Of Living URLs, Newspaper Rankings & California Fires

As Google has grappled with newspapers firing rip-off accusations at them, one of the key responses has been from Google’s Marissa Mayer. A move to “living URLs” would drive them more traffic, she’s said, talking about it twice this past month. But such a system won’t work unless Google News fundamentally changes how it handles news content. Below, a further look, using the current news about California fires as a living example of what can and can’t be done with living URLs.

The Living URL Concept

Mayer is Google’s vice president of search product and user experience. She testified (PDF, or CNET has a summary and full-text in HTML) to the US Senate about the living URL idea back in May. She spoke about it again at a conference in Aspen this month plus at a session I attended at Tim O’Reilly’s Foo Camp yesterday. I expect to talk to Marissa about her idea in more depth, but the core of it seems to be this:

  1. Any news story lives at a single URL
  2. If there are updates to a news story, you update the original story at the original URL, rather than write a new story

The second point is hard for a journalist like me to get my head around. I don’t write for Wikipedia, which is what Mayer seems to want, Wikipedia-like stories that are constantly updated. I think I’d go insane trying to constantly edit some general story about “Google” given all they do and all that happens to them on a regular basis. Even trying to maintain a “Google Web Search” story would seem difficult.

I’m still pondering the idea, however. And as I’ll explain, I’ve just experimented with it for one story, which in turn illustrates how this won’t work well with Google’s current system.

By the way, in Mayer’s system, readers would benefit because they could subscribe just to get updates to a particular story. New information would flow to them in some way, a “hyper personalized newsstream” with logistics to be worked out. The “old news” background you’d already read in he past wouldn’t get in the way. She believes someone will make this happen, even perhaps Google except. As she said yesterday at Foo Camp, “Maybe we’ll do this. We’re certainly interested in the space.”

That’s what might happen in the future, maybe. Let’s talk about the now, and how newspapers cannot do what she suggests, plus what they CAN to do kind of get there under the current system.

I Smell Smoke

By accident, I now have a system that tells me whenever there’s a fire in California. Back in October 2007, I wrote an article called Mapping The Southern California Fires that highlighted a number of maps that were published via Google Maps. The maps pinpointing the many blazes happening back then, as well as evacuation areas and other information.

That article quickly ranked in Google News and generated traffic. As it aged, it dropped out of Google News but still was relevant for some key fire-related terms in Google web search because of the many links it had gained. Anytime there’s a fire, there’s a spike in searches for these terms, and I see that article suddenly gain new traffic. It’s like a personal alert system for me.

For example, yesterday, searches for “california fires map” made it into the “Hot Trends” section of Google Trends:

Google Trends & Fire Searches

In a search for that phrase, california fires map, my article shows up in the top results:

Ranking For California Fires Map

Now, it would be bad for the user clicking to that article if the information was still only from October 2007. But it’s not. Since that time, whenever major new fires have erupted, I’ve written a new article about current fire maps and postscripted over from the original October 2007 story.

Over time, from oldest to newest, I’ve written these stories:

Covering fire maps isn’t the primary job of Search Engine Land, of course. There is a search aspect to this, but for me, it’s almost more of a public service role I’ve fallen into. I live in Southern California. I want to ensure my fellow residents can figure out what’s going on, as well as their friends and relatives who are concerned (often people assume all of “Los Angeles” is on fire without realizing just how big Southern California is). I know these stories will periodically pick up traffic, so I want to ensure people get to useful information if they come to them. Also, as I cover at the end, ironically I sometimes have a much better round-up than local news or government sources.

Update Madness

Complicating the task is that each new article I write might rank for different terms. For example, a search for los angeles fire map brings up my October 2008 story in the top listings, like this:

Los Angeles Fire Map Result

As a result, each time I write a new story, I have to go back and make sure all the old stories point to the newest one, in order to best serve those reaching them. It’s a pain. If only I had a single URL that was all about California fires!

Well, I sort of do. Each story at Search Engine Land gets put into a category. These stories all go into the Disaster Search Engines category. While you can find a link to this category at the bottom of any of the fire stories I’ve written, busy people anxious to get the latest news probably don’t look very closely. So this month, after doing my latest round-up, I added a note to the top of all the old articles like this:

Hey You! Don't Watch That, Watch This!

The postscripting and notes like this have generally worked. I can tell from my stats that even if an older story pulls in clicks, there’s a wave of people moving to the areas I point at to get the latest news.

