On the front today…

For those of you who might come straight to my blog page, I’ve been absent the last few days while working on this commentary for the OJR front page.

I hope you’ll give it a look.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. Excellent piece; I’ve responded. Good, normative writing takes time. I’d be curious how many shorter daily posts an average reader would forego for a longer, normative piece. I’ve been testing my readers these past several weeks as I’ve been prepare big series.

Search and you will find… an old news story?

Ten years ago, search engine optimization was simple: Just cram as many keywords on your pages as you can, then watch your site rocket to the top of the search engine result pages for those words. The result often left Web readers looking at bloated pages with hundreds of repetitions of selected words and phrases, in tiny type, colored to match the background of the page.

In the late 1990s, Google changed that equation by giving greater weight to the number of inbound links to a page. The more other websites linked to your page using a keyword, the higher you ranked in the search engine result pages (SERPs) for that word. That, in turn, led to the “Google bomb,” as thousands of mischievous readers linked targeted sites to selected phrases, such as in the classic “miserable failure” attack.

Today, search engine optimization (SEO) specialists employ a complicated heuristic, balancing keyword density, page titles, URL topology and a judicious solicitation of inbound links in order to move their clients to the top of the SERPs. Use too heavy a hand with any one of these approaches, and your site might be penalized, banishing it from the top spots. Strategize too little, however, and you’ll find your site irrelevant for Web surfers who use Google and Yahoo, instead of bookmarks and URL bars, as their online navigation method.

Why play this game? Because a position at the top of the SERPs can deliver thousands of daily readers — and customers — without the expense of traditional marketing campaigns. SEO success is the most economically viable way to build a lucrative readership — especially for start-up news publications, bloggers and other self-publishing Web journalists.

Over the past three years, SEO has become important not just in bringing readers to a site, but also in making money from them once the get there. Savvy publishers are learning how to employ SEO techniques on pages serving advertisements from automated pay-per-click (PPC) advertising networks, such as Google’s AdSense and Yahoo’s Publishers Network, in order to maximize the number of potentially high-paying ads served to their site’s readers.

Missing the boat

Despite these new search-related strategies, most news websites haven’t changed structurally over the past decade. And that, in my opinion, is costing online news publishers significantly, both in terms of lost readers and lost revenue.

Online newspapers tend to do well in attracting inbound links. But where do these links go? Online newspapers generally continue to follow a print-designed publishing model, shoveling piles of individual new “takes” onto the Web each day, never to be updated or cross-linked to future articles on the same story. Inbound links don’t do a newspaper much good if they take readers to an outdated story, with no clear way to guide users to the publication’s most up-to-the-date content on that topic.

Here’s one example: a Google search for “Iraq war.” A CNN package ranks third in the Google SERPs, an impressive showing and the highest for a mainstream journalism organization on that term. But the linked URL goes to a page that, in CNN’s words, “was archived in May 2003 when President Bush declared an end to major combat.”

What good is that to a reader in 2006? This CNN page isn’t news … it’s history. How many readers click back to the Google results when they find CNN’s outdated page? And how many of them would CNN have been able to retain if the linked URL contained the network’s most up-to-date coverage from Iraq?

It’s true that many users looking for news stories turn to Google News — which directs readers to current content — rather than Google’s main search engine. But why limit your market just to those readers who are explicitly looking for news? News publications contain a wealth of information useful to people searching for answers online. Yet your publication’s coverage of Event or Issue “X” will remain invisible to these readers if the search engines are pointing to your past, now outdated URLs covering that topic.

Good SEO would dictate that your most recent coverage of a particular topic should always reside at the same URL — and that URL, as well as its page title, should include the name of the topic. Fortunately for curious news editors, there is a website that provides a model for publishing its news information this way — Wikipedia.

