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Ask a News SEO: The Athletic’s Ryan Mayer
The Athletic’s Ryan Mayer joins us to talk about minimizing chaos during major tentpole news events, competitive research and the core skills every SEO should have.
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Hello and welcome back. It’s Jessie and Shelby, back with another duo edition. We’re chuffed to see our subscriber tally just keep going up, up and up every month. We just reached 6,000 subscribers! There's still 5,000 subscribers celebratory cake in Jessie's freezer!
This week: Ask a News SEO with The Athletic’s Ryan Mayer! We were thrilled to talk about planning for major tentpole events (to minimize chaos), competitive research and the core skills every SEO should have.
WTF is SEO?: How are tentpole events different from breaking news?
Ryan Mayer: The biggest thing with tentpole events is the pre-planning.
In breaking news, you're reacting more than anything else. But for tentpole events that are months down the line – where you’re spending a lot of newsroom energy and it's a big priority – those months of planning can be really, really helpful in making it less chaotic.
It’s not completely devoid of chaos. It's always going to have that certain level to it, but making it less chaotic in the moment and feeling prepared for various different scenarios is helpful.
Pre-planning is the big key difference. It’s one of the things that I've found most helpful over the various newsroom roles in my career. The further out I start planning, and talking to all of the stakeholders involved, the better and more smoothly the event tends to go.
How do you work with stakeholders in the organization to ensure your strategy works?
Ryan Mayer: The biggest thing early on is getting a sense of what they're already thinking about for the event – whether it’s the World Cup, Super Bowl or World Series. Getting the initial coverage plan from stakeholders for everything we’re going to do. Then you have a starting list and can ask, “I have these angles covered but what are we missing? What don't we have coverage on?”
For us at The Athletic, we cater not only to the really hardcore fans, but we're also trying to broaden out to the casual fan as well and be accessible to them. So are we hitting all of those different questions that they may have? Are we out of the weeds enough to explain the event in the way people are going to be looking for it?
It's also helpful having those conversations as early in advance as possible. For any newsroom, they're covering so many different things that they may not have actually thought of their plan yet. If you're coming to them six months out, they may have already started planning or they may just be in the very early stages of planning or budgeting. You can see what the interest is and at least lay a little ground work in terms of the things that we know are going to come up in search every year.
How do you build a newsroom that considers six months out from an event to be “early”? What pieces need to be in place for each period of time leading up to an event?
Ryan Mayer: There needs to be some level of back and forth between you and the leadership in the newsroom where you're gaining insights from them into how big of a priority an event is for the company. For The Athletic, the World Cup was massive. We have such a great U.K. newsroom. We knew that we really wanted to show off the tremendous journalism that they were going to be doing around this event.
Six months out, we were already thinking about it and had already started the process of setting up the landing page and the various checkpoints along the way.
But there are going to be other events, like the NBA trade deadline, where we're talking two weeks in advance and that's as early as we can push it. Because there's 82 games in the entire NBA season, you don't really have time to key in on just one event.
The biggest thing I do is reach out as early as I can so that editors know our audience team is already thinking about this event.
We met with the NHL group at the beginning of their season (September) about the trade deadline in March. That's a six month timeframe. I wasn’t asking for specific plans that day, but at the very least, get them thinking about how to make this into the event that it is. It’s one of the key tentpoles in the NHL season.
It's all that same back-and-forth we have as audience editors of trying to figure out the best way to get the newsroom thinking about these things while also understanding the day-to-day coverage overall.
What are the key tools you use for planning?
Ryan Mayer: There’s a wide variety of tools for keyword research. Google Trends is a big part of that in determining the various different interest levels, related searches and related topics. Within that, Glimpse as a Google Chrome extension is hugely helpful. We definitely relied on that a lot during our World Cup planning.
A big thing for me is documentation, whether it be Google Docs or Sheets, to keep track not only of documents for your team (best practices and what you’re expecting on a day-to-day basis), but also keep notes for each other and have a link-out document for the pieces of coverage.
From a competitive standpoint, we use SimilarWeb to get a sense of where we're standing in the lead up to this event. What is our share of voice? What are the keywords that competitors are particularly dominant?
What does competitive research look like for you?
Ryan Mayer: It starts with Google itself because often we are competing for space on these big events with new features that they have introduced. For example, scores or lineup cards. During the World Cup, we were seeing news boxes surface three or four scrolls down on mobile.
