Discover more from WTF is SEO?
What we learned at NESS 2023 (part one!)
We’re recapping the first day of NESS 2023. We’ve got tips on Google Discover and algorithm updates; technical and product SEO; and building effective audience teams.
Built specifically for agencies, Wix Studio is a new, end-to-end platform that lets you deliver exceptional client sites with max efficiency.
Hello, and welcome back. Jessie and Shelby here, back from an invigorating two days spent immersed in SEO at NESS 2023. We had so much fun talking to all of you in the chat, and we learned so much from the incredible speakers. Shelby even got roasted by her boss in the middle of his presentation (Shelby: I’m still not over it!).
Thanks for reading WTF is SEO?! Subscribe to never miss a newsletter.
This week: NESS day one! Continuing a tradition, we’re recapping the first day of the conference. We cover the presentations from the five speakers and highlight insights you can implement at your publications. (And if you’re interested, here are our recaps from NESS 2021 and NESS 2022 (part one and two).
Join our community of more than 1,300 news SEOs on Slack to chat any time.
Let’s get it.
In this issue:
Lily Ray on Google Discover
Richard Nazarewicz on product SEO roadmaps
Claudio Cabrera on high-impact audience teams
Glenn Gabe on Google algorithm updates
Barry Adams on technical SEO
Winning in Google Discover (without losing in organic search)
Lily’s talk opened NESS with an incredible overview of Google Discover and how publishers should approach the platform as part of their strategy. While Discover is a Google property, it’s important to remember the platform is not organic search, and operates in a completely different way.
Lily notes that fluctuations in Discover could be the result of core or Helpful Content updates. Google has confirmed that algorithm changes on organic search impact Discover. As she covered on LinkedIn, changing user interest or major crises can influence Discover traffic.
As for how to approach Discover, Lily recommends writing catchy (but not clickbait) headlines (lol, says Lily). Headlines that elicit emotion and are timely, unique and insightful tend to show up more in Discover. Headlines that withhold information or use “these tips”, or similar language, also perform well.
However, since this headline format doesn’t tend to perform as well in organic search, Lily recommends using different headline fields for the <h1> and the <title> tag that you can cater to specific audiences (bonus points if you have all five).
Content types that perform well in Discover are listicles, pieces that provide an aspirational view on living, or daily/weekly serieses that are consistent on a topic.
When doing an analysis of content on Discover over a 16-month period, Lily and her team found that stories around the following topics were popular on the platform:
Cures to illnesses and stories on medical scares (product recalls);
Health and wellness hacks or advice;
Money tips and financial news;
Shocking or emotional stories;
Relatable employee or customer service stories.
But be careful: Google will penalize a site for content that is NSFW. If you serve adult content, or write stories you are worried may be flagged, use Google’s Vision AI tool to see how the search engine may view it.
A few other tips from Lily on Google Discover:
Manage site-wide quality issues;
Analyze long-term performance on both Discover and organic;
Develop a system for updating content as needed (evergreen does well when updated);
Understand your article’s lifespan in Discover (GDdash and other tools can do this);
Look at the links (backlinks and internal) to the content;
Analyze at overall “helpfulness” and relevance of the content;
Analyze whether articles add to E.E.A.T signals;
If the content is not valuable or helpful, develop a plan for trimming/consolidating content (where possible).
Discover can be a huge percentage of a publishers’ search traffic. However, when asked if Discover should be the main SEO strategy for publishers, Lily said no. It’s a tactic, she says, but it does have a meaningful impact for some publishers’ bottom line. Lily’s advice: Keep up with it and continue to experiment with story types.
Taking newsroom SEO priorities through to product and tech roadmaps
If you walk away from Richard’s talk with one thing, it is this: Product SEO is all about people and collaboration.
Being successful in product SEO, especially in a news organization, is all about being a people person and wanting new ideas to thrive. Empower all teams — the newsroom, engineers, developers and stakeholders — to share ideas and collaborate.
Create a process that is seamless for the newsroom to make SEO product requests. Create a form that allows for a wide range of submissions, and review the requests daily or weekly — whatever makes sense for your organization, Richard says. The most common SEO requests are bug reports, like a broken story, dashboard or report. From there, weigh and prioritize the requests and establish a product roadmap.
Prioritize requests by impact versus effort. Richard recommends using a 2x2 priority matrix for pitches, as they are great for buy-in and can help stakeholders visualize the ROI of a project. Everyone wants to know the return on investment. Ensure it’s clearly noted when considering priorities. Explain and justify every single ask, especially if it’s a product request like some functionality change. Everything needs to be explained because you’re using valuable resources and time.
A formula many product SEOs recommend for weighting is the RICE formula: RICE = (Reach x Impact x Confidence) / Effort.