Doing The Living URL Story

Now yesterday, after hearing Mayer speak, I was in the airport waiting for a flight home from San Francisco when I could see fires were flaring once again. I’d just written a piece earlier in the month already covering August fires. As part of that, I included a number of general resources people could use to find information about fires in the area if new ones broke out. But I thought I’d go a step further. Rather than my category page being a “living URL” for fire news, could I do this with my August story?

My old opening paragraph had been:

Yes, parts of California are burning again — and the map makers are at work. Via Google’s Lat Long blog, there’s a new comprehensive map of the Lockheed Fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains. More on that below, along with other resources to monitor as fires inevitably appear elsewhere in the Golden State.

Now I changed that to:

Yes, parts of California are burning again — and the map makers are at work. Fires are often breaking out, so at the top of the story, maps to places currently in the news. Below that, general resources to check since this page was last updated.

The goal was to save people from being confused by the older fire information. Then I put all the “news” of the most current fires at the top, followed by the general resources, then kept the old information below:

New, General & Old Fire Information

I felt pretty good about this. Even if new fires broke out (and they already have since I did the update), I knew that the general or “evergreen” resources would help people get to good sources of information.

Living URLs Are Old News To Google News, And That’s Bad News

Ah, but the downside. Most important, the story was originally written on August 18. Even though it was updated, Google News doesn’t care. As far as it’s concerned, this is now an aged, older story that doesn’t have as much oomph when competing against newer ones. Yes, it still gets Google News traffic for some terms. But that will rapidly drop off as time passes. None of my older stories rank within Google News, which seems to have about a 30 days timeframe for what it considers “news.”

If I were to use Mayer’s “living URL” model, this page would be the only one I have about Southern California fires. Because I’d keep updating it on the same URL, despite the changed content, Google News would still consider it old. It simply could not compete against fresh content on Google News.

In addition, it wouldn’t compete against very specific terms. Right now, one of the biggest blazes is the Station Fire. That fire name didn’t exist until a few days ago. It’s a popular term people searching for. To rank, you really want to help yourself by including those words in the article’s HTML title tag (which typically reflects the article’s headline). But if you change the headline, potentially you don’t continue ranking for other terms in Google News. More important, changing the headline won’t help since Google News probably won’t come back to see your new headline anyway.

Of course, I could have a new “living” article all about the Station Fire, which would include maps. As part of that article, I could link to my “living” article about wildfire maps in general. Then I could also hope people see the links and get to what they wanted. I could do the same for all other files. When I’m done, then I’d be Wikipedia. Or not, because two weeks after I put my August 2009 story up, they finally produced their own “August 2009 California Wildfires” page that doesn’t link to any master page. Mahalo lacks interlinking, also.

Living URLs = Topic Pages = Existing SEO Best Practices

Still, the living URL idea makes sense — it’s just not really that different from what savvy search engine optimization people already do. You have a page for each topic you hope to rank for, full of good content. For news sites, these topic pages are often links to all their past stories. If you want to get fancy, you can add some evergreen/general content to the top of those pages. Our keyword research category page is an example of this.

For me, if I were really into covering California fire maps, I’d make a special category called “California Fire Maps” or whatever seemed to be the most commonly used term. I’d move some of my general content into that area, then have my individual stories follow.

I’m not THAT much into it, though I might do it in the future, because as I said, it’s sort of a side area I’ve stumbled into serving here. Of course, the real place that should do it for these types of topics are the newspapers — the same audience that Mayer is aiming her suggestions to.

The Los Angeles Times & Living URL / Topic Page Failure

Over there, it’s a nightmare. I want to scream, because I’ve messaged the LA Times in the past about this, and I’ve even spoken on the topic (see Quick Tips For Newspapers & SEO). They have old content that ranks for fire-related terms that doesn’t point over to the new stuff.

Case in point: los angeles fire map on Google, which is currently number 24 on Google Trends. Note the two URLs from the LA Times:

LA Times & Fire Maps

The first is a fresh map (the best map fire-map roundup out there, by the way). This listing wasn’t showing up when I looked yesterday. Instead, what I got was only the second listing, an LA Times map from 2008:

LA Times Fire Map

Search for southern california wildfires, and you also get that map coming up on its own. It’s a terrible experience. No date, and places are pinpointed that aren’t currently burning.

The LA Times does have a “living URL” for all its coverage. For example, on the LA Times home page, it’s right at the top:

Los Angeles Times Living URLs

Go to a story about the fires, like this one, and it also appears:

Los Angeles Times Living URLs

So why’s the LA Times not ranking for california wildfires? It’s hard to say. I know in the past, the Times wasn’t doing a good job having these types of pages. When I spoke, this was one of the things I talked about. I was also frustrated that last November, I couldn’t find a list of all its current election endorsements. I kept getting to a page of old ones. If I search for “la times election endorsements” today, I end up at a page of last Novembers endorsements, not any from the most recent elections in California. Going to the home page of the editorial section is no help, either.