When that's the case, it’s something to highlight to your newsroom immediately. Just so we're all aware of what the mobile landscape looks like, which is where a majority of our search traffic is coming from. This is what Google looks like and how Google is treating our content.
Once we kind of get that out of the way, we look at who else is in the Top Stories box. Or if we're not, who is in there and then diving into their website. Do they have this particular story high up on their homepage or where is it being linked to/from? When did they publish this story? Is their headline potentially better than ours?
How can we look at these various different aspects of things and can we match that? Or do we take it a different route and try to do something different?
At the moment, it’s based more on what we're seeing within the landscape versus tooling. Tooling is helpful because I can't monitor the SERPs on a day-to-day basis, but during the event, I’m there often to see where we are. It’s a little bit easier to diagnose that competitive setting from that first-person vantage point.
That's how we're able to diagnose and figure out what our competitive space looks like.
What are three news SEO concepts that you think that every editor should know or that in your position, you need to know?
Ryan Mayer: There’s so many different things I've picked up coming from the reporter side to SEO that it's kind of hard to distill down to three. I'll caveat it with that first.
Probably the biggest one is the misconception that what is good for a search audience is not also good for subscribers. That’s really misunderstood. Yes, you may have subscribers who are very in tune with what you're writing about and may be following on a day-to-day basis. But the simple fact is that the vast majority of the audience is not. They're not following day-to-day even if it's their favourite team.
So how can we explain these things to people? We know that search audiences and regular subscribers or visitors often have crossover in what they want to know. That's the biggest thing to key in on, in terms of learning.
Outside of that, I am a big proponent of making headlines as engaging as they can be while also being search friendly. That's one of the things that we try to preach to editors. We're not trying to make headlines formulaic. It can be fun and interesting, not only for subscribers, but also the search user, who is seeing it in links (if it's organic) or in Top Stories.
It’s also not necessarily going with the first headline. Sometimes you think about it for 10-15 minutes and you're like, actually this one's a little bit better. Is there a way that we can change that? Having that openness with your newsroom to be like, “Hey, listen, I'm not married to this headline. We can change it. We can make this better.”
Thirdly, not every piece is going to be about something that is highly searched. That doesn't mean that we can't optimize it for search and for engagement on other platforms. There are scenarios where we’re writing about a topic that is definitely worthy, but it's not being searched for on a day-to-day, week-to-week or month-to-month basis. However, it's part of the conversation on social media right now — or it could be if we frame the headline or photo within the story in the right way.
That’s also a guiding principle. I think sometimes newsrooms can get really focused on trends. They go through these training sessions and they're like, “Okay, the search interest really isn't there. So I don't really have to worry about search or optimizing this particular story.”
That's fair, but we can still optimize it in case it’s something that comes out later down the line or we can think about it from a different angle.
That can all still be part of an audience and SEO editors job. It helps you to make that connection with the newsroom too, because you're not just coming at it from the strictly, “This is going to rank really well in search” angle. You’re saying it could perform well here or here if we do this. That can help build that bridge a little bit.
Ask a News SEO: Alexia LaFata on translating search data for editors
What do you wish you knew about SEO and audience when starting out?
Ryan Mayer: I'm gonna go twofold. The first is not search-centric but is personal to people in the SEO field who didn't start in SEO. Imposter syndrome is real and everybody deals with it.
It's not just you, and you don't have to feel like you don't know what you're talking about. If you go through these courses and you're like, “I don't even know what that term means,” that is okay. You can still build and grow from there and still learn from there. There are different ways to approach SEO – just like there's different ways to approach a story.
That’s one thing I wish I knew coming in because I would say it was definitely a big thing for me.
One of the biggest things I learned from Claudio Cabrera, who brought me into this world, is that you can’t be afraid of failing. Not everything’s going to work, even if you think it should. And that’s just the whims and facts of life and dealing with the environment that we’re in. Search is an ever-changing environment and one where what works right now is going to be different than what works six months from now.
Be okay with experimenting, using different solutions for the same problem and not being formulaic about the guidance that you're giving. If we’re talking about a live file, this means not always using the exact same framing for headlines or the same cadence of posts. Whatever the case, when it comes to search, that’s the big one: We’re all figuring this out over time.
Not being afraid of failure and being able to explain that to the newsroom is key. “Here’s why we think this didn’t work.” This also builds up the trust within your newsroom because it’s not just highlighting, “this is where we won,” but also “this didn’t do as well as we thought. Here’s why. And here’s what we can change for next time.”
It all comes back to accountability that helps you build trust with a newsroom.
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