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What we learned at NESS (part two)
NESS was SO stacked, we needed two newsletters to cover talks by Wil Reynolds, Jes Scholz, Anna Sbuttoni, Kevin Indig and John Shehata.
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Hello, and welcome back. Jessie and Shelby here for another collaboration. Jessie is back from another beautiful wedding (congratulations, pals, for finding the only venue in Toronto where a band tee is acceptable wedding attire. Don’t worry: I didn’t wear my Sad Dads tee. I went with the slightly-more appropriate vintage dress route).
This week: NESS day two! The conference was SO stacked, we had to split our recap into two newsletters. If you’re interested, here are our recaps from NESS 2021, NESS 2022 (part one and two) and NESS 2023 (part one).
Join our community of almost 1,500 news SEOs on Slack to chat any time.
Let’s get it.
In this issue:
Wil Reynolds on AI and the future of SEO (keynote)
Jes Scholz on super speedy crawling
Anna Sbuttoni on how SEO is changing newsrooms
Kevin Indig on using AI to make your content better
John Shehata on building SEO at huge publications
Keynote: The future of SEO in an AI world
The keynote from Wil Reynolds asked the age-old question in SEO — is it dead? As he smartly points out, SEO has been “dying” since 1997, when the term “SEO” was first used. More than 25 years later, SEO is defined by inflection points — features or moments that have altered the search industry. But it still exists. It’s just about pivoting.
Wil highlights that it’s important to speak about the value of SEO, especially when talking to stakeholders such as CEOs and investors. They don’t look at rankings of keywords or visibility, they look at stock charts and the bottom line. The goal of a person working in SEO, then, is to earn trust with C-Suite advisors by getting things done, and using search tools to hit business goals.
The fluidity of the industry is a trust-building opportunity. Things have changed, and the traffic opportunity is smaller than in the past, Wil says. The ROI for SEO has also changed, and the audience has moved elsewhere, to platforms like YouTube or TikTok. But opportunity to reach these audiences still exists. By admitting this fact, you demonstrate to executives that you’re thinking about the bottom line and beyond just clicks.
Don’t put your head in the sand, Wil says. If the ROI is different, find other places to provide value. Understand all of the different channels that people use — social, search, internal, newsletters, and more — and how to adapt to the persona of the individual using them. Everyone’s journey on the internet is different.
Wil provided a variety of different ways to adapt to the changes in SEO. He suggested using AI to:
Remove friction for customers in their journey;
Complete time-consuming tasks such as keyword research or writing content briefs;
Create mini applications through ChatGPT and Google Sheets that help you become more strategic in your job. Think beyond the traditional job of an SEO and focus on how you can make an impact on the customer’s journey.
He also provides a great pro tip when it comes to People Also Ask boxes: See how competitors are dealing with zero-click searches and optimizing for those SERP features. Turn around and optimize your site for these features so that even if it doesn’t directly translate into traffic, your brand becomes more prominent and you can get your message across.
Rule the next evolution era of SEO, Wil says. Take accountability for failures and the declines in the industry, but find new ways to open your publication to opportunities. This is how you build trust.
📌 Wil shares insights on Twitter and LinkedIn. He’s raising money for the Covenant House Pennsylvania.
SEO strategies for rapid crawling
Using the analogy of a Formula 1 race, Jes expertly (and beautifully, like WOW was her slide deck gorgeous!) explains how important it is to get crawled by Google first in a very competitive environment.
To be the first URL crawled by Google, aka the pole position in a race, publishers must maximize crawl efficacy. We need Google to crawl our URLs as fast as possible — vitally important in journalism, especially in a breaking news situation. There are so many stories in the mix, including syndicated articles or AI pieces.
Understanding your crawl efficacy takes development resources, as it requires getting access to server logs. Talk to your dev team or consider hiring an agency to get this metric.
Jes outlines how Google prioritizes crawling with a queue of URLs found from feeds, in sitemaps, linked on pages, and other places across the site. Crawling has a priority queue where you can fast-track crawling of certain URLs. You can do this through the Google Search Console URL inspection tool, or an API submission.
