2023 in review: The best of our Ask a News SEO series
In 2023, we ran 10 editions of our popular Ask a News SEO series. We’ve curated our favourite answers to pressing news SEO questions. Thanks to our news SEO guests for their time and attention!
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Hello, and welcome back. Jessie and Shelby here with another collab issue. Jessie returns from a restorative yoga retreat full of long, stretchy classes and a sauna/lake plunge situation. Turns out: cold dips are good, actually. Meanwhile, Shelby discovered Toronto has a Christmas bar and cried over the Blue Jays not acquiring Shohei Ohtani. Legend says she’s still crying.
This week: In 2023, we had a dozen SEOs join the newsletter to chat all things search. We covered a myriad of topics, ranging from paywall strategy, Google’s Search Generative Experience, managing traffic declines, the value of collaboration, tentpole event planning — and much more! We’re so grateful for the time, energy and attention of those who were interviewed. Here, we’ve curated some of our favourite answers from the interviews.
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Let’s get it.
In this issue:
Lily Ray on traffic declines
Louisa Frahm on competitive analysis
Ryan Mayer on news planning
Kyle Sutton on the right to rank
Christina Passariello, Lily Ray and Louisa Frahm on SGE
Ben Dilks and Leonie Roderick on paywalls
Jason Pollack on site migrations
Aleyda Solis on volatility in SEO
Edward Hyatt on the value of collaboration
Katie Vogel on local news SEO
The volatility of Google search in recent weeks prompted us to revisit this January 2023 interview with Lily Ray about understanding traffic declines.
How do you investigate big drops in traffic?
Lily Ray: The first step is pinpointing the source of the traffic decline — if the drop came from organic search, was it Google search, News and/or Discover? Once that’s done, the most obvious question is: Is that still relevant, timely content?
A lot of newsy content peaks and doesn't receive a lot of traffic afterwards as the news subsides. I would look to see if you can pinpoint a specific date when traffic went down by a big percentage and cross-reference that with the dates of Google updates.
For example, you might see a dip that ties back to the link spam update — so the drop might be link-related. But often, you will lose ranking for keywords that are no longer relevant because newer, more timely articles entered into the equation or intent changed.
Figure out where and when the drop happened, the keywords that declined, then look at who is ranking now and if pages do a better job of meeting user expectations.
There’s never a bad time to analyze your competition. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of outlets can inform your overall strategy. In this interview, ESPN’s SEO Director Louisa Frahm outlines tools and tactics for competitive analysis.
How do you approach competitive analysis for your key coverage areas?
Louisa Frahm: SimilarWeb, in particular, is great for competitor analysis. They provide an informative view around keywords you’re winning and losing on. You can filter by topics to see what you’re lagging on and should build more content around. On a simple basis, checking out Google search results pages on a certain topic can provide helpful insights on specific topics.
Headline analysis should be factored into your competitive strategy on a regular basis. You always want to be digging into those results to try to pinpoint “What’s making the difference here?”
On a recurring basis, I also look at our top priority competitors to see if they’re doing anything different from us from a content strategy perspective. I’ll look at their websites to get more intel on content framing, site architecture, internal linking, schema markup, and other SEO elements.
It’s an ongoing process. In the world of SEO, none of us will ever have all of the answers. It’s important to stay inquisitive, monitor trends, explore industry patterns, and make adjustments when necessary.
Tentpole events are an integral component of any newsroom’s strategy. In our interview with Ryan Mayer, who led The Athletic’s World Cup strategy, we discussed how to approach tentpole news events.
How do you build a newsroom that considers six months out from an event to be “early”?
Ryan Mayer: There needs to be some level of back and forth between you and the leadership in the newsroom where you're gaining insights from them into how big of a priority an event is for the company. For The Athletic, the World Cup was massive. We have such a great U.K. newsroom. We knew that we really wanted to show off the tremendous journalism that they were going to be doing around this event.
Six months out, we were already thinking about it and had already started the process of setting up the landing page and the various checkpoints along the way.
