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Ask A News SEO: Claudio Cabrera
This week: WTF is SEO chats with Claudio Cabrera of The Athletic. He talks about thinking about news coverage like a tree, predicting reader interest and how to pitch effectively.
This week, we're thrilled to return with another Ask A News SEO, our interview series with industry experts. Claudio Cabrera, currently the VP of Newsroom Strategy and Audience at The Athletic, spent the past five years at The New York Times in a variety of SEO and audience roles, most recently as the Deputy Audience Director, News SEO. He sat down with us (virtually) to talk about pitching, topical authority and why you need to think about your news coverage like a tree.
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This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How do you approach pitching stories to different desks?
The most important thing is being careful about what you're pitching and understanding that there are going to be days – depending on the news – where you do not necessarily have a pitch. When I had new members of my team join [at The New York Times] and we talked about the importance of pitching, they sometimes took it as, “I probably need to pitch 50 times a day.” But that’s not necessarily the case. I think it's important to understand the editorial product that you work under.
Second, it is understanding the editors you work with so that you know if what you’re pitching is editorially sensible and would work in that newsroom. Or is it a pure audience play from a traffic perspective?
The other side of it is how you position things. As Dan Smullen talked about, I don’t really say SEO in the newsroom. I think it turns off some people. At The New York Times, SEO is such a positive word, it doesn’t have a negative connotation.
We're focused on making sure that when we think about the audience, we think about servicing the reader. We don't think about the numbers that are behind that potential pitch. It's really about pitching that content and doing some of the work for the editors. A lot of time, when you think about pitching, you might say, “Hey, this is trending, we should do this.”
But what's important is for audience editors to be viewed as journalists. There’s a separation in a lot of news institutions, so it's important to fill that content piece out for them. I don't think it's my job to craft every subhed for you or tell you how many words should be in a paragraph. But I can give you tips and we can collaborate.
Lead your pitches with the reader service aspect. I never pitch leading with the [search volume] number. When you do that, you're saying we should write this because of [the number] and not because we think it's editorially important.
When we pitched a “What is Brexit?” piece, some people on the international desk looked at us like we were crazy. But then more readers actually consumed that piece of content who were direct readers of The Times than search readers. It’s about thinking outside of yourself and making sure the newsroom thinks outside themselves.
It’s very easy for editors to look at a topic and say, “We would never write that because everyone in the world knows what that is.” But maybe everyone in the newsroom knows what that is, but not necessarily every reader that consumes the product does.
When positioning pitches, it’s about explaining the topic and why we think we should write it. The icing on the cake is the number – saying, “Hey, there are 250,000 people searching for this,” versus doing the opposite and making the number the full cake.
As an example, when Luke Perry died at 52, many people were shocked because he was fairly young and passed from a stroke. A lot of the searches were, "What is a stroke?" or “How did Luke Perry have a stroke?”
Immediately, most would say, “Let's write a post titled ‘What is a stroke?’” But that's something more for a health-related website and news sites may feel it is too simple.
Look for stories within the trends or look for themes. Luke Perry wasn't what most would consider old. A lot of the trending questions surround the word "why" or "causes" and the linking factor is probably his youth. His death scared many and made them wonder, “If he can have a stroke at such a young age, could I?” We centered our next story around his age.
How do you win the day or win a news story in search? And how do you communicate those wins and losses?
Once the [NYT] newsroom bought into SEO and felt positively about it, we got pretty big on recap notes and sharing with the newsroom how we performed on specific events.
We position these emails in terms of how we performed on a specific topic. The reason we got away from “how we won” emails is that we never wanted to do “how we lost.” That wouldn't sit right with [the newsroom] and it may be no fault of their own that they finished second or third in visibility. SEO in a newsroom is a customer-service and relationship-driven job and the last thing a vertical in a newsroom wants to hear after days or weeks of work is how we lost. You never want to make them feel like their work wasn’t enough.