A new(s) strategy

Almost all of the discussion about Wikipedia focuses on its status as a reader-written publication. But Wikipedia’s URL topology should also attract journalists’ attention. By always placing the most recent version of its articles at a static URL, Wikipedia concentrates the power of its inbound links on a particular topic to a single URL. A reader searching for information on Hurricane Katrina who clicks through to Wikipedia from Google gets Wikipedia’s latest information on the storm and recovery efforts (or lack thereof). They don’t get a months-old dispatch with no clear link to the latest news.

What if a news organization, employing professional journalists, wrote their news website like a wiki? I’m not taking about turning over the page to readers. I’m suggesting that — instead of distinct daily takes — news stories could be covered with encyclopedia-style articles that staffers would update with new information whenever available. How many more inbound links would such an approach get? How much higher in SERPs might this page place than a traditional story archive page? And, most important, how much more accessible would a new or infrequent reader find this approach — as opposed to the traditional list of links to daily news stories?

To be honest, I don’t know. But online journalists are experimenting with multimedia story shells, blogging and other forms of storytelling in an effort to reach more readers online. Why not try a wiki/encyclopedia entry approach, too? (Of course, if editors are going to sell this idea to their bosses, we probably will need a term to describe a staff-written, as opposed to reader-written, article presented in wiki style. “Stiki,” anyone?)

Bloggers also could benefit from a more SEO-friendly approach. I’ve heard from too many bloggers the same complaint that their blogs just aren’t generating much income from their PPC ads, despite relatively large readership. I’m reminded of a corruption of a golfing cliche, which I’ve heard at more than one industry conference: “Blog for show; wiki for dough.”

The search engine spiders that match ads to webpages for PPC programs love the narrow topical focus of wiki pages. But spiders aren’t too fond of chronology-based blog pages. People search the Web by topic, not date. And PPC advertisers bid on keywords, not key dates. So a blog archive should be organized by topic, rather than chronology, to be optimized for search engines and their PPC spiders. Also, I suspect, a blog that provides the sum of its knowledge on a particular topic in a user-friendly single article, like a wiki, would attract and retain more readers and advertisers than would the typical blog’s long list of disjointed individual takes.

Of course, there is a drawback to the wiki/encyclopedia approach. This way of writing does not well serve the loyal, frequent readers, who come to a news site looking for the latest incremental information on a topic. Why make those readers wade through paragraphs of familiar background, looking for the new stuff?

This is where a hybrid of blogging and a wiki could prove killer. Set up your front page as a blog, providing an entry point for frequent readers to learn what is new on the site. Then maintain the archive as a collection of wiki-style summaries, recapping “the story to date” on those topics. Maintain a chronological archive, if you must, but meta-tag it as “no index” to spiders, as not to dilute their attention to your wiki-style archive pages.

Two months ago, I abandoned the traditional model of columns and news articles on one of my highly trafficked personal sites in favor this new model — a front page blog pointing to a collection of topical wikis. In that time I’ve seen a 20 percent increase in search-engine referred traffic, as well as an increase in overall page traffic and earnings per thousand impressions on PPC ads. And this comes during a time that is traditionally the slowest of the year for interest in this site’s topic.

Now I am trying to envision how OJR could be changed to this model as well. Will it happen? Again, I don’t know yet. But thousands of non-journalist Web publishers are working on ways to move their sites to the top of results pages, to gain readers from the millions who use search engines to navigate the Web and to cash in on an increasing percentage of the billions of dollars spent on automated advertising programs. Journalists need to be looking at new ways to organize our online work to do the same, if we are to maintain a profitable profession on the Web.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. Interesting idea. I’ve noticed a couple of bloggers who use this approach of organizing by the topic area and thought it helpful. You’ve sparked some thought for me about the organization of my own site. Thanks for sharing!


