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Ask Two News SEOs: Ben Dilks and Leonie Roderick on paywalls
The Times & Sunday Times editors join us to discuss the value and challenge of paywalls for news SEO — plus the benefits of talking to your rivals.
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We talked about the value and challenge of paywalls for news SEO. Ben and Leonie share how they work to sell the distinctive, high quality content created by the newsroom — plus the benefits of talking to your rivals.
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WTF is SEO?: The Times and Sunday Times have had paywalls, specifically hard paywalls, for a lot longer than most news organizations. What are your biggest lessons for gated content strategies?
Ben Dilks: When you have a paywall, it's more important than ever to ensure that your content is really distinctive.
I have this mantra in the newsroom: at its heart, editorial SEO is just knowing what your readers want to know and then using the same language as readers to help them find it. Obviously, with the paywall, you have an added consideration: It’s about knowing what your readers want to know and can't find elsewhere.
It's brilliant when you can publish an exclusive news story or interview, but there's also the chance to make your coverage distinctive by the way that you tell the story — even if it's not an exclusive. So, for example, by having the best visual elements or incorporating extra context or analysis.
Leonie Roderick: There's been a shift in our newsrooms in terms of getting them to realize that there's no point purely chasing clicks, but that there is a balance that we need to strike between covering those big stories that are trending as well as providing exclusives, in-depth analysis, features and other types of articles.
It’s about thinking how we can move it on. How can we take a trending story and then add value so people will subscribe? That required a mindset change from our staff.
Ben Dilks: The other thing is remembering to show off what is behind the paywall.
I often talk about using the top (image and headline) as a shop window to tease your really valuable gated assets. If you've gone to the effort of commissioning really cool bespoke maps or graphics or data visualization or a photo essay, then be sure to tease it so people know what they’re missing and subscribe.
You have to sell it incredibly hard. We spend a huge amount of time working specifically on the sell, whether that be testing and developing headlines or working up visuals.
WTF is SEO?: 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. Ultimately, good SEO skills give you the power to mind read what your readers are thinking. It’s an opportunity to give them more relevant content that better serves their interests, not just to boost the number of clicks.
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.
Leonie Roderick: It has also definitely influenced how we commission articles. We look at how we can take big news events and make our subsequent coverage unique, by bringing in experts and telling the stories in a different way compared to what everyone else is doing.
Ben Dilks: The whole point of having a paywall is to have a source of revenue that can fund high-quality journalism. The paywall allows us to take time and do things differently.
WTF is SEO?: Does the learned user behaviour about paywalls change if it's a dynamic approach to gathered content? Do you think having a dynamic paywall can confuse readers?
Ben Dilks: I'm a bit torn on this.
I know that our long-standing reputation for having an extremely hard paywall affects our click-through rates negatively. Communication around that is a real challenge, particularly if you're opening up certain sections of content, as we have done recently with our travel and money content.
But, at the same time, I know that some readers just try their chances and click no matter what. When that happens, they learn very quickly that they can access articles. So behaviour can change.
Leonie Roderick: I think it’s all about communication to the reader.
For example, when we first started working with our smart paywall provider, we did a test where anyone coming to us via social platforms on mobile would get a certain number of articles free in a month. But we didn't really see any long term change in user behaviour, and we think it's partly because of the way we communicated this to readers.
When they landed on the page, it wasn't particularly clear that they were getting something for free. So, this became an area of focus for us, to be much clearer in our communication by saying, "Hey, you're getting this valuable piece of journalism for free.” Or, “You've read three articles already. Would you consider subscribing?” It’s all about signalling to the reader the value they’re getting.
WTF is SEO?: What do you wish you had learned earlier in your SEO career?
Ben Dilks: Well, first of all, I just wish that I'd known that SEO existed full stop. It's incredible how many journalism training courses don't teach SEO, even now. SEO still isn't always considered to be a must-have skill.
Leonie Roderick: For me, I wish I’d known earlier how much support there is among news publishers.
Here in the UK, there are virtual and in-person meetups every couple of months organized by the Association of Online Publishers that are attended by local and national publishers, as well as more specialized trade magazines, where we come together and discuss the big topics or trends that we’re seeing. It could be about how we are combating a decline in Twitter traffic following the demise of Moments or the impact of the latest search algorithm change. For me, it's almost a relief to me to hear from others that they're facing the same challenges.
Ben Dilks: There's a lot of support out there. Being able to speak frankly and share insights and learning is essential. I would really urge people to go beyond their own company and speak to rivals. When you're in a room together with your competitors, you quickly realize you’re all facing similar issues and are up against one big beast: Google. It's hugely reassuring.
Something else I wish I knew earlier: I think I saw SEO as something to be done to an article at the end of the editorial process. I personally came from a production background, but it became evident to me that retrofitting an optimized headline to something that's already been commissioned is not the best way to work. I wish I had realized that straight away.
WTF if SEO?: How do you communicate that point to your newsroom?
Ben Dilks: I say “Think about SEO from the beginning of the editorial process” until I'm blue in the face. Obviously, headlines are really important, so I ask desk heads to think about every skedline as a potential headline from the off. It’s vital to think about the sell during the commissioning process.
Feedback loops are also super important. We always have a slot at the beginning of each of our editorial meetings where we analyze how stories performed across different metrics. Having that feedback loop is really vital to actually get behaviours to change in the long run.
Leonie Roderick: It's about continually identifying opportunities where we can closely work with individual desks, and getting the commissioning editors and other decision makers into a room with the SEO team well in advance. We will tell them, “These are the things we believe will pay off for us, this is what our competitors are doing and this is how we can stand out.” Journalists are notoriously competitive, so focusing on what others are doing well tends to be a good motivator.
We frequently suggest testing new approaches, which often leads to an, “okay, why not?” response from the desk heads. And we take it from there. The SEO team, of course, sees the stories through to publishing by making sure they are well-optimized and are engaging to subscribers and guest visitors alike. And then, as Ben said, we have that constant feedback loop on our performance. Reinforcing a positive message is incredibly important because you don't always want to be the person solely delivering bad news. Instead, it’s about recognizing the little wins as well as identifying the points where we can improve next time around, and constructively, yet carefully, taking the desk editors through that.
Share this quote: “Journalists are notoriously competitive, so focusing on what others are doing well tends to be a good motivator.”
Ben Dilks: A huge possible pitfall is allowing a mentality to take hold that there’s separate “Reach content” and “Subscriber content”. While some stories may be commissioned specifically to reach audiences on search engines or social, it’s essential that all articles are useful or interesting to the reader and that quality is consistent. What’s the point in getting traffic from Google if it’s not to your very best content?
The newsroom SEO editor’s happy place is when you find a hook that will give you reach, but are able to combine it with a way of telling the story that makes you stand out.
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