So maybe this topic page is relatively new and still needs time to earn a reputation with Google. The HTML title tag currently reads “L.A. Now | Wildfires | Los Angeles Times.” Since the page already ranks for “wildfires” on Google, adding the word “California” to wildfires might make the difference. Perhaps 112 external links to the page just aren’t enough. The LA Times is pushing the living URL page on its Twitter account — perhaps that might help down the line.

As you can see, topic pages aren’t guaranteed to be sure hits for newspapers. Even if they were, there’s another concern that it’s probably not in the user’s interest that we end up with five Wikipediapapers that dominate all the top results on Google in the way Wikipedia already does. But certainly it’s something for newspapers or any news sites to consider. It’s something everyone can do better out, including us here at Search Engine Land. It’s all too easy to get lost in the reporting of the current story and not think about what happens to that story once you’re done.

Fixing Google

Let’s also not forget that Google could do with a little advice of its own. Having done so many searches for fire information over time now on Google, I repeatedly see it leaving stories up in the top results that are no longer relevant. For california fire map, it points in the top results to this map from California’s state fire agency — a map from 2008. That’s bad relevancy on the part of Google.

Meanwhile, those who want to find user-generated maps of fires on Google maps still face some of the frustrations I covered in my San Francisco Oil Spill Maps & Wishing For Better Community Map Search Tools article of 2007.

Yes, at least now I can search just for user-generated content, using a drop-down box added in 2008. But without a sort-by-date option, that’s kind of useless to find the latest maps. Adding to the mess are the junky blog posts on fire-related terms that get into Google Blog Search, even with the default “sort-by-relevancy” enabled.

Fixing The Public Agencies

In covering this, I also have frustrations with the various cities and fire agencies. People want maps. I can see this, because they’re arriving at my site. But the agencies themselves sometimes seem lacking.

For example, in my update yesterday, I was having to explain why the city of Los Angeles’s fire department had no news of some fires. This is because the city only covers a small part of Southern California. But many people don’t know this. I was pleased today to see that the LAFD seems to have added some language about this on its blog.

Still, why isn’t there a better master map for the entire state to use. Can’t the cities interlink more with each other? And La Canada Flintridge, I know your city is facing this terrible disaster, but you had no map of the evacuation areas on your web site yesterday. Just textual guidance in PDF format! Not to mention updates that, because you use frames, can’t be bookmarked for other people to share (unless you know how to get the URL, which I do — here). At least you link to the LA Times map today.

Living URLs Depend On Google

Overall, the “living URL” idea sounds compelling at first glance. But for newspapers to give up individual articles in favor of one “master” piece per topic that’s constantly updated, Google would first have to make some fundamental changes. In the meantime, there’s much that can be done to ensure you have both “topic” pages that serve to consolidate readers looking for content in general as well as individual articles that serve particular breaking stories. Ideally, these both work together.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Features: General | Google: News | How To: SEO | Top News


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Michael Gray

    hypothetically speaking, if you wanted to do it you could 301 the URL’s after they have gotten their links/traffic to the living URL (transferring all the link juice to the living URL) and then republish that old story under a new url (for archive purposes).

    Of course this is a massive headache for the publisher and a CMS and would probably cut you out of any longtail searches.

    Another option would be conditionally redirecting to the living URL based on a refer … but well google doesnt go for that either

  • http://searchengineland.com Jonathan Hochman

    Newspapers are so wrapped up in their paradigm that they can’t see another way to present information. Take a look at the infobox on Wikipedia’s 2009 flu pandemic article. It’s updated daily by compiling info from a variety of sources. There’s another page with pretty color coded maps of the outbreak. Why can’t those silly California newspapers set up live urls, just for those stories that need them? Information should not move around when it can be updated in situ.

  • http://www.tag44.com tag44

    Thanks for the info shared Danny, its really very resourceful and to the point.

  • http://www.brentdpayne.com BrentDPayne


    Great info. It’s actually something I emailed Google News and Google Search Quality about yesterday. I’ll forward you the thread (scary we were on the same wavelength yesterday). Please don’t post the email publicly though as my relationships at Google are paramount.

    Furthermore, I spoke at SES London (see http://brentdpayne.com/presentations) about the insane process we have to go through in order to rank well in Google News while not losing our ranking in Google Web. The process used to work extremely well. While the slides in the presentation get extremely complicated, I’ll try to outline in a nutshell what used to work well (and explain why I feel it isn’t doing as well now).

