

    Freaking awesome. I’m definitely on the same page.

  • Margaret Adams

    What excellent advice.

    I’ve changed the way I write headlines with some reluctance. The art of writing headlines was once about being clever as well as eye-catching. Now, we all need to make sure we know what our key words are and find interesting ways of getting them into that title. (I’m still learning.)

    The advice about permanent URLs is very welcome. I’ll be following that from now on.

  • Rufus Dogg

    Do journalists write headlines now or is that still the job of the copy editor who is typically hyped up on Mentos, Doritos and Red Bull? Being a copy editor is a horribly boring, thankless job and writing creative headlines is the only glimmer of creativity these overworked, underpaid, non-byline people get all day. Most of them don’t worry about SEO, just how to cut off 3 column inches from a story filed by some egomaniacal reporter hyped up on local fame and worrying about how to survive the wrath that follows in the morning. Are journalists the right target here are should it be the copy editors?

    As a reader of the paper product of several newspapers, I love running across a creative headline that make me groan, chuckle or outright laugh. So maybe we keep the printed headlines and SEO the online ones.

    @Mitch I think you underestimate the number of people it takes to pull a newspaper together (even an online only one) Technology has reduced the number of people needed for the physical production, but the stories, photos, analysis still happens first in the human brain. Faster thinking isn’t necessarily better thinking.

  • Alistair

    I think everyone that writes for a profession, that has their work published online at some point comes up against this if they work in an environment where readership matters. Imagine the pain that Brent D. Payne has gone through at Tribune Company – there would have been some hard fought battles over time there I bet.

  • Aussiewebmaster

    I agree there is aneed to be a little savvy about SEO but the death of print news could change news and as I wrote Friday could cost us our freedoms.

    Maybe we should be teaching them best practices

  • rick

    So I’m going to be slightly contrary. I agree on findability, getting one’s content seen and not compromising that to be cute… but I can also see the flip side of this. You work in words. They’re your medium and you like working with them on more than an 8th grade, very declarative level. Yet you need to bend to the whims of a search engine that can’t find your story about a plane crash unless it sees the words “plane crash” prominently in the headline or meta description. A search engine that can’t tell that Yule Procession is related to Christmas. Your readers, if they see the headline, understand it… but you’re straight-jacketed by a search engine that, even though it’s developed by a lot of very bright folks, is still pretty stupid and literal.

    While I’m sure that some journalists just don’t understand SEO, I’d bet that others resent having to conform to such literal-mindedness. Might be the smart business decision, but it has that feel of the smart human having to conform to the computer.

  • Anonymous

    Great points Lisa! You’re right, a lot of journalists don’t take that little bit extra time or common sense to make their posts rank for popular searches. Couldn’t they just use the keywords in their title tag and the url, but title their actual post on the page “their poetic/cutesy/insert other adjective here”. Relevancy might be down a little bit from this, but that way people could find them and at the top of their page they could have the title they want. I guess this wouldn’t look real professional to the reader, though.

  • Scott@sydneydesign

    Hi, Great post , it reassures me i’m doing the right things and a few more tips too..

  • Dave Saunders

    This is a great piece–very “to the point.” So much of SEO will get you 80% of the results you need with 20% of the work. I think many worry that they will spend all their time “optimizing” their pieces to death when that’s really not the point. Good SEO gives you a nudge towards the people LOOKING FOR YOU. :)

  • C

    “When U.S. Airways Flight 1549 crashed into the Hudson River, The New York Times was the first outlet to break the story. For some reason, they didn’t use the term “plane crash” in the title and created something clever instead. The result was that no one saw their story. “

    Prove it.