An ad buyer's SEO advice for online news publishers

The best S.E.O. strategy,” I told a group of UMass journalism and marketing students, fidgety at the smell of the free pizza cooling in the next room, “is to produce strong, original work.”

I’m paraphrasing, because that line wasn’t in my notes. But I liked the sound of it. It’s a comforting thought for a journalism professor that good journalism will find a large audience. Yes, it’s vital to understand the basic principles of writing pithy <title> tags, wise linking practices, and analyzing audience behavior. Those are parts of the “Plain English Optimization” the Online Journalism Review rightly promotes, and I teach those skills in several of my classes.

But isn’t strong, original journalism paramount? Or was I being naive during my S.E.O. talk, wiping pizza sauce off my chin in my ivory tower as working journalists were getting crushed by the weight of Charlie Sheen keyword trends? I decided to ask a person who would be clear-eyed about how journalists can best approach S.E.O.: an ad buyer.

Chris Lorenzoni has been planning, designing, and buying ad campaigns for various New York City ad agencies since 1998. He has bought ad space in the New York Times, Yahoo News, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, and he’s spent his career on technology’s leading edge, most recently working with mobile and tablet advertising.

“Mass marketing as we grew up learning it is pretty dead,” Lorenzoni said. “Even if it’s for the same car, you can’t run the same ad for a 35-year-old guy and a 21-year-old girl. You have to carve out and look for different audiences.”

The need to identify those audiences analytically was a profound cultural change for the ad industry.

“Nowadays when you look at people that do the initial research about sites, it looks like they’re stock traders. People are logging in and matching audiences against another third-party verification. There’s a lot more science and math in media buying.”

What that science and math means for online journalism outlets is that ad buyers can chart detailed demographics of site users over time, and they use that targeting extensively. A WSJ series demonstrated how pervasive and sophisticated analytical tracking can be.

From an advertising point of view, then, it often makes more sense to target several smaller audiences with interests that correspond to the product than one mass audience with more diverse tastes.

It also means that if your content stinks and and your S.E.O. strategy attracts viewers who quickly bounce off the page with a bored shrug, that’s an obvious fact to advertisers.

The truth for most journalism outlets is that understanding your niche – whether it’s geographic, demographic, tonal, or otherwise – and building up a large and enthusiastic community within its limits is the real value of knowing S.E.O. Most of us are not the New York Times, with a mission to serve a mass audience. When it comes to the content itself, the blogger Matt Yglesias suggests that “people in the ‘writing about important things’ business need to roll up our sleeves and try harder to make our output compelling to people.”

A mass audience certainly won’t hurt, but it may not be the smartest place to put your energy in a world of finite resources.

Online advertising, which is often run though middleman networks, also ups the stakes on an old problem: the very events that drive massive news consumption are often not events advertisers want to be associated with.

“That big bump of traffic can be toxic. We don’t want to be adjacent to war or dead bodies,” Lorenzoni said. “Honestly, the most valuable stuff they [media outlets] end up doing are more of their special sections, the things they can promote beforehand.”

Lorenzoni’s advice to journalism outlets is to spend their technical energies developing “platform agnostic” online presences – meaning that your content is “readable, accessible, and trackable from multiple sources” like iPads and mobile phones. Right now, for example, advertisers are paying a premium on iPad content, he said.

Social networking is also a vital actor in building the kind of engaged audiences advertisers covet, said Lorenzoni. Having your content appear high in the SERP is certainly worth pursuing, he said, but it’s a shrinking part of building a successful audience.

Which brings us back to the original question: is good journalism a good S.E.O. strategy?

“When you go back and you look at what kind of stuff look at and pass around and share, it becomes the well-produced videos, the well-written articles,” said Lorenzoni. “That’s the kind of stuff that brands really want to get behind.

About Brian McDermott

In September 2009, Brian joined the journalism faculty at the University of Massachusetts Amherst full-time. He teaches classes in photojournalism, video journalism, and web design.


  1. First of all, your advice that the best SEO is “to produce strong, original work” is spot on. Nothing is more prized than the search engines than strong original content – in large part because its also prized by readers.

    But I must say, an ad buyer hardly strikes me as one best suited to be “clear-eyed about how journalists can best approach S.E.O.”

    Its not that anything that Lorenzoni says about how (certain types of ad buyers) view (certain types of) traffic is wrong, but rather that it is a single-minded perspective on traffic, and really doesn’t provide much in the way of insight on SEO for news organizations at all. And, by the way, I’ve worked with large ad buyer for large sites before, so I’m familiar with their concerns about content association. That’s why I have the parenthetical asides – this would certainly be a concern for big brand campaigns, but not for network display traffic, and certainly not at all for AdSense and other automated text-based advertising.

    Because search-driven traffic spikes can be “toxic” to (certain types of) advertisers, what’s the takeaway? Don’t try to drive mass numbers of users to your news sites? This hardly seems reasonable or helpful.

    Let me briefly try to answer your question “is good journalism a good S.E.O. strategy”, as Lorenzoni largely didn’t.

    Absolutely. The best content – in part to Lorenzoni’s point – receives the largest number of shares (including real-time social mentions that are increasingly important SEO signals for the search engines), the largest number organically-generated links, and the best user engagement in the form of comments and the like.

    This is also the content likeliest to be a the top of a search in Google (in a news vertical) for keywords related to the topic. This includes “Lindsay Lohan” (high bounce), “Japan Earthquake” (Lorenzoni’s “toxic” association) and “new low-fat foods” (beloved of brand advertisers).

    Modern digital media’s business models are still evolving, and in the mix are metrics concerning traffic volume, traffic sources, different types of advertising and different types of revenue models. That this business model should be focused on selling digital advertising to big brands is limiting, to say the least. Put another way, would a paper in 1968 stop reporting on the Vietnam War – or trying to attract subscriptions because of the excellence of their war reporting – because a Timex ad might appear near a war story?

    Finally, I’ll just add in regard to “toxic” associations that semantic ad serving technology has come a long way to solving such undesired content associations. Indeed, smart ad serving not only helps avoid these situations, but in general are better for advertisers because display ads are related to the associated content, rather than to bulk buys. But just as newspapers are sometimes slow to adapt to technological changes, the ad industry hasn’t necessarily kept pace either, and bulk impression-based campaigns still generate a lot revenue for publishers – but I think this model will changes, or at least see a lot of other types of high-value advertising starting to be added to the mix.

  2. I don’t know if I would call creating strong original content SEO. Don’t get me wrong, that’s the best way to do well in anything, it’s just not what I’d call SEO. There are things you can do, but you are spot on that people often overlook creating good quality content.