Last week, journalists reacting to the Associated Press’s announcement that it would replace “Web site” with “website” in the AP Stylebook pushed the phrase “AP Stylebook” onto Twitter’s trending topics list. (FWIW, OJR’s style for the past several years has been to use “website.”)
Most journalists approved of the news, though a few skeptics, such as the University of Florida’s Mindy McAdams, demurred. Though I disagree with her on this, I loved the snark of her Twitter response: “Everyone but me is cheering AP style change to website. I think it resembles parasite.”
I jumped in with this: “If you’re publishing online, Google style (i.e. SEO) always trumps AP style.”
And… “Really, j-schools need to ditch AP style and start teaching their students SEO instead. More valuable to their careers.”
As much as I enjoy provoking folks from time to time, I am serious about this. The newspaper industry developed a common style, maintained by the Associated Press, to meet the communication needs of a print-based industry trying to most effectively communicate with a broad audience.
Today’s online publishers, editors and reporters need a new style that most effectively allows their words to reach their intended audiences. Unfortunately for them, the print-inspired AP style is not that. Today’s (and tomorrow’s) journalists need to learn search engine optimization [SEO] techniques as much as, if not more than their predecessors who worked the print industry needed to learn AP.
The importance of search engine optimization
SEO provides the key to reaching an audience not motivated by existing print brands, including younger readers and readers outside a publication’s traditional search area – folks who might not know to seek out a newspaper website, but who would nevertheless be interested in its content.
Even as Facebook and social media provide an increasing share of referrals to online news sites, search engines still provide the initial point of entry for millions of new visitors to websites each day. If there are techniques that allow you to jump to the front of the line, to attract more of those potential readers, you need to be using them.
Plus, good SEO can help make your pages more lucrative in keyword-targeted advertising systems, such as Google’s AdWords. Sloppy SEO leads to poorly matched ads, lower click-through rates and less money per click or impression.
Finally, most SEO techniques reduce to providing clear, concise writing that stays on topic – that frequently references the key words and phrases that an article’s supposed to be about. That’s good advice for any writer looking to attract readers in a competitive environment. Unfortunately, in print journalism, with readers too long delivered through local monopoly, too many reporters and headline writers became more focused on being clever than clear.
Unfortunately, there’s not a SEO writing textbook for student journalists as clear and ubiquitous as AP’s stylebook. Combine that with academic inertia and faculties loaded with print refugees, and it’s no surprise that most j-school students get much more instruction in AP style than the SEO they so urgently will need when they begin professional work. (If there is a great SEO text for online news writers out there, I’m hopeful that a reader will let us know, in the comments.)
We’ve written frequently about SEO for journalists here on OJR. In lieu of a good textbook, I’d refer students to Danny Sullivan’s Ttop 10 SEO tips for journalists and Eric Ulken’s headline-writing advice, as well as my advice on SEO-friendly hyperlinking and plea not to break your SEO-valuable inbound links.
I name-checked Mindy McAdams before, and she deserves another mention here, as she’s written what I consider the best single page of advice on SEO-friendly newswriting. Every j-student, and working journalist, should read it.
But what about both?
Replying to my tweets on this matter, Matt Roseboom asked: “I publish online and in print, as most do. Should I use AP or SEO?”
My reply? Do both. Use the print-inspired AP style when producing articles for your print publication (though I would use the inspiration of SEO to keep writing tight). Use SEO techniques when writing for the Web.
But what about articles that appear both in print and online?
(Taking a deep breath now….) Repurposing content leaves you with a website that acts like a newspaper and a newspaper that reads like a website. It’s not a completely satisfying experience for readers in either medium. If you want to maximize your readership – and your revenue – in multiple media, then your organization needs to produce its content specifically for the media in which it publishes.
Does this mean that print stories shouldn’t appear online? No.
So what does this mean a newspaper website should do, and look like?
Well, that’s the question I’m going to take up in a series of articles, starting next Wednesday here on OJR. What should an optimal newspaper website look like in 2010? Come back next Wednesday, and we’ll talk about it.
* Update: Since I’m one of those writers who comes up with his best line six hours after hitting the “publish” button, I’ll take advantage of the medium to add this:
SEO will help you gain new readers online. AP style will not. If you need new readers to make money, then SEO will help you more than AP style. That’s it. It’s just the reality of publishing online today. You can either adapt and accommodate it, or shake your fist at it and resist.
Second, I believe that much of the hostility toward this idea springs from a belief that search-engine algorithms are written to fulfill the needs of machines, and not people. I’ve been writing online long enough to see how SEO techniques have changed over the years as search engines have changed their algorithms. (Remember long blocks of white-text keywords, in the Alta Vista era?)
Why did they change? To better serve the needs of their users.
As Google and Bing change their algorithms to serve better their audiences, and various competitors to step to challenge them, SEO techniques will evolve in response. Ultimately, though, the arc of SEO bends toward tighter, more focused and more reader-friendly writing.