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What is an explainer?
Explainers are essential. Here are the five key news SEO considerations for creating high-impact explanatory journalism.
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Hello, and welcome back. Shelby here, 30 hours away from flying to Iceland and chasing the Northern Lights across the country. We’re in the early stages of packing over here, but the piles suggest I am bringing more beanies than I am bringing pants. Problematic? Stay tuned.
This week: How to produce SEO-informed explainers. Explainers are an essential type of journalism. Using search insights and blending it with reporting can make your publication stand out. For the sake of simplicity, we’re only discussing explainers here. Guides will be covered in a future edition of the newsletter.
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Let’s get it.
In this issue:
What is an explainer?
Why are explainers important for search?
5 keys to good search-informed explainers.
What is an explainer?
An explainer is a piece of journalism that covers a topic in depth, providing necessary context. It is actively trying to fill a reader's knowledge gap.
Explanatory journalism comes in many different formats and structures. The most common format is a list of questions as subheadings followed by the answers.
Explainers can also be:
An essay from a subject-matter expert diving into a topic;
A timeline or visual representation of a series of events;
A Q&A-type interview;
A methodology for an investigation or big project;
An annotated map;
Many more formats.
The difference between a traditional news article and an explainer is the purpose. All journalism helps a reader understand or learn something. While a traditional article focuses on covering a moment in a storyline or unearthing unknown details, an explainer describes the topics.
Explainers are meant to supplement your coverage. Using Claudio Cabrera’s tree analogy, if the news article is the trunk, an explainer is a branch. It supplements the main coverage and adds to the reader’s understanding of the concept.
Why are explainers important for search?
When news happens, the immediate reaction is to get the news article out ASAP. And this is the right approach. However, your breaking news file is just one of many being published at the same time. Your story might not rank for the targeted keywords. In fact, it may not show up anywhere.
As the situation develops, Google will adjust the landscape to provide news, analysis and context from publishers. Because of this, it’s an effective strategy to think about — and cover — the event from multiple angles. Google will continuously want fresh content that provides information for readers. Explainers fulfill this need.
In my experience, explanatory journalism also has a higher level of conversion from search than traditional news stories. Since breaking news articles tend to have the same general information across publications, explainers can be the service journalism that helps you stand out. You are helping the reader fill a knowledge gap and understand a concept beyond the straight facts.
THE HOW TO
5 keys to building good SEO-informed explainers
Great explainers are a blend of questions readers want to know the answer to and journalism instinct for what readers need to know. The best explainers make this information easily digestible.
Here are five key considerations for good, SEO-informed explainers.
Keyword research for explainers follows the same methodology as any other type of story. Begin with Google Trends or your keyword research tool of choice and analyze what readers are searching for. Compile a list of keywords relevant to your topic and perform competitive analysis, looking for gaps.
Consider the following:
What queries with rising interest? What questions could be easily answered right now?
How are people searching? Do the keywords/phrases indicate the need for a visual (“map,” “video,” “photos,” “satellite image”) or descriptive (“timeline,” “why” used in the phrase) explainer?
Competitive analysis: What content is already ranking for the event’s main keywords?
Does Google’s landscape give you any clues as to what kind of content it is favouring? (For example, a double Top Stories box with subheadings like "For context," or an extended People Also Ask with 5+ questions?)
What questions are included in those People Also Ask features, and how can you smartly answer them?
What are people talking about on social media? (Twitter is a mess, but Reddit can be useful.)
Most importantly: Use your news judgment. The news muscle is incredibly vital when working on explanatory journalism. Google Trends and other keyword research tools can show what people want to know. But beyond that, there's a world of essential context they just don't know to ask about. That's why editors and reporters are so essential — you need to be proactive in filling in knowledge gaps.
During your keyword research, you may notice interest in related topics your publication is primed to write on.
For example, if interest in “Achilles injuries recovery time” is rising and you have a sports injuries expert on your staff, they're the go-to specialist for an explainer on realistic return-to-game timelines and should write the piece.
Keep a list of topics to cover in explainers. Note ways you can blend in your publication’s expertise and make your content 10x better than your competitors.
Pro tip: As you’re going through your research, consider what subtopics can be broken out into their own stories, too. Perhaps the answer to one question in an explainer actually merits being reported out as its own story. Pitch it, too. It’s still doing a service to the reader, and helping your newsroom understand how people find information.
Consider E.E.A.T and topic authority signals
You should be an expert on the expertise of reporters in your newsroom. Having a comprehensive understanding of your newsroom’s strengths and weaknesses gives you a competitive advantage. You’re immediately putting E.E.A.T signals first and trying to provide the best resource at your disposal for the topic at hand.
YMYL topics — subjects that can significantly impact a readers’ health, financial stability, safety or wellbeing — are great topics for explainers. Common news YMYL topics include personal finance and markets, health and wellness, medical advancements and current events. Google takes extra care to consider signals on these topics because it does not want to be complicit in spreading misinformation.
E.E.A.T signals, then, are vital to explainers. Authorship is a major signal for ranking well in search as well as showing up in Google Discover. If the writer is an expert on the topic at hand, it should be noted in their bio.
Explainers help build and showcase your topic authority. Avoid writing explainers on trending items for the sake of covering it. Ask yourself honestly, “Is this the best approach for my publication, or am I simply chasing clicks?” Your journalism should always help readers.