But there are going to be other events, like the NBA trade deadline, where we're talking two weeks in advance and that's as early as we can push it. Because there's 82 games in the entire NBA season, you don't really have time to key in on just one event.
The biggest thing I do is reach out as early as I can so that editors know our audience team is already thinking about this event.
“Topic authority” is SEO jargon for subject matter expertise. A terrific way to communicate your authority as it relates to your publication’s likelihood of ranking for given topics is “right to win,” a phrase used by Kyle Sutton in this April interview. (At the time, Kyle was USA Today’s Director of Product SEO; he’s now the Director of SEO at The Points Guy.)
Can you explain what you mean by right to win?
Kyle Sutton: It’s terminology for where we feel like we should write this type of content or deploy this type of experience, where we feel like we could have a share of voice in search for that.
Were we to get underneath the hood, it’s probably concepts like E.E.A.T and topical authority, 'right to win' resonates more with the newsroom. Saying, “If you wrote about this, you would have a greater chance of success, because this is an area that you're recognized for and seen as an expert.”
Christina Passariello, Lily Ray and Louisa Frahm
In June, just after Google launched its Search Generative Experience, we convened an expert panel to discuss the impact generative AI could have on publishers. The in-depth conversation featured Christina Passariello, technology editor for The Washington Post; Lily Ray, senior director of SEO and head of organic research for Amsive Digital and Louisa Frahm, SEO director for ESPN.
What lessons should publishers be thinking about from previous platform pivots or algorithm updates?
Christina Passariello: Take the initiative and be proactive with a strategy — whether that’s around audience or innovation.
Louisa Frahm: I strongly believe in promoting education in all newsrooms, especially when new technology is in the mix. Before rolling out a giant AI strategy, it's important to remember how many different types of people you're working with in a newsroom.
SEO strategists are used to technology, but we work with a lot of traditional journalists who come from a totally different world. AI isn't their natural space. It’s important to educate colleagues with best practices and promote why new techniques aren’t scary (but exciting!).
Ben Dilks and Leonie Roderick
Paywalls can create tricky situations for publishers, especially in search. It’s not only important to have the paywall set up properly, but also have an effective strategy that allows gated content to complement free stories. Ben Dilks and Leonie Roderick shared their insights on how the paywall plays into The Times and Sunday Times’ SEO approach.
How do you get the newsroom invested in a paywall strategy?
Ben Dilks: We have gone on a real journey. When I started out, the idea of editorial SEO was either totally alien or viewed with great suspicion by many people in the newsroom. Gradually it came to be seen as a necessary evil: people thought of SEO as a game we have to play, but one that could sometimes compromise quality. These days — after a lot of training — I think we’re finally in a place where a lot of journalists actually see SEO as an incredible tool to enhance the quality of our coverage.
Leonie Roderick: Our starting point for a long time was to have everything behind the paywall, but we have encouraged and nurtured the idea of having certain types of coverage outside of it.
For example, some of our live coverage is now free to read, which is a good way of getting larger volumes of readers through the door and introducing them to premium content, such as our analysis, interviews and features.
We see it as important to keep people updated on a breaking news event as it unfolds and allow them to sample it, while still showing off the breadth of our content.
Ben Dilks: I think before it was thought of as a binary — paywall or no paywall. But now, it's increasingly evident that you need to be more sophisticated and think carefully about which content is behind the paywall and which isn’t.
After successfully completing a site migration for NBC Sports, Jason Pollack joined us to share tips and best practices, including early preparation.
Having search be involved almost immediately — how important was that for this migration, and how important do you think it's going to be going forward?
Jason Pollack: Really, really important.
In my experience, it can be rare to have a strong developer-SEO relationship, especially within a large company. But we were lucky to have partners that trusted us. Actually, we used this project in many ways as a catalyst to an even better working relationship going forward.
We were also lucky to have such a responsive team to partner with, because we would typically hand over deliverables, and then have like six or seven follow-up meetings with them about very specific follow-up questions they had about the recommendations we were making. It was a lot of back-and-forth, but that’s really why for us it was so important to be involved early on in the process.