  2. As someone as put it, they try to sell the fishwrap and give away the valuable content (breaking hyper local news you can’t get anywhere else…) When I was still with Gannett, I was constantly harping about SEO and search engines. No one listened, though, for the most part. (Although, the IndyStar saw an increase in SE traffic after trying a few of my ideas a couple years back…)

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because SEO/SEM is a little hobby of mine. Gannett has USA Today, a PR9 site, and yet they hardly come up for searches (or you get the teasers and the archive wall…) This is good for independents and small media, though. By leaving our content open, eventually we should have a better chance in the search engines.

    Another thing to note is places like Topix.net, owned by newspapers for the most part. Do the ‘owner newspapers’ receive help in the newsranking algo for Topix.net? I’ve seen no proof of it, and the staff on that side has been helpful, but it could be a problem in the future. Same with Google News – what are their sources?

    I’m in a hurry now, but I’d like to respond to this more later. I may even write-up some SEO for newspapers thoughts on Journalism Hope too. 😉


  3. Changing the structure of online news delivery to a single destination topic page has other advantages: You address the needs of a wider range of folk — those who are familiar with the topic and those who aren’t. Also, a single page is a better repository for online-extra content. Also, for sites that allow comments on stories, it would be easier to engage in online conversations when all comments are viewed or linked to from the same page. Also, it’s easier to gauge community interest in different topics with destination pages.

    There comes a challenge with smaller-interest topics (news briefs and other one-off type stories), however, I think re-thinking the structure of online news delivery can yield some great stuff.

  4. Last June I called this dichotomy normative and narrative— I prefer to summon regular English words, heaven forbid that metaphors would run backwards in time (e.g., “The Encyclopedia Britannica is written ‘like a wiki.'”). Just about all CMS software supports normative writing as well, but according to structural media theory, a weblog tends to encourage people to write in a non-normative way:

    “Still, durability versus disposability may be affected by point of view. Professional writers– who tend to write regularly durable platforms– see blogs as an oppurtunity to relax their writing in a more narrative style. By contrast, amateurs writers who have no platforms often choose blogs by default to try and write normative documents. There is great content in a number of weblogs– it would be better if their authors took a step back and considered making their work normative.”

    (I do plan on amending this to say that certain blog posts– like this one– are not normative or narrative but simply “interactive” in that they are written in such a way to elicit a conversational response. N/N pieces beg for more formal responses.)

    I look forward to OJR embracing more normative writing, I think that was your goal with the wiki. The pitfall is that RSS was never really designed to communicate both *new* (narrative) content and *updates* to normative content.

    As to your question, I think that it’s been done a while. Boston.com put together a Abuse in the Catholic Church. Google estimates there are 3,550 links to this story– which helps a good deal in making in the #1 link for a search like Boston priest scandal. And here are there Special Reports over the years. Boston Homicides was written just last month, and it’s #1 for that search. #2 is the page on the Boston Police Department’s website.

    I’m not sure if this is SEO or just good website organization. Search for normative writing style or some variant of that, and you get to my article above (as 9 people have). I didn’t do any SEO magic for that.


  5. One could write a dissertation on this topic, so my fear with bringing up this topic was that I would not be able to introduce it both accurately and clearly in a relatively short piece. So I am grateful to discover that other journalists are not only willing, but eager, to talk about new ways to structure online journalism text.

    SEO gets a bad rap, and deservedly so sometimes, but Jon is correct in pointing out that the most effective SEO is often simply writing an evergreen article in a clear manner and presenting it on a clean, well-organized page.

    The challenge that, ultimately, I am getting at is that the industry traditionally has viewed “news” as the antithesis of “evergreen.” But news organizations do produce information that is of lasting, not transitory value. Heck, I’d argue that’s the bulk of what we produce. If news organizations could do a better, more effective job of presenting, even producing, that information online, they could reap substantial benefits in attracting and maintaining new readers and advertisers.

  6. Another related thing, imho, is tagging/taxonomy – letting readers get at a story from a lot of different links (the typical section links, but also links to keywords describing the story…) You can build mini-sections – a particular business, all stories about house fires, all stories from a specific geographic region, etc.