On tracking: We [NYT] use NewsDashboard. We plug in keywords into clusters and break it down in different ways. We may have top level keywords, like "World Cup Draw" and a cluster for breakouts “group of death.” Those [keywords] are us being predictive or using historical analysis. We saw this a lot during COVID-19. You could be [ranking well] on very top-level COVID keywords but there were so many other searches that were almost equal [in audience interest]. There were searches for maps, cases, vaccines or symptoms. All of those were different categories with similar audience interest.
I like thinking about coverage like it's a tree. The trunk of the tree is a news event (like the Beirut bombing), but the branches are:
What was used in the bombing?
How many victims were there?
Is this the first bombing this country?
Is the building completely eviscerated?
There are different things that may editorially be part of the branches. That's basically the coverage, how you break it down.
The Times is pretty good at breaking news. We know that we want to publish something within three minutes of it being confirmed and that if it’s after five minutes, we're going to be in trouble in terms of catching up to a competitor. What's really important for me and the team is thinking less about the breaking news piece and figuring out what people are actually going to search for and preparing for that.
When the Notre-Dame fire happened, we looked at questions like “was Notre-Dame ever on fire before?” or asked if we need to create a what we know explainer or a live asset, an event page or a topic page.
The work is often centered around the breaking news asset. But, really, it should be centered around expanding the coverage into a tree because the quicker you get to the additional pieces of coverage, the likelier you’re going to win that event on search. That’s because you're getting a head start on what everyone is going to be searching for. It’s less about relying on Google Trends and more knowing what people will be searching for.
When you’re reporting back to a newsroom, there are times you’ll finish second or third on a visibility front, but there are ways to communicate to the newsroom that while you finished second or third on visibility, from a coverage perspective, you actually won. That’s what endears you to a newsroom. At the end of the day, journalism is the product. Journalism drives everything and SEO is the supporting cast.
How do you think about topical authority at The Times and how is that different from a niche site like The Athletic?
Topical authority is foremost understanding the brand and their mission and what they produce. The Athletic has a lot of enterprise and feature reporting, and have invested a lot in live journalism. Breaking news is a growing space for The Athletic.
With topical [authority], it’s about understanding where everyone sits. I know [The Athletic] is more authoritative on NHL coverage than NFL coverage. But what are the events we want to invest in where we are ranking well, or close to well, on? What are the events where we are within striking distance? From there, it’s about building an editorial road map and building out relevant pages.
When you have a tentpole event, like the NFL draft or World Cup, how can you build live authority before the event begins? If the NFL draft is in a month, how can a newsroom build a presence from a live perspective since Google has signaled they are investing in it on a live level. Then there’s an evergreen aspect, too. So how do you differentiate that live asset from an evergreen piece, like a tracker? What do we put in live that we don't put in the evergreen piece?
After that, figure out who are your most authoritative authors. Then look at where you get the majority of your NFL traffic from – is it a specific team? Sports are different from politics, because in politics you have central figures. Whereas sports, you have the Blue Jays, the Seahawks, the Maple Leafs. You have to pick and choose.
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 Toronto Star is hiring a Senior SEO Producer to better expand the reach of the Star’s journalism in search.
ProPublica is hiring an Audience Editor to develop and execute SEO strategies for projects. ProPublica based in New York City (with offices in New York City, Washington, Atlanta, Chicago, Phoenix and Berkeley), but remote applicants anywhere in the U.S. may apply.
Hearst UK (the publisher of Good HouseKeeping, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, ELLE) is hiring an SEO Executive, based in London, UK.
Romanian Media is hiring two SEO Editorial Analyst positions.
Use Glimpse to track topic and get recurring, growth-based or volume-based alerts for keywords you care about.
For Screaming Frog: Is there a way to limit crawls to URLs with specific words? Head over to the SEO for Journalism Slack to see Shelby’s reply.
The Verge: Google, Meta and others will have to explain their algorithms under new EU legislation.
Search Engine Land: 11 breadcrumb SEO best practices for a mobile-first strategy.
Ahrefs: How to create great content for search.