They would hand over the design mock-ups to us and so we were even able to identify things that we might have wanted on the page, or features we knew we wanted to optimize around. I think that was really key to the success that we're seeing now with this new optimized site.
At the height of the AI craze this year, we invited industry expert Aleyda Solis to share her thoughts and insight around the Search Generative Experience, volatility in SEO and adapting to changes in the environment.
In our industry — and SEO in general — there’s a lot of volatility. Everything changes. Do you have any advice for SEOs around preparing for the volatility that is par for the course?
Aleyda Solis: What matters in the first place is what can be done because of timing and resource constraints. I'll always focus on what Google has actually disclosed to be a ranking factor.
Regardless if Google has confirmed it is a ranking factor or not, if you know these configurations and elements will make your users trust you and convert with you versus any of the other players that are ranking above or below you, it doesn't matter. You should do that tactic if that helps your unique proposition.
Can you provide the best experience in the market? I think the issue comes when you’re chasing the factors or chasing what people say is important. You’ll always be behind. Think about your web experience, your content, your information — all parts of the publication — and make it the best. If you’re not thinking like this, then you can’t think, “why am I not first in my market?”
There’s only so much that you can do in a limited timeframe, and you need to focus on what actually matters: On the user experience.
News SEO involves a lot of collaboration and communication with many, many stakeholders. In October, Edward Hyatt from the Wall Street Journal shared why these relationships are so important.
What has been your biggest success so far and where have you had to pivot tactically? How have your approaches changed over time?
Edward Hyatt: At the Journal, I've been deeply involved from the news side as well as the product and engineering side. When I joined, the live product was behind when it came to search engine optimization and functionality. Working directly with senior stakeholders, we turned the live coverage platform into something that has been an incredible success. One of my biggest focuses was building relationships to engender change.
You'll notice that our blog does things slightly differently to other news publishers, and I believe that strategy is paying off. Whether it's for breaking news or tentpole news, we can anticipate and plan for the live coverage. The tool has been a really great way for us to expand our visibility and search for major news topics.
The role of AI in news was a dominant trend in 2023. In November, we asked Katie Vogel about the role of generative AI in smaller, local publications, including what to avoid and the common tasks that can be left to a robot. (At the time of the interview, Katie was the Director of Search Strategy for Hearst Newspapers. She’s now a politics editor at The Associated Press.)
We've seen AI being used to automate content creation. Smaller, less-resourced newsrooms potentially see this is an opportunity. Do you have thoughts about AI SEO, specifically in the local context?
Katie Vogel: We've seen that AI done badly is a way to ruin your reputation in the industry and to lose trust with readers.
First and foremost, we need to be skeptical. At Hearst, one of our developers, Ryan Serpico, has built a bot to provide prompts for headlines. But our editorial and legal teams worked to build robust training and ethics frameworks to make sure that those prompts are never a replacement for a journalist, and there's always a human involved.
You can't even touch it until you've undergone a certain amount of training. It has a lot of safety measures built in, too. It's really, “how do we help people brainstorm more effectively around headlines?” Not cut and paste this [AI-generated headline].
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Google news and updates:
🤖Google: Introducing Gemini: Google’s largest and most capable AI model.
🤖Search Engine Journal: The November 2023 reviews update is now done rolling out.
More news and updates
💰 Glen Allsopp on LinkedIn: Future (behind Tom's Guide, Marie Claire and GamesRadar) just released their full 2023 revenue report.
💻 Glenn Gabe: It’s increasingly difficult to track clicks and impressions across Google’s alternative feeds and secondary SERPs.
📅 Nieman Lab released its annual predictions for journalism in 2024. The round up includes predictions such as:
🗝️ Madeleine White via The Audiencers: Puzzles and word games aren’t just games — they’re engagement tools. (Look in particular at the search interest in “Wordle.”)
🛍️ NewzDash: The winners and losers for Black Friday 2023.
🤖Nieman Lab: Most readers want publishers to label AI-generated articles — but trust outlets less when they do.
🗞️ From the SEO for Journalism Slack: How strict is your outlet with headline length?
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