Chris Moran explaining SEO at The Guardian

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 23 March 2011
“A lot of the opinions people have about SEO are based upon prejudice and a lack of understanding about how search engines work.” - Chris Moran

A couple of weeks ago at The Guardian our SEO Editorial Executive Chris Moran gave a talk about search engine optimisation to an assembled bunch of people from around the business. He took the audience through the basics of optimising a brand new site for search - or, as he put it, optimising a brand new site for humans. The essence is to create good content, make sure people know what that content is by giving it good labels and signposts, and make it so useful that people are encouraged to naturally link to it.

He demonstrated the wide range of different tools that can be used for keyword research, which really highlighted for me some of the major ways that search engine knowledge has changed since I was doing SEO at the BBC in the early 2000s. None of those tools were available to me then.

Another contrast was the way that Chris explained how personalised search is these days. It used to be that one of the first signs that Google was about to update the index - then a monthly event rather than a constant occurrence - was when you and the person next to you could see different results for the same queries. This indicated that you had managed to hit different datacentres, and that one of them was using the updated index.

Chris addressed the issue of whether the SEO tail was wagging the editorial dog with humour, suggesting that if he was truly in charge, every story would be about Justin Beiber, with a headline starting “Justin Bieber”, a standfirst starting “Justin Bieber”, and he’d probably want to byline the piece “Justin Bieber” as well for good measure. That clearly isn’t happening.

Nor does he believe that SEO kills the art of the witty headline. On the contrary, a well crafted headline that works on the web should still stand out and be eye-catching enough to invite a click, just as a print headline should draw the eye to a story.

It is just that a different medium requires different rules.

You control the context of a headline appearing in print - you don’t on the web, where it might appear divorced from the whole article elsewhere on guardian.co.uk, on another site altogether, or in the search engine results of both site search and web search. You don’t need to put the name of the interviewee in a feature piece in print because the reader can see the photo and an attributed pullquote. In the digital world you simply can’t guarantee that they will always be viewed together.

A lot of the bad reputation for search engine optimisation comes from “black hat” activities, or as Chris prefers to call it, “naughty SEO”. It poisons discourse about it, and Chris showed a series of angry comments and letters to the editor accusing SEO of dumbing down the content of The Guardian. It isn’t just users who sometimes feel this way. As Chris put it:

“The words we use to describe the traffic that comes via search engines in the news industry are the words we use to describe sexual betrayal. Words like promiscuous and disloyal”

He made a point of reminding people that search requests do not arrive out of the ether. “Somebody, a human being, enters a query” he said.

Watching Chris talk was an interesting reminder about how much we take for granted about how search engines work. I’ve been involved in web and site search since 2000, and have long admired the ingenuity of those most adept at manipulating search algorithms. As Chris pointed out, most “black hat” tricks simply start out as a good idea that exploits a loophole or a weakness in the ways that search engines work, until they have to take action to prevent the idea working anymore. But for most people, they have as much need of knowing how the algorithms of search work as they ever needed to know how the Yellow Pages was collated and printed. They just want to find the things they are looking for.

And ultimately, when people discuss the relationship between SEO and news, I agree with Chris. SEO doesn’t control your editorial agenda - you do. If chasing extra eyeballs has driven you to cover way more inane celebrity gossip than you ever would do in print, then that is your editorial decision, not a decision forced upon you by a machine. And if you are writing quality content and proud of your journalism, why wouldn’t you want people to find it and read it?

Next...

As I mentioned, hearing Chris talking about optimising a news site for search dragged up loads of nostalgic thoughts about how we used to do it back in the steam valve days of the internet in 2000. Tomorrow I’ll have a post reminiscing about my early SEO days at the BBC.

2 Comments

Chris makes a good point about the "witty headline" not being at odds with SEO, countering a common complaint made by journalists about "writing for the search engines."

I would say the value of a well crafted headline, however - in SEO terms - is less a click than a share. That is, catchy and engaging headlines have a greater-than-average chance of being liked, tweeted, buzzed or otherwise broadcast in a social environment - and these days such social sharing (depending on the exact nature of the share) have a demonstrable impact on search engine rankings, augmenting the traditional popularity "vote" of a hyperlink on a web page. And, of course, good headlines have a better chance of being linked to in that traditional fashion as well.

This can even benefit SEO if there is a lack of critical keywords in a headline, something I would not have said a few years ago - when, in my opinion, if your story concerned Prince Charles, you had better make sure that "Prince Charles" appeared in the headline in order to rank for queries containing "Prince Charles." The best-crafted headlines for search and users should still take this into consideration, by - where possible - crafting a witty headline that incorporates critical keywords.

There is still a print bias that can spill over to the web that is still not helpful for SEO, however: the headline that only has relevance when combined with an image. I've used a deck for presenting to bloggers and journalists before tracing the evolution of headline writing that features a tabloid front page with a disgraced politician with the (classic) headline "Gotcha!" That, obviously, is non-informative when divorced from the image, and a linked headline of "Gotcha!" out of that context is unlikely to garner clicks. This is also true of headlines associated with digital images.

"Nor does he believe that SEO kills the art of the witty headline."

I would not agree on this. I mean everyone is trying to get his site to the top of the list at any price. All is fair in SEO due to high competition and people make hedlines, which are far from state of the art.

It is still possible to make some witty headline but nobody is bothering. Why bother when you're on top of the list.

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