For most news publishers, SEO (search engine optimisation), is a well-established part of their audience development strategy. They probably have whole teams of SEO editors in place. And while the processes and ways of working might vary, the basic function of these teams will be the same – to drive as much search traffic as possible to their brand’s content. Simple.
Or at least, it used to be. When I first started working in newsroom SEO 15 years ago, SEO editors were like magicians. We added a full name to a headline, put a location followed by an event type in front of a colon at the start of a page title and BOOM, within minutes, that article went to the top of Google’s news rail and the search clicks flowed.
The effort and sophistication required to drive pageviews from Google for news publishers is now about so much more than just knowing how to put keywords in headlines. The search landscape has altered drastically over the past decade and publishers have been forced to adapt and pivot their SEO strategies repeatedly in order to maintain visibility and keep the flow of clicks coming.
Central to this has been a succession of Google algorithm changes that have shifted the focus away from on-page optimisation techniques towards more opaque, harder to measure principles like authority and trustworthiness. Simultaneously, the weight of more technical factors like page experience and site speed (Google’s core web vitals ranking signals), has meant SEO teams have had to work more closely with developers and product teams than ever before. And we haven’t even mentioned the flux and disruption caused by AMP and the pressure that building, maintaining, developing (and ultimately, for an increasing number of publishers, retiring) this platform has put on tech teams with already huge backlogs of tickets and projects competing for priority.
From all this disruption, the one clear trend to emerge has been that just following basic on-page SEO best practices is not enough. Publishers need a holistic approach to optimisation that requires input, alignment and support from all areas of the business. SEO can no longer be something that happens quietly in a corner somewhere controlled by a handful of people.
The effectiveness of current publisher SEO strategies
As I write, our industry is in the grip of peak AI fever. Google has unveiled its search generative experience (SGE), OpenAI’s ChatGPT is integrated into Bing, Google has launched Bard – it’s a lot to keep up with – and what does any of it mean for news publishers?
Should we be embracing AI as a tool to improve efficiency by applying it to the completion of worthwhile but repetitive tasks like writing meta descriptions or video transcripts? Should we be going further like BuzzFeed and Reach and using AI to ‘enhance’ content? It’s all too early to say what the future will look like, but what does seem pretty clear is that SEO strategies based around ‘one fact’, explainer style content are looking increasingly untenable.
This shift isn’t new of course. Google knowledge panels, featured snippets and ‘people also ask’ boxes have been eroding clicks to publisher content and fuelling speculation around the rise of zero click SERPs (search engine result pages), for years. What is clearer than ever, from what we have seen of SGE so far, is that the gradual eating away of longtail organic search traffic for the lowest denominator, easy win search plays is very much in its endgame. If you’re still producing and relying on ‘when is Halloween’ or ‘what is Kim Kardashian’s net worth’ explainers to drive search traffic it might be time for a rethink.
Which is not to say that evergreen-focused strategies are dead in the water. But the bar to what qualifies as high quality evergreen content now needs to be set at a much higher level. Google’s Knowledge Graph can already answer factual questions1 such as ‘how tall is the Shard’, (310m if you’re interested) – one-fact, easily answerable question-style content is only going to become more obsolete in the new search landscape.
High quality evergreen content, however, will continue to have value if it helps give users context, facilitates understanding of a complicated topic and delivers genuine insight. This is where Google’s much discussed EEAT signals come in. Those publishers who have been investing time and effort into thinking of ways to demonstrate experience, expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness are likely in a pretty good place to weather some of the changes on the horizon.
One way of tackling this, which many publishers have embraced, is by creating clickable bylines on article pages which link through to optimised author profiles. This is a sensible strategy for lots of reasons beyond SEO. It helps readers and search engines understand that your content is written by real people with real expertise in their specialist area2. The benefit is hard to measure – it’s qualitative not quantitative – but we know Google pays attention to it and it’s something we can control.
A popular trend among some publishers currently is to focus on producing content written by or from the perspective of an expert. The results are mostly helpful, insightful analyses full of practical advice but, as with all trends, there is a risk of overdoing it – of pushing the definition of ‘expertise’ too far. We’ve seen this happen time and time again as publishers test and learn what ‘works’ for the various platforms’ algorithms. This is the game. Observe, analyse, interpret, apply, pivot.
