SEO as the new newsstand

The Times discovered the value and necessity of search-engine optimization (SEO) for news and media yesterday. (I found it surprising that they gave scant credit to, the Times company where — full disclosure — I consult, for About is the first media company built to embrace search as its front door. But that’s always the case with intramural stories; editors resist acknowledging their smart cousins.)

I wrote a Guardian column about the need for media outlets to understand that search, aggregation, and links are their new means of distribution; smart companies will embrace this, while dinosaurs will go hide.

The fear about SEO is that it dumbs-down or blunts-up the presentation of content so a search engine can understand what a story is about and lead readers interested in that topic to it. But I’m not so sure that simplicity, directness, and bluntness are so bad. How often have you read headlines and the first halves of overwritten newspaper and magazine stories wondering what the hell they are about? A simple summary of a story with clear labeling of its topics is good for humans, too. I’d love it if every story — online and in print — quickly told me what it is about so I can decide whether I want to spend my time reading it. After all, that used to be the real value of headlines before they became another stage for showing off. Says The Times:

Journalists, they say, would be wise to do a little keyword research to determine the two or three most-searched words that relate to their subject — and then include them in the first few sentences. “That’s not something they teach in journalism schools,” said Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch, an online newsletter. “But in the future, they should.”

Such suggestions stir mixed sentiments. “My first thought is that reporters and editors have a job to do and they shouldn’t worry about what Google’s or Yahoo’s software thinks of their work,” said Michael Schudson, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who is a visiting faculty member at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

“But my second thought is that newspaper headlines and the presentation of stories in print are in a sense marketing devices to bring readers to your story,” Mr. Schudson added. “Why not use a new marketing device appropriate to the age of the Internet and the search engine?”

Right. When, at People magazine, I started grading TV shows in my reviews — a conceit I carried over to Entertainment Weekly — some of my fellow critics chided me, saying, “Well, but then people won’t read all your reviews.” I responded that they shouldn’t have to. This isn’t about giving me attention; I’m not a cat. This is about serving the public and if they don’t want to bother reading about a C-level show (or enjoy reading a review with an F), that’s up to them. Our public is busy. We should be saving, not demanding, their time.

Let’s also not forget that SEO is not just about the presentation on a page but also about keeping content visible online with permanent links. If you hide your content behind pay walls and in archives, you will lose Google juice that others will gain. Indeed, I will be teaching that at CUNY. When I instructed my fellow faculty at the Graduate School of Journalism in citizens’ media, the first thing I taught was the value of the permalink.

: LATER: Simon Waldman of Guardian Unlimited says:

I compare it to supermarkets and apples. If you make apples and want them to be sold in the supermarket – they’ve got to a be a certain shape and size and shinyness, otherwise the supermarket won’t have them. There are those who say it’s great that apples these days are all uniform and shiny; others who say our produce has mutated into something bland. As a producer – it’s just the deal you have to do if you want distribution.

He frets that this will lead to homogenous news, all the same. Indeed, I fretted sometime ago that Google commodifies everything.

But Google and GoogleNews operate differently. Google operates by SEO; GoogleNews operates by a more closed and far more secret algorithm. The challenge is for producers of dynamic content — aka news — to be found in search itself. For in true SEO, the things the people click on and link to should rise and if that’s the case — if the people can edit — then I still have high hope that quality will out. (More on this from me at a later date….)