Last week at the Tools of Change conference, Clay Johnson, author of the new book The Information Diet gave a keynote talk titled “Is SEO Killing America“. Sigh. If you’ve been involved in search for any length of time, your first reaction may be, this again? Haven’t we done this before? Once or twice?
Clay’s a friend of mine and I’ve read his book (it’s quite good, by the way), so I knew both that he doesn’t really think that SEO is killing America and that he’s unaware just how much we’re all over this particular linkbait-y title.
And indeed his talk was not about how SEO is killing America. Instead, it was about two things:
- As a culture, we want to be entertained and told that we are right. It’s much easier for news organizations to sell news that reaffirms our opinions than news that educates and challenges us.
- News organizations need page views, so policies such as the “AOL Way” may sacrifice investigative journalism at the altar of popular search queries.
Clay’s talk (and his book) are mostly about the former, but my interest is in the latter. In his talk, Clay noted that we broadcast what we want by way of our searches and clicks. In turn, others see the content we’ve made popular in “most read” modules on news sites and content creators write more articles on popular topics based on search volume. The danger is that we don’t always seek out stuff that’s good for us and the more we look for what’s more fun to consume, the more that’s all that’s available.
He cited the “AOL Way” and the practice of using search data to determine traffic potential of topics and to decide what to write more about as an example of how the media’s focus on SEO may be an obstacle to the best possible news coverage.
For me, this argument is another variation of the “SEO is spam” argument. Spam is spam and lumping it in with solid search engine optimization processes doesn’t make it SEO. Creating content simply based on popular search terms isn’t SEO either. In my book Marketing in the Age of Google, I addressed this issue at length and wrote about how tactics of spammers were mislabeled as tactics of SEO, but that it may be too late to reclaim the term. There, I wrote:
Integrating a search acquisition strategy into a more comprehensive business strategy includes:
- Using search data to build a comprehensive and effective product and content strategy.
- Understanding searcher behavior and building searcher personas that maximize customer satisfaction and conversion.
- Realizing the customer acquisition funnel often begins with the search box, not your web site.
- Integrating organic search with other marketing efforts.
- Ensuring technical architecture o the site can be properly crawled and indexed by search engines so that it can be visible to searchers.
I have explored the search data issue in depth as it relates to journalism during my National Press Club workshops. At least three components are involved:
- Search data is valuable for learning what your audience is interested in to help ensure you meet their needs.
- It’s important for content creators (including journalists) to understand how to connect with searchers in order to gain maximum visibility.
- Investigative journalism is vital, and search may not be the best initial channel for reaching readers.
Using Search Data
As with nearly everything else in life, you can use search data for good or for evil. Take the Super Bowl start time, for instance. In 2011, the Huffington Post famously spammed the hell out of Google by creating an article that basically just repeated every variation of related search query. Not only did this article contain little useful information, but one wonders if Super Bowl viewers are really a key target audience for a supposed news site or if the point was more about page views that keeping the public informed on the issues of the day.
But with the latest Super Bowl in 2012, the NFL created a page specifically for those seeking out information about the game schedule. Although they were using the same search data, not only was the page useful, but it addressed the NFL’s target audience. The point was obviously not about simply page views but to engage with viewers and get them to interact with additional content on the site. I talked to John Cole, who recently joined NFL.com to head up search and social media and is responsible for this new tactic at NFL.com. He told me that user testing found that their target users found the information they were looking for regarding the game schedule much more quickly with the details they added to the pages. To me, this is a perfect use of search data: find out what your audience is looking for and answer their questions (making them happy and keeping them engaged with your brand).
The attempt of to simply maximize page views by creating pages about popular topics is not caused by the availability of search data. This type of reporting has existed since the beginning of time and the online medium simply provides new opportunities for creativity. For instance, when reading an article a few days ago, I came across the following set of headlines:
Why indeed did M.I.A flip the bird during the Super Bowl? When I clicked through to the page, I first encountered this:
Entertainment Weekly certainly is taking a page from HuffPo’s playbook by filing this story under as many keywords as possible. But what about the story itself? Do we find out why she did it?
Being Visible To Your Target Audience
In the olden days of yore, the printed newspaper arrived at one’s door, and one flipped through the pages and skimmed through the headlines while drinking one’s morning coffee. Wearing a corset (or top hat depending on one’s fashion leanings). But things have changed. Now, when we want to news, we either go to an online source such as Google News or we search for exactly what we want to know. You can see this by checking search volume for just about any news item. See for instance, search volume for [healthcare reform] queries:
Not only should journalists use search data to make sure they’re answering all of the questions their readers have about a particular topic, but they should make sure they’re using the language of their readers so that when those readers seek out content, the news stories appear. (You can see how simply a spelling change can make all the difference in the world with different spelling guidelines for “Gaddafi”). It’s not spamming or killing America to make sure that your headline contains descriptive words that match how readers are searching for stories.
This doesn’t only help news stories appear for the right searches but helps click through on those headlines on news sites and aggregators.
What About Investigative Journalism
Investigative journalism is trickier. No one is searching for information about the topic at hand until the story breaks, but how to get the news out there in the first place? Certainly, this type of journalism is tougher to disseminate. It was easier in yonder days of yore with the printed paper and the doorstep and the corsets and the like. It can seem like a lot less trouble to just write stories that you already know people are searching for information about. I asked Clay how he recommended journalists go about getting readers for stories no one was searching for and he told me:
“I think the best asset an investigative journalist can have is a strong social network. But let’s not also forget that journalists usually come with a distribution point baked in. People still do read the paper. People go to nytimes.com.”
And he pointed out that these stories can drive search interest. What the media chooses to cover and the words they use to describe events have direct impact on what people search for and how they search. Once a breaking story hits, people do in fact begin searching for more information about it.
So perhaps, in fact, SEO isn’t killing America but can instead keep America informed.