From there, you can make your tickets — but don’t get ticket happy, Richard warns! You don’t want to submit a million tickets to your dev team and overwhelm their task lists. Be smart. Include a description, as well as acceptance criteria in your tickets.
Be a champion for those long-desired requests that have no resource bandwidth. Richard reminds us of those “nice to have'' requests that have long been pushed to the next sprint after the next sprint. In product SEO, you are the advocate for those requests. Build your newsroom relationships by being a champion for those nice-to-haves. Be an ambassador and “preach the word,” says Richard.
GOOGLE ALGORITHM UPDATES
Major Google algorithm updates and their impact on news publishers
We’re in the middle of two Google updates rolling out: The spam and October core update. Glenn has been reporting massive drops for sites caught in these updates, and reviewed the impacts in his presentation.
Glenn covered three kinds of updates:
Broad core updates: Usually significant, these are site-level quality algorithm changes with a big impact on visibility. Broad core updates impact multiple Google surfaces (i.e., Discover, News, Images, etc.).
Review updates: This can impact any type of review. Don’t publish thin reviews; follow Wirecutter’s lead (and Glenn’s tips) for creating helpful reviews.
Helpful Content updates: Google’s secret weapon. The September update focused on sites with unhelpful content and poor UX (this combination is the “kiss of death,” Glenn says). Google also updated its documentation to include more about page experience. So far, this update always has a negative impact on a site. In the future, it's likely to reward quality sites too, Glenn says.
What about publishers? News sites are typically large and complex with a lot of older content, and advertising is often the main driver of revenue. Poor, aggressive ads can cause issues and be impacted by updates. Think: Low quality sites where reading the content is almost impossible because of popups, too many CTAs or ads that follow you on the page.
What to do if you’re hit by a quality update? Glenn says to focus on the usual suspects:
Focus on high-quality content that sends strong E.E.A.T signals and has a great user experience.
Avoid overly-aggressive, disruptive or deceptive advertising. Skip aggressive affiliate setups.
Quality update penalties usually indicate your site has technical issues. Ensure your technical SEO hygiene is up to par.
The kitchen sink approach to remediation is the correct response, Glenn says. Don’t cherry-pick technical things to fix; focus on making a significant improvement in overall content and site quality.
Back up the issues you’re fixing with documentation from experts. This should help get your changes implemented more readily.
Another tip: Conduct user studies to get objective feedback from readers (instead of just quantitative data).
If you’re heavily impacted, you will need to wait until another core update to see full recovery.
Other key points from Glenn’s presentation:
Quality indexing: Every page indexed is considered when evaluating quality during an update. EVERY page. That means it’s hugely important to
noindexthin or low-quality content.
News topic authority: Niche sites can be considered the subject matter expert and outrank behemoths.
Tags: Categories are important, but don’t go overboard with thousands of thin tag pages. This is low-hanging fruit.
Old content does not mean low quality. It could be contributing links or working to establish topic authority. Don’t delete content because it is old.
How audience and news SEO can influence a newsroom
Claudio’s session focused on building high-impact audience and SEO teams in newsrooms, beginning with how teams at The New York Times and The Athletic work.
Here are 9 excellent insights from Claudio:
Audience must be a priority for leadership to help the newsroom understand these teams are not “chasing clicks.” SEO — and more broadly audience — is a reader service. It’s about getting your journalism in front of as many eyeballs as possible.
There are 6 Rs to get buy-in in. Build respect by reacting well (and learning from) a “no” to build effective relationships. Read the coverage deeply so you pitch relevant ideas. When a project is successful, be sure to recognize it internally; this internal reporting helps demystify the work you do. Remember that really, this work is about the reader — all pitches or ideas should be about making connections with the audience.
At The Athletic, the SEO team focuses on publication time, how quickly a URL is indexed by Google, training the newsroom on headlines, internal linking and building out vertical pages (i.e., league or team pages). They work with the programming and social teams, and think about what stories to promote on NYT homepage’s The Athletic module.
Additional responsibilities include: Writing daily and monthly reports, thinking about evergreen opportunities and monitoring Core Web Vitals fluctuations, as well as highlighting Google changes or algorithm updates.
Internal reports: It’s not the stats, it’s the story. Communicate insights about why a story was successful. Reporting just KPS is not useful. Instead, report out why a story did well. That could be the article’s framing, speed to publish, a reporter’s authority or homepage placement — any of these data points tell a better story. Internal reports are all about education so everyone has the same guide to success.
You can’t optimize everything (and not every story is a search play). The Athletic’s goal is to optimize 40 and 50 per cent of the daily product.
