Shane Richmond, communities editor of telegraph.co.uk, offers some thoughts on how search engine optimization is changing online newswriting.
With keyword-rich headlines and intros a priority, many journalists feel that they have to make their writing drier and more formulaic. The Sun’s famous or infamous, depending on your taste, Gotcha headline about the sinking of the Belgrano would never be published on the internet.
In many ways that’s better than the actual intro, anyway. It gets straight to the point and makes it clear what this article is about. The trade-off is that it drops in some ugly technical terms – search engine optimisation and keyword-rich – very early. I wanted to start with something familiar to readers of the British Journalism Review, the “Gotcha” headline, and use that to lead into the less familiar technical details. That isn’t an insurmountable problem. For example, a headline with good keywords and a well-written standfirst will give you the freedom to write a gentler intro to a feature. So the online version of this story could mention “SEO” “keywords” and “internet journalism” in the standfirst and allow me to begin with the more familiar reference to The Sun.
Just as clever headlines, delayed drops and other journalistic tricks evolved to suit the medium, so we will learn new ways to take advantage of the opportunities SEO provides to reach a vast audience. Hopefully it should be clear by now that there’s nothing to debate when it comes to SEO. If you want your story to be found, you have to adopt these techniques. There’s no room for argument. But the debate frequently mutates into something else and unleashes a host of other concerns.
Once we know what people are searching for should we write stories to meet that demand? Will search engines end up dictating our news agenda as well as the way we format our stories? If we write stories simply to chase traffic, where do we find the resources to write the specialist stories, the ones that are important to our core readers but not massively popular?
All those concerns are legitimate, but they are not questions about SEO and shouldn’t be interpreted as such. They are editorial questions. If an editor wants to devote resources to writing stories based on topics people are searching for, they now have the data that will permit them to do so. Giving readers what they want is a sensible strategy, even though the overall mix of stories within a publication has to be balanced. Different editors will make different choices, but they are editorial choices, not SEO choices. SEO is value-neutral. It doesn’t require you to dumb down, to fill your stories with the names of celebrities or to write 500 articles about Viagra every month. Even if you write about badgers, thermal dynamics or parachuting you will want your article to be seen by people who care about those topics. SEO techniques will give your article a better chance of being found.