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Ask a News SEO: What do you wish you knew about search on day one?
This week, WTF is SEO? chats with Bryan Flaherty of The Washington Post about the key SEO touch points for every story and what he wishes he knew when first getting started.
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We’re back with another Ask A News SEO, our series profiling search experts in news. (Do you want to participate, or have someone you think we should talk to? Let us know!)
This week: Bryan Flaherty, senior operations editor and SEO lead for The Washington Post's Audience team. He talks about deprogramming reporters and editors, the key touch points for a big story and how to establish SEO best practices in a newsroom.
How did you first get started in SEO?
I really started to pay attention to search and SEO when I started digital editing in the Sports section around 2015. I had been a “blogger” before that, and at the time, social media dominated most conversations about trends and traffic.
But anyone with access to Chartbeat could see that search was a significant source of traffic, and in Sports, we noticed how much live events were driving those searches and that we could anticipate a lot of that user behaviour.
That’s what got me hooked: trying to figure out that user need and how to serve that audience. So we started writing more pieces that answered questions, about overtime rules and playoff scenarios, and responding to search trends around major sporting events with live coverage and rapid profiles. (One of my favourite pieces was this story translating what the North Korean cheerleaders were saying during the 2018 Winter Olympics.) Those successes made me want to learn more about SEO and the tools to understand that audience more.
What is something you wish you knew when you first started in SEO?
I think something anyone who touches SEO should know on Day 1 is that SEO isn’t writing for bots, it’s writing for humans. So much SEO literature and training gets filtered through the lens of doing things because “Google prefers it” or “this helps bots.” The user is so rarely at the centre of those conversations, and I think a lot of that thinking bled into newsrooms to the point that it made some reporters and editors think SEO is only about serving robots instead of what it is: connecting readers with information they’re looking for. It’s something I think a lot about now: how audience editors and SEOs can deprogram this in their newsrooms.
What are your top three favourite SEO tools?
There are so many great ones out there, but these are the three I like most for ease of use:
Google Trends: Still the best free tool to get data on trends, real-time and historical. Even after using it for so long I’m still learning new ways to use it. Just last month I started using it to check trends on who, what, when, where and why after hearing a talk given by The New York Time’s Claudio Cabrera.
Keywords Everywhere: Great because it’s integrated into the search results pages. Especially when looking for longtail targets and auxiliary ideas to coverage, it’s nice to have that data right at your figure tips.
SEO Pro Extension: Good for checking on on-page SEO but even better for spying on competitors and seeing how others structure their pages and what schemas they’re using. I love to use it to look at all sorts of websites for ideas, and I think there is so much news SEOs can learn by looking deeper at media and e-commerce websites, not just competitors.
What are your priorities when establishing SEO best practices at WaPo?
I think the first step to getting others to buy in on anything is making it accessible. Most SEOs or audience editors probably have heard some version of “can you optimize this?” or “can you do your magic?”
When I hear that I try to make an effort to demystify SEO and explain the different components, particularly on-page SEO, that editors and reporters can impact themselves. I think it’s really important to empower people to do SEO themselves so they don’t rely on SEO or audience editors to do that work for them. That takes training and modeling, and at times, walking people through your process. I think a lot of people who end up doing audience work find it very intuitive, but that’s not necessarily true for everyone in the newsroom.
What are the SEO touch points for a story? How do you approach SEO for daily news vs. big investigative projects?
I try to evangelize that SEO isn’t something that happens at the end of the editorial process but happens at each step from ideation to publication — and sometimes beyond. It’s easy to think about news as something we’re reacting to, but so much of what we cover we know about ahead of time. So there are so many touch points for us when it comes to SEO:
Pitching story ideas off what is trending or what we anticipate to be of interest.
Talking through story format: Should this be a live blog? FAQ? Graphic? What is best for readers?
Workshopping headlines, page titles, custom URLs, and descriptions.
Building recirculation packages and checking internal links.
And after publication, monitoring search trends to see what needs to change or update.
Sometimes this takes place very quickly. Breaking news doesn’t allow for a lot of research or planning, but once we’ve got the story out, we quickly pivot to looking for supporting pieces (explainers, profiles, etc.) and planning for the next day and beyond. Bigger projects, obviously, have a much different cadence. We spend a lot of time thinking about what the constellation of links looks like for an investigative piece or a special event.
Are we serving readers where they are? Not everyone wants to read 10,000 words in one sitting, so can we break it up into more digestible pieces? That’s often a great entry point for SEO since that audience is often more utilitarian. When a big investigative piece drops you’ll often see a “5 things to know” story or a profile of the major character publish alongside it. This also helps head off some of the inevitable aggregation by competitors.
How much of your role is spent working on product projects and/or daily newsroom advocacy?
I think anyone who has worked in SEO or audience is used to wearing many hats in their newsroom and working with teams all across the company, whether product, marketing, business, analytics, etc.
I do a fair amount of both product projects and newsroom advocacy and training. We have several working groups where the newsroom and product teams share ideas and look for ways to improve the website and the CMS. Those efforts launched our live blogging tool and other templates that leverage structured data and continue to make improvements to the user experience. That’s such an important part of SEO right now.
Advocacy in the newsroom is something we’ve been thinking more about lately. We’ve begun planning a series of trainings focused on SEO to build literacy and comfort across the newsroom. The hope is that more people understand what SEO is and know what simple steps they can do to connect their journalism to readers searching for it regardless of whether they are a local beat reporter or a graphics editor or food writer or a copyeditor.
What is an SEO project on your roadmap that you are most excited for?
This year the Post launched a new initiative, WaPo360, to build out a more advanced tagging and taxonomy system to help us better understand our own data and power new products, workflows and automations. It’s really exciting to think about all the opportunities for improving SEO that it presents, but mainly, it’s such a huge opportunity to improve the experience for users on our website.
Centre the use in all conversations around search;
Make SEO accessible to the entire newsroom;
SEO should happen at each step in the editorial process.
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