Ask a News SEO: USA Today's Kyle Sutton
This week: We were so jazzed to talk about news product SEO, spreading knowledge in the newsroom and the right to win in search with Kyle Sutton.
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Hello, and welcome back. Jessie and Shelby here, fresh off weekends filled with curling (Shelby) and the first softball hang of the season (Jessie).
This week: Ask a News SEO with USA Today’s Kyle Sutton! We were so jazzed to talk about news product SEO, spreading knowledge in the newsroom and the right to win in search.
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
WTF is SEO?: How does product SEO work together at USA Today? How should they work together?
Kyle Sutton: Our product SEO team consists of me and two others. We sit within the larger product organization. We’re focused on scalable, search-based solutions that can reach an audience we are not currently reaching.
USA Today is the flagship publication with the most share of voice, at least from a national perspective. But, Gannett expands to over 200 local newsrooms – the Arizona Republic or the Indianapolis Star, for example – so we have reach throughout the country. That can be really impactful, especially when the publications have the opportunity to shine, for example, during a big sports event or, unfortunately, local tragedy. These local publications often receive a large share of visibility, even ahead of national brands.
We aim to look at scale and impact across the organization. Ideas come from both sides of the house. For example, a template-based, technical CMS-level idea will come from our side, like exploring the lift around a type of structured markup in our CMS.
In the last few years, we had a great win in the adoption of the live blog template. We observed that the live blog was table stakes for similar publishers (getting the live tag to show this event is happening and we are covering it).
We identified that, then worked with Google and the product team to get that integrated in our CMS. Then, there was a series of training sessions across the newsrooms and we've seen really great buy-in. That’s the sort of thing that we look to introduce from a tech basis.
That said, there are plenty of opportunities where we’re collaborating with editorial, too.
If it's a tentpole event, for example, they might come to us and say, "Hey, Selection Sunday or the Oscars are coming up, here’s what we're thinking." We might give some input on live blogs or topic pages. Things like that, where we can utilize our strength from a template or foundational perspective to give editorial the best shot at visibility there. We can come to the table and say, "We feel we have a right to win in this space." We provide the process, research and ROI traffic to get better prioritization, but it's editorial who will be writing and maintaining the content. That's the sort of thing where we'll work collaboratively.
It’s an ongoing collaboration and the best ideas rise to the top.
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.”
You sit in your product team. How much do you inform your newsroom about what you're working on and how often do you talk to your newsroom stakeholders?
Kyle Sutton: We try to be as transparent as possible so that the editorial team is well-informed of the product roadmap, because it has an impact on what they're doing. Our product leaders are fairly transparent, there are recurring meetings where the product has a chance to share our latest developments – a template launch or a modification, or experiment. Over-communication is really essential, especially if there’s a change to their process.
We want to make sure we’re fully transparent, but also get them excited about opportunities. We try to hold up our end of the bargain, to make sure we’re bringing great ideas that will move the company forward, and align with our editorial goals. We also want to keep them in the know and get their feedback early on products and features we’re rolling out.
What does training look like across the network?
Kyle Sutton: It depends on how a change will impact (each group’s) daily workflow.
For a CMS-based, there’s a broader training that’s handled by our CMS training and engineering team for all of our markets.
The live blog template in the CMS is a good example because that was something of a process change – structuring a story in a certain way and applying CMS tags to make sure it generates the markup and we get the visibility we need. We created best practice documentation around that and have many forums focused on search across the network. We have an SEO champions meeting which gathers folks throughout the network – not just from product but editorial – to share wins and best practices. We usually have a dedicated segment on the top of that call to discuss product changes or features we’re rolling out.
That way we get the relevant folks together to discuss what’s in the pipeline, they know they can reach out with questions. It’s a grassroots effort. We try to over-communicate and document things as best as possible so if someone misses a call or training, they can come back to the resource.
Does your focus approach to product ideas change between national and local markets?
Kyle Sutton: It does. When it comes to audience opportunities, we know that it's not always apples to apples. There are national topics where USA Today is best positioned to go after those terms. If we have the opportunity and are choosing a target market for a launch, they might go first because it will be quickest to market and they would rise to the top more quickly.
But on the local level, things change. It’s a more geography-based audience or – if we’re talking about sports – zoom into the Detroit Free Press. You’re talking about Lions, Pistons and Tigers. The Detroit Free Press has a big share of voice there. It changes the opportunity. We try to think about how an opportunity might work for them.
For example, as we’re pushing evergreen initiatives, we're trying to define what is a national play, and where it is local play, and they feel like they have a right to win in the space.
We try to apply the best practices, but just tweak it for a local versus a national approach to align with the audience and get the intended results.
What are the three core skills that every news SEOs should know?
Kyle Sutton: Number one is search research tools that are going to inform coverage. We’re grateful to be at a point where Google Trends is second hand. That if a story breaks, the reporter can look up how people are searching for it, they know how to compare topics, looking at rising queries and things like that. That’s table stakes now.
For many, it’s enough to understand how the story is developing and what needs to be addressed in the main story, and in breakouts. For the folks who are willing to go a step deeper, Google Search Console is great, to look, historically, at how stories performed and top queries. With the 16 month view, they can go look back to last year's coverage of, for example, March Madness and identify the files that did the best and use that to inform our coverage this year.
There are folks, the SEO champions, who are more accelerated in their search journey and they use other tools (like Conductor Searchlight) to create dashboards, keyword tracking and competitive research. All that knowledge helps inform a better search strategy.
Then I would say, really trying to understand user intent and how to structure files in a way that really answers the questions that folks are looking for. In breaking news, we get a live blog out the door and that’s great. But are we understanding, as the narrative is changing, what are the types of breakout questions people are asking, and are we getting ahead of that?
Often that can be a “what you need to know” file aggregating the main questions and understanding the user intent and targeting that well. Then understanding when it’s time to refresh or publish a new file, and if there’s enough interest on a breakout to publish a supplemental piece. That process is important.
And then getting people to think about the lifetime and duration of their file, to know when to go back and update – if they’re falling out of the carousel or as the narrative changes. We want these files to be delivering value long-term, so it’s getting a process in place where you're checking back weekly or monthly making meaningful refreshes.
News SEO is a number of things and if we can get folks comfortable with any one of those, that's a win from our perspective. If you weren’t using Google Trends last week and now you are, that’s a huge win.
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Written by Jessie Willms and Shelby Blackley
Excellent read. As ALWAYS!