6 SEO Tips for Journalists, Writers and Editors

I guest-blogged at Kat Tancock’s Magazines Online blog a couple of weeks ago. For those of you who missed it, here it is.

Good SEO can be a game changer for independent bloggers as well as newsroom editors, freelance writers and anyone who handles the words that end up on the screen.

SEO is the craft of playing Google’s game – writing your web copy in such a way that Google will like your story better, and place it higher on a search result page, than that of your competition. Old-school editors and writers get defensive about SEO — they feel, perhaps, that it infringes on their own wordsmithery, or it strikes them as marketing or tech (i.e., “not my job”). But while they’re arguing, someone else’s web page is getting pageviews (and, yes, ad impressions), and that person is securing a career in the new media landscape.

If you want to get in on the game and start pulling in Google traffic, there’s great news: the fundamentals of SEO – and particularly the elements that lie within the control of an online editor or writer – are easy to learn, and don’t require you to compromise your editing or writing.

Here are 6 practical SEO lessons for online writers and editors.

SEO tip #1: Keywords over cleverness

Nine times out of 10, writers and editors would rather be clever and creative than clear. Unfortunately, Google (though a brilliant piece of machinery) isn’t all that good at wordplay. Even common headlines that work well on magazine covers, like “10 ways to blast belly fat,” are lousy SEO headlines, because nobody goes to Google on the first day of their weight-loss resolution and punches the words “blast belly fat” into the search bar. Quite obviously, most people use keywords (i.e., search terms) like “weight loss tips,” “diet plans” or “lose weight.”

Your best ally in figuring out what terms to use in your writing is the Google Adwords Keyword Tool. (See the screencast at top right for a demo on how to use the Keyword tool; or check out the SEO video tips on our YouTube channel.)

The Keyword Tool was built to help advertisers create better ads, but it also helps editors and writers discover what words real people use in their online searches.

SEO writing tips for journalists

A quick look on the keyword tool shows that your pool of potential monthly readers is:

  • 5 million if you use the words “lose weight”
  • 16 million if you use the words “weight loss”
  • 37 million if you use the word “diet”

All else being equal, I’d rather get a slice of the “diet” group than the “lose weight” group, so I can now write my headlines and web copy accordingly. (You’ll see in the video, though, that all else is not equal: the data for “diet” is likely inflated. But for the sake of simplicity, let’s pretend we don’t know that for now.)

You can use these heavy-hitting keywords in conjunction with your clever titles too. Just change “10 ways to blast belly fat” to “Diet Tips: 10 ways to blast belly fat” or something like that.

SEO tip #2: Know where to use keywords

It’s probably self-evident, but the best places to use keywords are in all the traditional display copy spots:

  • headlines
  • subheads
  • captions
  • boldface
  • any place where you would normally have your print typeface differ from your body copy typeface

In our weight-loss example, weave the word “diet” into as many as those spots as you can, without it becoming obnoxious to your human reader. You’ll be giving Google clear signals that your story is a good one to serve when those 37 million people a month search for something with the word “diet.”

SEO tip #3: Links matter

Google cares a lot about the number of links around the web that point back to your website. (In SEO terms, those are called “inbound links.”) All else being equal, Google will give preference to a site with lots of inbound links over one with fewer links, with the pretty convincing rationale that lots of links means lots of people are recommending the story or the site. This is as good a reason as any to get on social media like Facebook and Twitter: when you spread your story, you’re doing more than encouraging readers to click today. You’re planting the seeds for inbound links that will boost your Google rankings.

[Clarifying something that wasn't quite clear enough in my guest post for Kat: Google can't read a private Facebook page, and there's no evidence -- yet -- that Google will improve your ranking if you appear on Twitter. But things that circulate in social media have a way of getting linked to by bloggers, etc., so there is definitely value to social media. More on the connection between social media and Google on another day.]

SEO Tip #4: Good stories get links

The things that made stories great a decade or two ago are the things that make people want to link to you now. Be interesting. Be scandalous. Be creative or funny. Be an expert, a news-breaker, an insider, a pest… These traits make for the best stories, and the best stories get more links and better Google ranking. In this way, Google is very fair.

SEO Tip #5: Good SEO is good for people as well as Google

In a print world, art directors and editors work hard on packages that hang together as a whole, so even a story with an unclear headline will make sense to a reader who can pick up on cues like strategically positioned images. But online, it’s harder to make these elements work together — the interplay between layout and meaning is just not there.

On top of that, the rumours you’ve heard are true: readers online don’t browse around the same way they do in print. The web is a results-oriented medium, and directness is a virtue.

This is where good user experience goes hand in hand with SEO: by making your display copy clear and direct, you give the readers direct information to pull them into the story, and you play nice with Google. Win-win.

SEO Tip #6: Throw SEO away in favour of the human user

This much has always been true in media and it continues to be true now: you can’t sell out your readers. Don’t cheat them for an advertising buck, and don’t cheat them for an extra bit of SEO traffic. For success in the long run, you need to make sure your user experience is a good one. Squeeze as much good SEO in as you can, but if SEO is truly at irreconcilable odds with the user experience, ditch the SEO.

Thanks to Kat and the people who commented on the post at Magazines Online and Masthead. Feel free to hit me up with online writing/editing questions.

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