Google News’ Daniel Meredith made the trip to competitor territory to speak to a roomful of online journalists at Yahoo HQ during last week’s NewsTools 2008 conference in Sunnyvale, Calif.
Meredith explained how Google makes the decision to include a website in Google News, and what else news publishers can do to improve their websites’ performance in the view of Google’s robot army.
Why should publishers care? Google News is one of the world’s most popular news portals, “in the top five worldwide,” according to Meredith. As important than occasional presence on the Google News front page, though, is presence in Google highly popular e-mail news alerts, which draw upon, and drive traffic to, Google News-indexed websites.
These alerts don’t just drive traffic to the New York Times and CNN. News sites covering a niche area can see hundreds, if not thousands, of new daily unique visitors if their stories are included in a keyword-driven Google News e-mail alert.
Finally, “being in [Google] News does buy you credit in Web” search results, Meredith said. News publishers undermine their search engine optimization strategy by not making a request for inclusion in Google News.
And if you haven’t asked, you are not in, Meredith said. News publishers must make an explicit request for inclusion in Google News. Though Google News is published by an algorithm, the decision to include a particular website as a source in Google News is made by human beings, Meredith said.
The first and third points should not be issues for any experienced journalist. But the second point would be of obvious concern to many bloggers and independent publishers. Great original content from a single talented writer is not enough to get Google’s blessing. If you want the traffic the Google News can deliver, consider forging a partnership with other writers or finding ways to elicit high-quality reader-submitted content that can add additional bylines to the front page of your site.
On the fourth point, Meredith was referring to server response time. Google’s news bots are looking for pages that they can index swiftly, and that will load quickly for readers, too. News publishers should take frequent looks at their hosting situation, both to make sure that their servers are tuned for optimum day-to-day performance, as well as having the ability to handle a sudden traffic surge from a major breaking news event. Publishers using custom-built content management tools need to consider the added factor of code efficiency, especially code bloat, as they add and modify their system’s tools. That neat new “share this link” function might look nice, but you have to be careful that it, or some other new widget, isn’t slowing your pages’ load times.
Once a site in in Google News, what can it do to help move its pages to the top of news search results?
Meredith’s reply? Use a sitemap. Sitemaps are XML files that describe to a search engine robot all of the content available for indexing on a website. Think of it as a giant RSS-style feed that describes everything on your website.
Google enables Web publishers to submit sitemaps via Google’s webmaster tools service. (If you are a news publisher and have not yet signed up on Google’s webmaster tools, do it now. It’ll be the best thing you do today to help promote your Web traffic.) Some content management systems, such as Drupal, include modules that will generate a sitemap automatically.
“Most problems that small newspapers have with search engine optimization is that they have non-standard layouts,” Meredith said. That leaves search engine robots like Google’s struggling to differentiate headlines, updates and relevant keywords. Sitemaps eliminate such confusion, helping robots see clearly which articles are updates, as well as to extract appropriate headlines and summaries.
Another problem facing news publishers is duplicate content. Google penalizes sites that run too many duplicates of stories from other websites, as well as too many duplicates of stories from its own site.
The solutions? First, invest your time in original content, not just setting up more wire feeds. (See inclusion criterion number one, above.) Second, “edit more,” Meredith said. Don’t just stream out a new story with every altered keystroke. Take a moment and do a tough edit that will hold up until you have substantial new information to add to the story.
Finally, write or install a module to your content management system that will generate search-engine friendly URLs, ones that include relevant keywords, and not strings of question marks, numbers and other characters that don’t tell outsiders anything about the content of that webpage.