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Ask a News SEO: Alexia LaFata
This week: Ask a News SEO with Alexia LaFata, the SEO Manager for Vox Media. We chatted about our favourite topic: Making SEO a people-first discipline in news.
Hello, and welcome back. Jessie here, back from a very fall weekend at the apple orchard. Pumpkin spice drinks were had, apple muffins will be baked the entire discography of The Weakerthans was consumed.
This week: Ask a News SEO is back with a truly excellent interview. Shelby and I spoke with Alexia LaFata, SEO Manager for Vox Media. We chatted about our favourite topic: Making SEO a people-first discipline in news.
Next week: It’s Canadian Thanksgiving! Shelby and I will be at our respective friendsgivings (Shelby: and eating a lot of pie! Jessie will be eating a vegan alternative), so there will be no new newsletter.
The following week: We will recap our favourite sessions from NESS 2.0 (there is still time to get your tickets).
Share WTF is SEO? with someone who needs a reminder: SEO is about the satisfying the informational needs of human readers.
What are two things that you wish you had known earlier in your news SEO career?
What I wish I knew earlier: One, that I need to get comfortable really quickly with numbers and data.
I'm an editor and writer by trade. When I was an editor, I was always passively interested in digging around in analytics, but never to the extent that I probably should have to prepare myself for an SEO career. If I’d known earlier I would go into SEO, I would have spent more time getting up to speed with numbers and data.
Second: My half of a computer science minor in college would come in handy – so I probably should have finished it.
I can read HTML and CSS and I can understand it. I can easily look at a website's code, which is very helpful when you are digging in Google Search Console for errors and bugs. I can definitely identify those things. But if I had finished that minor, I would probably understand more of it. It’s now an opportunity for me to learn more but if I had known earlier, I would have definitely finished that minor. I wish I knew more about all of that stuff.
How do you get buy-in from your newsroom? Specifically, how do you connect SEO in your newsroom to a broader editorial goal.
Getting buy in can be really tough. I work across Vox Media’s portfolio of brands so there is a huge range of SEO enthusiasm. It really depends on the site and the person even.
On a micro level, the way people talk about SEO, casually, really matters. Some editors and writers really see it as a dirty word. If people talk about SEO in a way that suggests they think it will dilute their content or it's a bunch of robot overlords controlling their ability to be creative – or whatever negative thing it is – that messaging has a ripple effect. I try to catch those people and gently guide them to the reality of SEO, which is that you’re encouraged to produce good quality content that satisfies human readers.
That’s what our brands want. That’s what journalism is: It’s about serving your readers important information. It’s about bringing readers stories that matter. To me, SEO is the same.
It’s reader first. It’s understanding the information readers are searching for and serving it to them in a high quality way. That’s the broader philosophical editorial goal I keep in mind.
I find any opportunity I can to connect SEO to humans, which really helps.
Let’s talk about people-first approaches to search.
I'm very passionate about it. First and foremost, it’s important to remember that humans use Google. They use Google to search for information, period.
We can be skeptical of Google as a platform – when it comes to SERP changes or algorithm changes – but, regardless, people are always going to look for information. Whenever I'm talking about SEO, I focus on that element as much as I can.
And then there’s the fact that everyone uses Google. You need to put yourself in the shoes of a platonic, everyday reader when creating content. It’s so easy for editors to get stuck thinking about only the niche audience or thinking everyone is already in the know about what they write about. But that’s not the case. Not everyone is intimately familiar with the topics your site covers.
So I try to empower editors to write content that will satisfy everyone and will expand their reach. And that might mean being clearer about your methodology and showing the work you did to come to your conclusions. It might mean writing stories that break down complex concepts that are intuitive to the brand but not for everyone else. And these stories could lead new audiences to discover even more of your site.
When talking to reporters, the way I frame it is: “You’re the experts. You already know your niche so well. You have the opportunity to invite more people to discover your niche as the expert bringing readers to that content. So use your expertise and knowledge to write something that encourages the discoverability of deeper, more detailed content.”
It helps them understand, “Oh, yah. Why shouldn't I be the one to explain all these complex topics and take their hand to show them the topics I'm really passionate about and have expertise in?” Tell reporters they can be the ones that lead new readers to the in-crowd, expert content they're already really proud of.
Take us through your keyword research process. How do you use search research to power your journalism?
Google Trends is my best friend. I love Google Trends.