Craft a strong pitch
Using your keyword research, craft a smart, data-driven pitch. Go beyond the trend. Don’t just include that the topic is trending. How does the story advance your brand’s goals such as traffic, subscriptions or engagement? Ensure the pitch fits your editorial and business goals and will be worth your time.
Include the structure you’d like the writer to use. This is crucial when pitching a piece of explanatory journalism. It will help guide the reporter and provide a roadmap for what to cover in the piece. Include data and evidence in your pitch, as well. This could be the interest line graph from Google Trends, keywords rising for interest or competitor stories that provide context. Pitches should also include the ideal author (see above about the connection between E.E.A.T signals and authorship.)
Go through on-page SEO workflow
Consider on-page SEO best practices while crafting your explainer. Ensure the writers and editors have all of the information they need from a search perspective to write the piece effectively.
Publish the story with an optimized headline. You can adjust as needed, but the first headline you publish is what Google will crawl. That’s vital for ranking.
Ensure the headline communicates that the piece is an explainer. Use a question or words like “how” or “why.” Differentiate the headline from other pieces on the storyline and make sure it’s evident what kind of explainer the story is (for example, if it’s a map, include that in the headline).
If the story is a list of questions as subheadings, ensure those subheads are in a Heading 2. If it’s a long explainer, consider using jump anchor links or a table of contents for a better user experience.
Link the explainer in the main news story and any other related stories. If there is a topic tag page for the storyline, ensure it’s tagged to the page.
Other things to consider:
One of the best pieces of advice I have been given as an audience editor is to be a generalist. This means I’m always looking for ways to improve the story overall versus just from a search perspective.
After you’ve taken care of your SEO on-page priorities, consider the following:
What’s the overall user experience? Is the story readable from start to finish with minimal friction?
Is there a newsletter you want readers to subscribe to?
Is there another CTA, like subscribing, you can include?
How will this story be promoted on social media? On the homepage? Is there a module or package you can create with all of the coverage on this topic?
What’s the next step in this storyline?
Sometimes, there will be no answer to the above and you’ve done all you can, but getting into the habit of considering the entire reader experience will be beneficial in the future.
In breaking news, it’s beneficial to be fast. But when a situation is fluid and information is scarce, it can be difficult to turn around a comprehensive explainer quickly. It’s likely that some of your search-driven explanatory journalism will be published well after the peak of interest.
This is where it’s important to use your news judgment. Consider the shelf life of the event, and then compare that to your publication’s bandwidth. Is this event going to be a quick spike, or will it have a long-term tail as information comes to light? Is this story likely to perform well if it publishes two days post-peak, or will it flop?
Always consider the ROI. If you’re strapped for time and resources, defer to easier explanatory journalism such as timelines, maps or question-and-answer explainers. If the event is going to be talked about for days, consider other types like an in-depth essay, visual interactive, annotated maps or other kinds of explanatory journalism.
Build your news muscle to understand how people react to moments. Catastrophic, traumatic or life-impacting events typically have longer tails as information is unearthed, while tentpole events like a sports game or a meme stock have a shorter shelf life.
How to track success of an explainer
Keep a central dashboard/document to track the performance of all audience-driven pieces and pitches.
Include the traffic it garnered (overall and search-specific), any subscriptions or conversions, backlinks and any other metrics of success important to your publication.
Define success ahead of publication. Identify the goal for the piece (traffic, subscription, engagement, etc.) and then report on how it did compared to your competitors.
If an explainer didn’t succeed, ask yourself why. Is it the format, the structure or was it published too late? Failure is a great opportunity for reflection. Take away learnings and apply them in the future. Don’t be afraid to fail.
The bottom line: Explanatory journalism is crucial for expanding your search strategy and providing context to your readers. Craft strong explainer pitches that are backed by keyword research but include news judgment, and find the best method that displays solid E.E.A.T signals. As always, report internally on the piece’s performance, as measured against the KPIs you care about.
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THE JOBS LIST
Audience or SEO jobs in journalism. Want to include a position for promotion? Email us.
Time Out is hiring a Junior SEO Manager (London, hybrid).
Google news and updates
🤖 Google released its November core update, which will take two weeks to complete.
Barry Schwartz reports there will be a new Google Reviews update rolling out in the next two weeks that will “will make the reviews update more real time.”
🤖 Also Barry Schwartz: Google says mobile-first indexing is finally complete after almost 7 years.
Danny Goodwin for SEL: 7 must-see Google Search ranking documents in antitrust trial exhibits.
🤖 Google Search Central: Google found a bug with their October 2023 core update affecting Discover, which was corrected on October 31st. Some sites may see an increase in Discover-related traffic.
The Verge SEO article rebuttals
🗞️ Gianluca Fiorelli: The contribution of SEO to The Verge and other news websites.
🗞️ Barry Adams: The Verge’s article is the antithesis of proper journalism.
🗞️ Danny Goodwin: Bitter, cynical Verge article blames SEOs for ruining the internet.
🗞️ Danny Sullivan: Some thoughts on The Verge article about SEO.
🗞️ Barry Schwartz: No, SEOs and Google didn’t ruin the internet — nor is the internet ruined.
Other SEO news:
⌨️ Spencer Haws: Google has a major Reddit problem.
🔍 Lily Ray: How to drive traffic from Google Discover — a complete comprehensive guide.
🔬Glen Allsopp: An analysis of 10,000 product review search results shows who ranks for affiliate SEO.
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