Jes listed other ways to ensure speedy crawling, such as up-to-date XML sitemaps with fresh
lastmod tags to signal when the story was updated. But do not include no-indexed, non-canonicalized, duplicate or paginated URLs or any URLs you do not want to be crawled, she warns. Sitemaps are reserved for the important pages that need to be discovered.
Other tactics to improve crawling across your site:
RSS feeds that notify an update through WebSub;
Internal links to and from a page;
Comprehensive internal linking on navigation and subnavs;
Breadcrumbs at the top of pages;
Topic tag pages on corresponding articles;
Multi-page pagination is the best method.
Don’t have an overreliance on indexing, Jes says. Even though you can tell Google not to index a page, you’re still allowing the robots to crawl the page, taking time and resources. Just block pages in the robots.txt file if they’re not important to your search goals.
Everyone’s favourite topic (or maybe just Barry Adams’), AMP, came up, as Jes recommends removing it. This lessens the likelihood for a crawling lag and leaves room for crawling other URLs.
How SEO is reshaping ‘classic’ newsrooms
In her talk about The Times & The Sunday Times — one of the oldest newspapers in the world — Anna outlined how the audience teams are changing the outlets.
The SEO team focuses on pitching search-led story ideas and taking them to the next level, convincing readers it's worth paying for. As a paywalled site, the focus is not simply reach. The team must work to ensure they’re writing stories that are valued by subscribers.
It also includes:
Ensuring The Times covers a story from every angle, maintaining a dynamic mix of coverage;
Keeping pace with audience interest;
Considering and evaluating what competitors are doing;
Working to reinforce E.E.A.T signals, including by establishing author profiles for all 800 contributors;
Keeping up-to-date with Google algorithm updates.
Before, the team was focused on "retro-optimizing" stories after they were published. Now, they're ensuring SEO is front-of-mind when content is pitched and created.
To accomplish this, the team:
Educates the newsroom, starting with sharing daily insights;
Pitches SEO-led stories that are worth covering at The Times & Sunday Times;
Influences the digital commissioning hub, the in-office desk that includes video, graphics, photo, news and homepage editors. Getting a seat at this table was invaluable for getting buy-in;
Plans forward to get ahead of the news;
Partners with editors to build relationships and drive impact. Audience editors embed with different desks in rotating 3-months stints to learn how they work.
A few questions from the Q&A at the end of Anna’s talk:
Has the The Times & Sunday Times declined to cover a highly-searched story because you didn’t have topic authority or couldn’t add value? In the runup to a major event, there's a lot of search interest in “What time is X?” and the publication doesn’t go there. That information is readily available. Instead, they take a question and get a subject expert to answer it. Explanatory journalism isn’t just explainers that answer the most-search questions in a chunky format. It’s extremely thoughtful analysis — and you wouldn’t know it’s an SEO-led query. It’s taking it to the next level.
For the Russell Brand investigation, the team was immediately on top of backlinks. Is that organic or intentional outreach? Ideally, the hope is that outlets will link back to the original source. But in practice, it’s done by email. An internal spreadsheet has the contact information for the relevant news desks at other publications to speed up outreach. For example, on the Russell Brand investigation, the team tracked down all backlinks and earned the Highly Cited label in Top Stories.
How do you track evergreen? The Times & Sunday Times uses an adapted version of the WTF is SEO?’s starter template for tracking evergreen (shameless plug).
AI won’t replace writers. It will make them 10x better.
The AI genie is out of the bottle. It’s not going anywhere. The question to ask about AI is: How can the technology help me be a better writer?
Kevin’s key lessons for using AI to improve your content:
Humans plus AI is the gold standard;
Prompts that create quality output are often in-depth, and require iterating until you get back something useful;
Use your customer insights to drive a competitive advantage.
Reproducibility is the key. Create a prompt that returns exactly what you want. Work on getting the prompt right once, then spread it across sections. This will require iterating it for what you need.
There are eight principles for better AI prompts:
Ask the chatbot for exactly what you want;
Push the limits of the AI;
Use an active voice in your writing;
Avoid bias showing up in the final product;
Use and provide examples;
Define the format of the content.
Machines will never be able to drive an emotion, Kevin says. AI won’t convey emotion through writing. That’s where writers have the advantage. High-impact writing needs emotion, but it’s up to the writer to add it in.