    1. Watch Google Trends for a new keyphrase
    2. Do a site: query for that new keyphrase
    3. Find old content that ranks well for the new keyphrase.
    4. Make a copy of the old content and create a new URL for it (editorial history reasons).
    5. Create or locate a new story that is hyper focused on the new keyphrase you found in Google Trends
    6. WAIT for Google News to index the new story. (Important to get past duplicate content filter, it only takes Trib sites about 15 mins to get indexed in Google News)
    7. If the URL doesn’t get indexed by Google News within 30 minutes then build a new story on a new URL, change the Title, H1, H2, and 1st paragraph to something different. Wait until it is indexed in Google News.
    8. 301 redirect the old story’s URL to the freshest content on the topic.
    9. Repeat #8 on as many stories as possible.
    10. Put the old URLs to the old stories you 301′d to the new story on your homepage (or anywhere that Googlebot will recrawl them quickly to redistribute your PageRank).

    BUT . . . here’s the problem. Google Web is taking longer to redistributed the PageRank. It doesn’t happen in a matter of minutes anymore. Thus you are left with the choice of either doing well in Google News or doing well in Google Web. I am not sure if this was a change to stop the exact situation that I was doing above to rank well in both, but 301s have changed. (Sidebar: I also feel that PageRank isn’t passing unless the Title tag and content is similar between both pages.)

    As for Google News recrawling URLs…on RARE occasion I am seeing this. But not nearly enough.

    Here’s an example:

    Versus Google News not having it in their index at all.

    I could list hundreds if not thousands of these but . . .

    So, why isn’t LAT doing what I listed out above? Because it’s a pain in the ass to do it. They are journalists. They are focused on the news. Furthermore, LAT gets pretty grumpy when I wipe out their old stories to redirect them to a new story. Why don’t we link? We do on occasion but it doesn’t work nearly as well. It worked great during the election and inauguration but doesn’t seem to work as well now. Why? Mostly has to do with PageRank sculpting. I used to be able to wipe all but a few links on our story pages and other pages of our sites and that would increase the power of the remaining links by many times but . . . that doesn’t seem to work as well anymore (but could be other factors, I’m getting the tools back to test it).

    As a note to help you with your insanity of trying to update ALL the old stories. You can use a single URL of /latest-california-fires.html and have ALL your stories always point to that location. Then when a new story comes out that you want to point to, just go into your server configuration and update the location of the redirect to the story you want. This allows you to do a broad sweep of all URLs and change where they are linking to quite easily. It does create yet another 301 jump though. So, you may want to be cautious of that. I’ve been doing this for over a year though and Google hasn’t seemed to make any changes to kill that (yet).

    HuffingtonPost.com has this process of breaking and developing news (as well as historical information for the user) down. I like their system a lot.

    I’ll fire off the email. Again, don’t share it but it may help answer a few questions on this topic that you can springboard off of.

    Now I need to get ready for work. ;-)

    Again, great article and great critique. It’s gotten a lot of buzz within LAT. They listen to you (not that they don’t me). Of course it helps you used to be an LAT reporter too. ;-)

  • vickiporter

    Thank you, Danny, for this meaty article. Much to chew on here.

    My professional perspective is from the user/content/usability side, so please forgive my technical naievite.

    I have been trying to help my friend whose cabin is in Millard Canyon. Even though she is well plugged in to her community, she has precious little information to go on. Given my background in Web matters, I thought I would be able to get pinpoint info for her, but nooooo, as you have so well pointed out.

    It seems to me that disaster-related content may need special treatment. It really can be a matter of life and death, as we are seeing with the LA fires. Specifically, the country is set up with this whole Incident Command System. However, they seem not to have thought about social media and are still in the twice-daily press conference/top-down model. So my first point is that after this crisis is over, can we find a way to help the governmental agencies modernize their approach to Incident Command communications?

    Second, people who are rattled by being involved in a disaster need REALLY SIMPLE ways to find out vital information. All this Twittering and searching and going to various news sites just isn’t realistic. Even if it were, the information is too diffuse to be of much use.

    Disasters are always very geographically-centered, aren’t they? Why not think of the interface, then, as a map? Once could filter info by time and by topic (only those relating directly to the disaster, e.g. burn area, evacuation area, supplies, etc).

    The LA Times map is in the right direction, though it is hopelessly out of date. Point to the Millard Canyon icon and the info is from Aug.28, saying the place is threatened by flames. Shoot! We can do better than that, surely!

    If there can be a Unified Command system, surely we can figure out a Unified Disaster Communications plan!

    Thanks again for this forum.

    Vicki Porter

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