The tree/branch approach: Find the story within the story. Claudio explained this approach in depth in our Ask a News SEO interview.
Run a daily meeting, led by someone from audience that starts with a rundown of the previous day’s performance and key insights. Gather a list of stories from each desk, so audience knows what’s coming that day and can highlight what is a priority.
Audience is a desk. Like any other section, track the success of your pitches and stories. When pitching, never lead with search data (i.e., “Aaron Rodgers is trending with 3 million searches”); instead, lead with your brain, end with the numbers. Here’s an example of a better pitch:
Technical SEO for publishing sites in 2023
Barry is the technical news SEO expert. In his presentation, Barry focuses on crawling and indexing, two major components to getting your articles to rank in search. Without a solid foundation for crawling and indexing, ranking doesn't matter.
Google uses two main web crawlers to find content on the internet: Googlebot desktop and Googlebot smartphone. Google predominantly uses the smartphone agent for crawling and indexing, and ultimately ranking.
Barry outlines his argument that Googlebot has three distinct layers of crawling: Realtime, regular and legacy crawlers. The regular crawler does the heavy lifting of crawling, while the legacy crawler crawls unimportant pages. These are pages with limited link value and/or are rarely updated.
The realtime crawler crawls very important (VIP) pages — those with a high change frequency or are seen as highly authoritative. This includes homepages and section pages. The purpose is to find quality, valuable content (i.e., news stories) as efficiently as possible.
The realtime crawler looks at your article once — that means publishers have one chance to get the story indexed in the optimal way to rank in Google’s ecosystem. It’s imperative to get the SEO right before publishing (with the possible exception of live blogs with the LiveBlogPosting schema).
Four fantastic questions, answered by Barry:
Should the dateModified property be changed for all updates (i.e., minor typo fixes as well as big updates to the story)? Google only wants you to update dateModified if there’s a substantial change to the story. In practice, Barry says, it’s changed whenever a story is updated (often because of how the CMS works).
How do URL changes impact crawling, indexing and ranking? The URL is the unique identifier Google uses for an article. If two stories have identical content — headline, meta description, body copy — but different URLs, Google will treat them as different articles. Changing the URL on a story is the only way to force new crawling of an article as a new story. It’s the only deduplicating factor Google uses for news content. (For evergreen content: Don’t update the URL. It’ll undermine the value of that older content.)
Infinite scroll, pagination or load more: Don’t use infinite scroll. Google doesn't do anything that requires user interaction (scrolling or clicking a load more button). Use old-fashioned links instead.
How do publishers identify VIP pages on our sites? Server log files will indicate which pages Google crawls the most. If you don’t have access to that, look at the non-news pages (i.e., section pages) that are ranking in Google; those are likely VIP pages. Search a topic and if your tag or section page is ranking, that’s likely a VIP page (and an indication you have high topic authority in that subject area).
Next week: We will recap day two of NESS!
#SPONSORED - The Classifieds
NewzDash: Revolutionize your workflow with SEO tips, AI recommendations, ranking alerts, content gap analysis and more. Elevate your content with NewzDash! 🚀
Get your company in front of more than 7,750 writers, editors and digital marketers working in news and publishing. Sponsor the WTF is SEO? newsletter!
THE JOBS LIST
Audience or SEO jobs in journalism. Want to include a position for promotion? Email us.
Hearst UK is hiring an SEO Manager (London, hybrid) to work on brands such as Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and Country Living.
🗺️ The Verge: Google is testing a Discover feed that shows recommended content in the regular desktop homepage. Google told The Verge it's an experiment currently underway in India.
🔍 Lily Ray on LinkedIn: A Lily theory that may explain why Google News and Discover traffic dropped recently for many publishers.
Meanwhile, Barry Adams noted that Google updated its Discover documentation around volatility in traffic from the surface.
🤖 Google news and updates: It’s been a busy few weeks in the SERPs. Some highlights include:
Barry Schwartz: Google has officially stopped indented results because “it wasn’t as helpful as in the past.”
Barry Schwartz: Google’s Search Generative Experience can now create images like other, competing AI-generation tools (i.e., Midjourney). Google’s documentation says users can ask SGE to “draw a picture of X” and the AI will render an image.
📰 The Audiences (c/o Madeleine White): The Washington Post has a five-part process for building products.
⏰ Gary Kirwan on LinkedIn: How to get Slack updates for Google’s official algorithm updates and indexing incidents.
💬 Mariya Delano: How communication issues prevent you from getting buy-in for SEO.
🖱️ SEMRush: Things that influence your organic click-through rates.
What did you think of this week's newsletter?
(Click to leave feedback.)
Catch up: Last week’s newsletter
Thanks for reading WTF is SEO?! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.