I am something of an accidental SEO trainer. It all came about because of a phone call from Sarah Marshall, a little over two years ago - but it has been an unexpected and fascinating voyage. I don't think there's been a single SEO course I've run that I haven't enjoyed, and I've got to meet a great range of journalists from different parts of the industry.
I do love journalist. They're great people.
How did I get here? I've been publishing on the web for over 15 years now, and I've kept up with SEO, because, well, I rather like being read. It's a handy thing, that makes the time committed seem like time well spent. It always surprises me how bad this industry is - structurally - at keeping up with this. A significant chunk of the people who come on the course are there because either they're not being given any SEO support in their jobs, or because the messages they're getting about SEO have no context. Given how crucial search traffic remains - even in this social media age - that's a good decision. What fascinated me is the patterns that emerge from the stories they tell.
Here, then, are the three original SEO sins of the news publishing business:
SEO Sin #1: old information
This is the most common one. Someone in the publishing company did SEO training (or took SEO advice) seven or eight years ago, and that's still being held as gospel. And so, poor journalists are left carefully crafting meta keywords - which haven't been used by Google since 1998.
I've had to make four major changes to the SEO course since I started teaching it two years ago. That's how fast this area is changing. The SEO advice of seven years ago is not useless - it's worse than that. It can be actively damaging.
The waves of Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird updates have changed the world of search considerably, and in a manner that is not very friendly to clumsy attempts at SEO. We're certainly at a stage where bad or old-fashioned SEO can be worse than no SEO at all. And that's where some publishers are right now.
SEO Sin #2: all tactics, all the time
This is most often seen when there's an SEO department within the company, or they have one person keeping an eye on the SEO blogs. Edicts come down from on high about keywords, or URL patterns, but without any context or explanation. This is problematic, as it leaves journalists chasing SEO pixie dust, rather than making good content decisions through understanding what's attractive in search.
Journalists do not like operating in the dark. It gives then the sense that something is being hidden from them. They do care about being read - and widely read - so why not trust them with the strategy behind the tactics? Good SEO is built up over time, and that's a strategic move, not a tactical one.
There's a whole issue lurking here about strategic content planning - and how badly we've adjusted to doing that in digital - but that's fodder for another post.
SEO Sin #3: SEO as science
Somewhat connected with the previous point - there's a lurking assumption that big publishers can:
- Follow an SEO "checklist" and get results
- Expect to place well by virtue simply of being a big publisher.
Now both of these are true - to a degree. But that degree is not as large as they think it is. There's a strong human element of SEO - putting yourself in the mindset of a searcher - and a strong competitive one, as well. You are quite literally competing from ranking with everyone else writing about the same topic. And the "advantage" a large but unenthusiastic publisher has over (say) a small, but highly expert blogger is not as great as you might think.
The key point, though, is that this is not an exact science, as you're working with an ever-changing algorithm designed by humans. And you're trying to match yourself to the ways a human searcher's brain behaves. Losing sight of the human side of this has all sorts of consequences, not least failing to get the click-thought from a good search placement.
…I'm not really sure what the conclusion is, honestly. Partially that many publishers are neglecting a key digital skill. Partially, that a lot of good journalists out there have a good sense that something's wrong and the drive to correct it.
I suppose, fundamentally, I worry that we're trying to build digital businesses on skill foundations that are so much weaker than we had in the print era - and that concerns me. And it should concern everyone who care about the future of professional journalism.