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Ask a News SEO: John Shehata
John Shehata joins #WTFisSEO to talk about the unpredictable – and sometimes – volatile surface that is Google Discover, evergreen content workflows and finding your newsroom champion.
This week: A very special edition of Ask A News SEO with John Shehata. You should recognize that name: Not only is John the Global VP of Audience Development Strategy at Condé Nast and the founder of two news SEO tools (NewzDash and GDdash), but he – along with friend of the newsletter Barry Adams – founded the News & Editorial SEO Summit.
We’re so thrilled to share this excellent news SEO chat.
In an organization as large at Condé, how do you make sure search remains a priority?
John: Condé Nast has more than a dozen different brands in 11 international markets. This is not your traditional one-brand, one-newsroom organization. Approaching SEO is different and has to be done on scale.
SEO is an ongoing process, it is not a once-a-year training and done. It starts with training new hires, retraining existing teams periodically, weekly emails to the editorial team celebrating their wins and discussing missed opportunities and reminders of SEO, ongoing meetings with editorial discussing upcoming calendar, etc.
With hundreds of articles published a day, no SEO team can optimize every single article. That’s why editorial teams must understand and know how to perform basic SEO for their important stories, and SEO must be integrated in their workflow.
SEO teams must understand the challenge of the journalists and editors. Sometimes we forget that journalists spend all their time writing stories, finding sources, adding digital assets and confirming information. They have a list of things to do before publishing their stories and SEO sometimes is at the bottom of their priority list. That’s why SEO must be baked into their workflow.
If it's not in their workflow, it's going to be extremely hard. They don't need an additional step. Integrate it into their workflow – in the CMS, Google Docs or Slack, which are the three elements more writers and journalists utilize.
SEOs shouldn’t get frustrated because editorial teams forgot or didn’t implement a tactic mentioned in an SEO training done months ago. Again, this is ongoing education, you have to keep training and retraining the teams every few months, work with new hires, send weekly SEO tidbits, and so forth.
And finally highlight the champions. Writers are extremely competitive. For a long time, newsrooms didn't like to hear or didn’t have access to the numbers. But that culture has changed tremendously and data is now more accessible. SEOs should take advantage of that with daily or weekly emails indicating what is the biggest story and why and celebrating the writers and their work.
Find someone in the newsroom who wants to work with you. That local champion is important because for writers, it is sometimes easier to go to someone within their team to ask questions than to reach out to an SEO for questions.
Google Discover is an increasingly important traffic opportunity for publishers. But we know that that traffic is unpredictable, and sometimes, volatile. How should a publisher consider Discover?
John: Discover is icing on the cake. Discover is not a strategy, it is a tactic.
If your strategy is to grow Discover traffic, you will be frustrated. If your revenue projections and forecasts include Discover, a lot of pain and headaches will come from that. Google has been clear that there’s no clear path to optimize for Discover. We can’t claim credit for Google Discover wins and at the same time reject traffic declines because it is a blackbox.
If you look at Google SERPs, a small percentage of the results is personalized, while in Google Discover it is almost 100 per cent personalization. Some argue no two users will get the same feed. Personalization is based on the user's search history, home location, current location, interest, device information and more.
Google has repeatedly warned SEOs not to get addicted to the traffic they get from Google Discover as it is not reliable.
That being said, there are prerequisites that must be met to be considered for Discover. Also image size optimization is critical to increase CTR. I wrote an article on 13 tactics to increase your chances in driving traffic from Google Discover.
The biggest and the most important tactic to increase visibility in Discover is to understand which of your content Google considers the right fit for the audience. To understand that, you need to understand the entities of your content. Once you understand which topics (entities and concepts) that work for you, then you double down on these topics.
For example, when you write content about Taylor Swift, and it always works for you, it means Google considers your content is authoritative on that topic for users that have a strong affinity for that topic. For users that love and have an affinity for Taylor Swift, Google will surface them with Taylor Swift stories regardless of whether it is trending or not.
That’s the main tactic, understand which of your topics are connecting well with users on Google Discover.
Content that resonates with Discover audiences doesn't always succeed in search. It’s not a one-to-one relationship. How do you consider serving both audiences?
Google Discover and Google News are supplementary traffic to Google search. For most publishers, Google search is still the main traffic driver.
I usually focus primarily on Google search and don't change best practices around optimizing articles for Discover. But I will focus on entities or the topics that work for us in Discover that we should write about more.
My main focus is always Google search, specifically Top Stories or as some call the News Box or News Carousel. The byproduct – if we do good work and Google search understands the entities we’re covering – is that it works well in Google News and Discover, and so on.
What is your recommendation for evergreen content for niche sites? Does that change based on the publication?
Every publisher should have a healthy strategy for news and evergreen. It doesn't matter the allocation of content – it could be 80-20 or 70-30 for news-to-evergreen or vice versa – as long as there's a healthy mix.
Evergreen is all about the 10x rule. You need to write content that's 10x better than competitors on page one of SERPS. It’s not quick. It takes time.
You need to understand who has the highest share of voice for your targeted terms, and who has the authority.
What are the characteristics of the content – do you need a lot of images or products? How frequently should you update the content?
At Condé Nast, we track all of our evergreen content. Once it drops below a certain threshold, that’s an alert for us to go back and update the content.
Also think of your dead weight. With publishers, sometimes there’s this mentality of “file and lock.” You write an evergreen story, lock it and move on to the next story. You don't think a lot about older stories and end up writing thousands of stories about the same topic.
Every time we optimize for evergreen, we try to merge older pieces that are not getting traffic and don't have any authority. We have a full, nine-step process for handling evergreen content. These are some of the steps we take.
Which are the three core skills SEOS should have?
In the past few years, SEO has grown tremendously as an industry. Now we have specialized SEOs: tech SEO, content SEO, Amazon SEO and commerce SEO. Back in the days, an SEO had to be everything: a content writer, data analyst, technical engineer and so on. Now SEO is becoming more specialized, especially at bigger organizations.
But in general, you need to have a fair understanding of the technical aspects of SEO. You don’t need to be an engineer, but you need to have to understand the basics.
Then you need to be an analyst. You have to know how to segment data and understand data. In a big organization, the analytics team probably has a lot of priorities – and sometimes you have to get your own numbers to prove the worth of an idea. Or you can guide the analytics team to guide their data work for your projects.
Finally, you have to be open to learning all the time. I’ve seen a lot of SEOs that stop learning and just do their thing. They’re not keeping up with the industry, but that’s how you grow.
If a person was starting out in news SEO, what’s the one concept they should know?
Google has been saying this for a long time: Is this content useful and beneficial to the end user?
91 per cent of all content online receives no organic traffic. There’s a lot of content out there. So will your content help the user? Will they want to bookmark or share it?
Yes, you have to learn SEO strategies and tactics, make it easier for crawlers to find and read your content, optimize page Core Web Vitals, and do competitive research. But at the end of the day, content is the main product. If you don’t have good content, nothing else matters.
You also need to understand what type of content you are optimizing: is it breaking news, evergreen, second day analysis, seasonal, commerce, or opinion? Each type of content has a different SEO strategy and tactics and requires a different set of SEO tools, like NewzDash for real-time news SEO.
This is the fundamental SEO strategy: You have to create great content for any optimization to work. The nucleus of the work that we do is optimizing great content.
This is a universal concept regardless what type of SEO you are working on, always start with content.
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