Top 10 search engine optimization tips for online news start-ups

This week, OJR is helping present the KDMC News Entrepreneur Boot Camp at USC. We’ve brought 15 aspiring news entrepreneurs to the USC Marshall School of Business, where they are learning the basic of eliciting financial and community support while creating a small news business. They are building upon their existing journalism skills, learning how those skills have (or have not) prepared them to move from being reporters to publishers.

You can follow our Tweets about the camp using the hashtag #uscnewsbiz on Twitter.

I’ll write more about the camp, which ends tomorrow, with a wrap-up on Friday. But today, I wanted to dive into one important topic that we covered in a dinner conversation on Sunday evening.

Our invited speaker was Danny Sullivan, the editor of Search Engine Land, and a long-time expert in search engine optimization [SEO]. Danny’s a news entrepreneur himself, having grown his 1996 Webmaster’s Guide to Search Engines into two online news publications. (He also maintains a blog at, which I recommend for his sharp observations of the online news business.)

I asked Sullivan to come speak to our campers because of the importance of SEO to any boot-strapped online start-up. With few resources to draw readers to a new website, SEO provides start-ups a low-cost opportunity to get their site’s links in front of an interested audience. The only cost is the time to learn these tips, and the effort required to implement them.

Effective SEO not only causes your website’s pages to rise in the search engine’s results pages, it can help you make money, as SEO can help search engines tailor better targeted and more lucrative ads on your pages, should you participate in their advertising syndicates, such as Google AdSense.

Most of these tips are Sullivan’s, rephrased and with summaries of observations from me and from other camp participants included.

1) Use Google AdWords’ keyword tool to find the most popular keywords related to your website and your beat

Before you begin tuning your specific key words and phrases, you need to discover what key words and phrases Internet readers are using in search engines to find content like yours’. Google’s various keyword tools can help you do that. The AdWords tool will show you the approximate number of searches conducted on Google for words and phrases that you enter, or for phrases associated with a URL of your choosing.

Google’s Search-based Keyword Tool quantifies the popularity of various key phrases, with both search volumes as well as suggested advertising bid prices to “buy” those keywords through Google’s text-ad program. That last bit of information can show you not only which key phrases will drive the most traffic to the site, but which will drive the most lucrative traffic to you, as well.

Use the tools to identify the best overall phrases for your site, the ones that you will use in the site’s title and on its home page and navigation. Then, use the tool to build experience that will help you select the best key words and phrases to spotlight when writing and producing individual articles and blog posts on your site.

Google’s home page provides guidance, as well, as Google now suggests various keywords and phrases – and reports their popularity – based on the partial search terms you type in its entry box.

2) Use key words and phrases in your HTML title tag

Once you’ve identified your keywords and phrases, use them in the most importance place where search engines will consider them. The search engines give the content of the title tag the greatest weight of any single element on the page, so your most appropriate key phrases better be there, Sullivan said.

If you are using a content management system [CMS], know which input field will populate the title tag (usually the headline). Use the resources above to determine which words ought to make it into that headline. Imagine yourself as a reader, and ask what terms you would use on Google if you were searching for this story. Those terms had better be in your head, and page title.

Also, be sure to use powerful, popular keywords in the title, description and tags of your videos you post on YouTube and elsewhere online.

3) Write an engaging meta description tag for each page

Sullivan, and others, find little SEO use for the plethora of descriptive meta tags that can be included in the head of a webpage. But the description tag still provides good value, as Google uses it to create the short blurb that it displays under a page’s title on its search engine results pages [SERPs]. A sharp description can help lure a visitor to your site over others, including ones that rank ahead of you on the page.

4) Switch from AP style to “SEO style” on references in body copy

Keyword repetition and density on the page still play a role in where you end up in the SERPs (though not nearly as much as in the pre-Google era.) You can help yourself, therefore, by moving away from rigid AP style rules on second references and place names to more SEO-friendly use of full names on some (but not all) subsequent references within a story.

5) Use keywords in your URLs whenever possible

The search engines value the use of keywords in URLs, as well. If you’ve got one in your site’s domain, great. But keywords in the directory path or file name of the URL provide a boost, as well. Rather than use numbers or nonsense text in article URLs, opt for a CMS that uses real words, ideally keywords for which readers will be searching.

Sullivan also recommends that you configure your CMS to use hyphens instead of underscores to separate keywords in your URLs.