Should publishers block AI crawlers? Yes, Kevin says. There’s no advantage for publishers to open up their content to LLMs. These LLM providers should either sign financial agreements or find other places to gather data to train their models. However, there’s already damage done because of the scraping, Kevin says, but that’s something for lawyers to sort out. (agrees, arguing it’s likely illegal, and something legislators should tackle.)
What sort of rules or guardrails do you think newsrooms should have in place, if any, for the use of AI in their work? It’s not just about the actual act of writing, it’s everything that comes before and after, Kevin says. You can use AI to learn from the writing you’ve already produced. There are ethical and moral standards when you create content — those need to be respected. Plus, you need to fact-check and edit the output as you would other content.
Will people ever trust AI at news organizations? Make AI content that is reliable, trustworthy and demonstrates expertise and you can gain trust, Kevin says. Create consistent, high-quality content and be very transparent about how AI is used in the process. We need humans for E.E.A.T signals (i.e., their hands-on experience). It’s important to look through the questions Google provides in the Quality Raters Guide and other algorithm updates, then ask: What can AI do to help here? And, more importantly, what can it not do?
📌writes the Growth Memo newsletter and is on Twitter and LinkedIn.
Elevating your enterprise SEO game: Scaling tactics for massive websites
Using his experience as a former executive at Conde Nast, John explains how to work in enterprise SEO for massive sites and skills needed to become an important part of an organization. SEO at large organizations — especially those with multiple brands — can be tricky. With so many sets of URLs and different needs, the primary task is understanding the processes that lead to lasting success.
John says to ask yourself the following questions when establishing yourself in enterprise SEO:
Is this a product-led or a commercial-led organization?
How does SEO work within the organization?
Are there specific workflows that are already in place?
Is the publication print or digital-first? Do they do news, second-day analysis or opinion?
Is the main focus subscriptions or brand awareness?
Don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach, John says. It’s important to understand the company’s success metrics, and establish the search goals to achieve those KPIs in a variety of ways. Always speak the right language. In news SEO, that’s how journalists talk instead of SEO jargon. Meanwhile, if your job is a hybrid, or you spend a lot of time discussing goals with stakeholders, ensure you speak the executive’s language and show value in revenue and bottom line numbers. Speak strategy, not tactics, John says. Know your audience when talking about something you’re working on.
The following is a list of skills John considers important in enterprise SEO:
Technical skills, such as understanding client-side rendering versus server-side rendering and CWV;
Analytics skills, such as data blending, pulling from multiple sources and understanding correlation;
People/soft skills, such as being able to build relationships, communicate in person, celebrate hires and speak in difficult situations;
Connecting with other teams, such as the tech and engineering teams that need to help SEO;
Working on projects that make change versus menial tasks;
Saving time and finding ways to automate tasks.
When joining an organization, John says to take your time and focus on quick wins first. Don’t rush; there’s time for radical changes later. Choose your battles wisely, but know where you stand.
And finally, John leaves us with an important piece of advice: Stop “it depends.” It’s a crutch for SEOs. It’s important to take a stance and support it with data and instinct.
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THE JOBS LIST
Audience or SEO jobs in journalism. Want to include a position for promotion? Email us.
NPR is hiring an Engagement Editor (Washington, DC/Remote permitted).
🤖 Google news and updates:
🖥️ The Verge: Google is experimenting with Discover on desktop (currently only in India).
💼 CNBC: Google cut at least 40 jobs in its news division this week.
📱 The Verge: YouTube (owned by Google) is pushing out an “immersive watch page experience” that’s designed to promote more news content from authoritative publications.
⚒️ Onely blog: Common technical SEO issues that hurt your rankings.
🔢 Search Engine Land: Use Google Sheets functions in your SEO content planning workflow.
🚀 Search Engine Land: How Search Generative Experience works and why retrieval-augmented generation is our future.
📰 The New York Times: Silicon Valley ditches news, shaking an unstable industry
🗞️ Columbia Journalism Review: “Most players in the online product review and affiliate revenue space are kind of skeezy.” Is that true?
🪛 MIT: Katie Notopoulos writes about fixing the internet (and how, in order to do that, we must move beyond the huge platforms).
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