The risk of leaning into any trend and adapting a strategy to accommodate it, is that eventually, inevitably, it stops working. The temptation to push things too hard, to stretch the definitions a little too far makes us vulnerable to over-saturation. The pressure to grow audiences and increase pageviews in an increasingly crowded space with fewer and fewer levers to pull and less real estate to stake a claim to, can lead us to the brink of making bad choices. These are the challenges we must face and overcome every day.
Where publishers should be focusing their SEO efforts
From the little we know about the next phase in the evolution of SEO, one thing that does seem clear is that there will continue to be a place for high authority, trustworthy publishers. Is search traffic at risk with the arrival of Google’s search generative experience? To a certain extent, losses seem unavoidable – from what we’ve seen so far, there just isn’t enough ‘physical’ space in the search results for those long tail queries for some evergreen content not to get shunted out.
Google has attempted to reassure publishers that it will continue to drive search clicks to our websites: “As we bring generative AI into Search, we’re committed to continue sending valuable traffic to sites across the web”3. But how much traffic and in what form is still far from clear.
I can’t remember when I first heard the expression ‘defensible traffic’, but never has the principle of not putting all your eggs in one basket been a truer adage by which to plan for the future. It might seem counterintuitive for someone who works in the field of SEO to be recommending not focusing on SEO; but it has never been more important for publishers to have a holistic, well-balanced audience growth strategy. From a content perspective, a strategy that focuses on producing content to target one referrer was always going to be risky; and now the jeopardy is even greater.
Content that works for multiple referrers, that upholds the brand’s core values and is true to its central ethos – which, for most publishers, will involve some combination of informing, entertaining, educating and delighting readers – may prove to be the greatest defence against the AI tsunami to come. This and the ability to pivot and adapt, to embrace change and reassign resources and effort at scale and at speed.
How publishers can improve SEO performance now and in the future
While the hype around AI rages on, in reality, this may well be the calm before the storm. Now is the time to take stock and reflect. In May 2023, Google confirmed what many already suspected was true – that the search engine used a ‘topic authority’ system to help it ‘determine which expert sources are helpful to someone’s newsy query in certain specialised topic areas’4.
This public acknowledgement should serve as validation, if any more were needed, that publishers should be using all the data available to them (analytics, marketing insights, user segmentation, rankings, visibility), and applying the metrics most relevant to achieving the business’s objectives (page views, subscriptions, PVs per visit, engagement), to really understand which channels and topics are already overperforming.
When we know where our topical authority is strong, then we can start coming up with the strategies to reinforce and grow those areas. Are we ticking all the EEAT boxes? Are we making best use of our writers’ expertise? What more could we be doing to demonstrate authority on our chosen topics through expert analysis and specialist insight unique to our publications?
The original, exclusive content publishers produce is our most valuable asset. We invest time, money, energy and effort into creating it. It’s what makes our brands unique. We should be doubling down on helping our readers – and search engines – find and enjoy that content. Not just by promoting it highly on the homepage but linking to it from every relevant article. Good internal linking practices make a difference to how pages perform in Google – it’s something we have direct and total control over – and yet it’s often the last thing anyone thinks about.
Google still relies on links (internal and external) to help it understand the relationship between pieces of content. An article that is linked to from multiple sources is more likely to be considered authoritative and to rank highly in search results5. News publishers who work hard to produce original reporting deserve to receive acknowledgement. In 2019, Google’s VP of News, Richard Gingras, explained how the search engine updated its ranking system and made changes to the search quality rater documentation to help it ‘better recognise original reporting, surface it more prominently in Search and ensure it stays there longer’6. Still, as publishers, many of us feel we don’t get the credit we are due.
In 2021, the AOP launched the link attribution protocol “to raise awareness of fair link attribution and encourage best practice among the digital publishing community”7. In 2022, Google unveiled the ‘highly cited’ label in Top Stories to help signpost the original source of a story to users and “elevate original reporting”8. Links from other publishers are one of the few – if not the only – ways Google can identify an original source, and publishers should be working together – now more than ever – to help keep quality, original journalism viable.
We don’t know yet what the rollout of Google’s search generative experience will mean for news publishers. At its bleakest, some believe that all non-brand search will effectively disappear. At best, there will be disruption, frustration and some disappointment. Turbulence is inevitable. But it is not all grim. Google’s direction of travel has been clear for some time – helpful content, demonstrable expertise, topical authority, quality and originality – focusing on these now more than ever will help future proof against the AI wave.
This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list to receive the magazine, please register here.