6) Never publish the same article under two or more URLs on your site

Duplicate content penalties have killed news websites’ positions in the SERPs in the past. You shouldn’t publish the same article at multiple URLs on your site. It’s fine to reference one piece with multiple tags and from multiple index pages, but they should all point to the same, single URL when referencing that story or blog post.

Much of Google’s decision on where to rank a page in the SERPs is based upon the number and quality of links to that individual page. Concentrate the in-bound links to one story on a single URL. Posting that content on multiple webpage addresses simply dilutes the power of all those links across those multiple URLs.

7) Create standing pages as linkbait for popular ongoing stories and issues

This extends the point above. In an ideal world, you would concentrate all the inbound links to a story you are following to a single URL, driving it to the top of the SERPs for all related searches. But that’s tough in a traditional news publishing environment, where each day brings a new article, with a new URL. Staff-written summary wikis and well-crafted index pages can provide a standing URL that others can link when referencing your coverage of a particular person or issue, boosting the search engine popularity of your work.

8) Never retire or change page URLs without providing a 301 redirect

Search engines respond to a variety of responses from a Web server when a search engine requests a URL that no longer exists. A “404” or page not found response is the worst response your server can deliver. It should, instead provide a 301 redirect, which tells the search engine to which new URL it should transfer the old URL’s SERPs position. Here’s how to do a 301 redirect in several CMSs and scripting languages.

9) Use or other URL shorteners that use 301 redirects and provide click stats when posting to Twitter

When you are using URL shorteners, you want to make sure that your site is getting the search engine “credit” for that link, and not the shortener itself. Sullivan suggested as one of several services that use 301 redirects, and after trying it, I’m impressed with the click-through statistics it tracks for each URL I shortened through it.

10) Link to other great, original content and invite other publishers to link to yours

The last advice might be the most important. Great on-page SEO ultimately will do little to move your pages up in the SERPs if other websites are not linking to you. Use your social media and offline promotional skills to let other influential online news publishers know about your work, and invite them to link to it. Tweet your posts and write them with enough flair that others will want to retweet.

Of course, the best way to encourage others to link to you is to practice what you ask, and to link to them and their best coverage.


For WordPress users, Sullivan recommended the All in One SEO Pack as an effective plug-in that can address several of these points on their WordPress sites.

Sullivan also advised not to worry about article length, after one camp participant asked. Article length, if it does affect SERPs performance, doesn’t count nearly as much as these other factors.

In general, don’t sweat other details when worrying about SEO until after you’ve addressed these basic principles in improving your website’s search engine performance.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. Use keywords in your ALT tags for any logo’s, banners or generic pics you have.
    Just thought I’d add a tip 😉

  2. says:

    Thanks Robert … excellent tips and perfect timing for my team as they overhaul our SEO strategy.

  3. Great stuff … thanks for your efforts and resources.’s initiatives to get journalists back to work in their communities, with a well-optimized news site, will certainly benefit by implementing many of these ideas and tools.

  4. I can appreciate most of these tips. I think they are clever but simple ways to draw attention to burgeoning Web sites. However, I have major qualms with this statement toward the end of the first tip:

    “Then, use the tool to build experience that will help you select the best key words and phrases to spotlight when writing and producing individual articles and blog posts on your site.”

    This is EXACTLY the problem with our zealous focus on marketing and selling our work. Yes, we need entrepreneurial thinking, and yes we need to be able to have the ability to reach more audiences so the stories we are covering get more attention, but we should think very long and hard about “spotlighting” certain words when writing and producing content.

    The instant we start looking at how we write as a way to better promote our pieces, rather than as a way to better tell the story, we have lost what we are doing as journalists. At that point, it doesn’t matter whether or not we generating more audience, because we are doing so at the gradual erosion of what we are actually trying to market.

  5. This is a good post, however…

    … I would argue that using short urls on Twitter is not really SEO. Twitter automatically creates tinyurls for your posts. While some claim that Twitter is a good source for traffic, I don’t think taking the time to create 301 redirects would be very beneficial in the long run.

    It’s more like some kind of psychological abuse for newbies… in my opinion.

  6. Given that Twitter uses rel=”nofollow” in links, the benefits of the 301 are lost as far as SEO is concerned.

    Nonetheless Twitter can be a great source of engaged audience.