I run a monthly training specifically on Trends because it is that important. I encourage all editors to attend.
We use Google Trends to identify trending stories and keyword. You can use it to see if there are any opportunities for follow-up stories around a subject matter you already have traction on.
But keywords and data are not enough to get pitches across to editors.
When I was a section editor at another company, there was a product SEO person who would send me a list of just keywords and positions every day, with no context. He would say, “You should write about this.” But it didn’t align, at all, with my goals as an editor. So I ignored him.
He didn't demonstrate any understanding of what I as the editor wanted for my section, and I didn’t understand what he wanted from me because it didn’t align with my brand.
Now, as an SEO myself, I don’t want to be ignored by editors. So I think about translating search data in a way that will get across to them.
I always find that pitching an actual story, alongside keywords, really helps. It speaks the editor's language. It establishes a dynamic they already understand: I pitch, they accept or reject. At the end of the day, an editor just wants a good story. If you can translate search data into a good story, that’s a great way to add value.
How does the workflow change for evergreen versus news stories?
Before I was the SEO Manager for all of Vox Media’s brands, I was the SEO Editor just for New York Magazine. Now I have less time to be super close to the newsroom in the same way I was when I worked for New York Magazine only. So I try to train editors on how to look for news and evergreen stories on their own via my process.
For news, I would usually look for story ideas via Google Trends in the morning – that’s when editors are starting their day. I’d pitch an idea and if they accepted, it would likely go online in a few hours. I’d scan the site for it and if it wasn’t posted, I’d probably nudge the editor, especially if the story was still trending. But I really pick my battles, because there are so many story ideas and you don’t want to damage a relationship if an editor just doesn't care about an idea. If an editor rejects the idea, move on to the next one.
With evergreen, there are news-y evergreen pitches and then there’s true evergreen. For news-y evergreen, I would pitch evergreen-adjacent stories around longer-tail keywords around what’s trending in the news. Then I’d look to see if it went up within a couple of days. For true evergreen, I would send a list of keywords and search data for stories that can go up anytime. You can find these keywords via Google Trends but also SEMrush, Moz, Google KW planner.
The process is really dependent on the topic, what's happening in the news cycle, if the evergreen story can roll up into an initiative already underway. So it really depends.
How do you get buy in for updating older content you know has evergreen potential?
We've seen a lot of success in our commerce sites. They know the importance of keeping a story up to date because if a link to a sale is broken or the price is wrong, it will really affect their revenue. So there’s incentive to say, “You should keep these posts updated so we can keep the revenue coming.”
For any site where the majority of their content is evergreen, it’s a little easier to incentivize, because any declines as a result of not keeping content fresh and up-to-date can have a significant impact on their overall traffic.
For other sites, it’s tougher. Maybe they don't have a full catalog of evergreen content. So that requires somebody to be in the weeds, know the archive, and identify stories that are trending where we have an explainer on the longer-tail implications of a story. Then flag that to an editor and say, “I know we just posted a news blog, but how about we update our explainer? Then link to the other story so that people can find both pieces of content.” For sites that are not used to evergreen content, it does require being in the weeds in that way.
We can of course also build a dashboard to show editors which older content has the potential to get more traffic with an update. Still, the data we provide them needs to align with what makes sense for their site. A lot of editors want a newsy peg or editorial reason to update a piece of content, which absolutely makes sense and is what you need for SEO too. But that’s harder to give if you’re not in the weeds alongside them. There’s always going to be that qualitative aspect to what needs to be updated.
Overall, recommending updates requires leaning on your relationship with the editor and knowing that they know you want their content to perform the best it can. I don’t think there’s a perfect formula for evergreen stuff and it usually requires conversations with editors. It’s a people-first approach, even in the newsroom.
THE JOBS LIST
These are roles across the globe we see that are audience positions in journalism. Want to include a position for promotion? Email us.
The Wisconsin Watch is hiring an audience director, a role where SEO will be a key priority (Wisconsin-based, remote may be considered).
Lily Ray: Winners & losers of the September 2022 Core Update (spoiler: a lot of news orgs)
Mike Ginley: Automatically find internal link opportunities through Screaming Frog.
Search Engine Land: 10 biggest announcements from the Google Search On 2022 event
Kevin Indig: Google’s latest updates leave no room for low-quality content
Search Engine Land: What is semantic search? A deep dive into entity-based searching