Student journalists need to learn SEO more than they need AP style

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.

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. says:

    Must be a hallmark of provacateurs to set things up as a this vs. that scenario.

    My humble take: Budding journalists should learn AP style, SEO, multiformat storytelling techniques, investigative skills and anything else that raises their value to the information marketplace.

    If nothing else, doesn’t AP style — along with Strunk & White and some other old, dusty books — help you write coherently? If you can’t do that, all the bells and whistles don’t matter quite as much. You lessen your impact.

  2. says:

    Great topic. When I speak to journalism classes, I always ask if anybody knows what SEO is. Invariably I get very few (or no) hands. That’s unforgivable. In today’s world, SEO is as important to learn as any other journalism skill. J-Profs: Get with the program, please.

  3. says:

    You know your industry is truly going to hell when journalists are being told it’s more important to write for robots at Google than actual human readers.

    We’re rapidly going to be developing a generation of journalists who are tech savvy but can tell a story to save their lives. Journalism first. Technology second.

  4. says:

    From the preceding comment: “If nothing else, doesn’t AP style — along with Strunk & White and some other old, dusty books — help you write coherently? If you can’t do that, all the bells and whistles don’t matter quite as much.”

    Agreed. AP style is not irrelevant in digital media.

  5. says:

    How about AP style and SEO? And possibly a little tutorial on conflict-of-interest.

    Or do we think that’s more than journalists can handle?

  6. says:

    wow, guys. no “share” option right from the article…? disappointing.

  7. If you think that SEO is about writing for machines instead of for people… you don’t understand SEO.

    Ultimately, SEO is about writing sharply focused copy that includes information in ways that both machines and people will find easy to scan and understand., It’s the ultimate in usability, if done well.

    Sorry, I’ll give you Strunk & White as an invaluable writing aid, but some of what people do in the name of conforming to AP style (state abbreviations, second references, datelines, etc.) can harm articles in search engine results, making them less available to potentially interested readers.

  8. says:

    Paraphrasing from memory:

    “No one goes into journalism to data tag. If I thought writing was about data tagging, I would stick a gun in my mouth and pull the trigger.”

    — former OC Weekly editor Will Swain at a 2008 CSULB symposium

  9. says:

    SEO is writing to capture the attention of Google’s algorithms. Ostensibly, it’s about tapping into keywords being used by people who search.

    Yes, we understand SEO. You apparently don’t understand journalism.

  10. says:

    AP Style does not help one to write more clearly.

    Styles – AP, Chicago, AMA, MLA – help to achieve consistency among published works for particular audiences and venues.

  11. In response to the troll from the Tribune Company (IP:…

    Algorithms are written by people to help other people access information more effectively. They are a tool that matches people with the content written by other people that most meets the expressed needs of the first set of people.

    Hey, if journalism now means “the work of old people who don’t want to change the ways that they do things in order to more effectively meet the needs of today’s audience in today’s media” then… I’m guilty as charged. I don’t understand that.

    Of course, I don’t work for a bankrupt employer with a collapsing customer base, either.

  12. says:

    Wow Robert, taking the criticism a little personal, are we? Your personal attacks simply show that your argument holds zero weight.

    Your second best argument is a straw man, namely
    “the work of old people who don’t want to change the ways that they do things in order to more effectively meet the needs of today’s audience in today’s media”

    Who is arguing for zero change? Nobody is. You’re the only one saying that, because it’s easier for you to support your poorly thought out argument by changing what is being discussed. I agree with SEO being used by newspapers. I disagree vigorously with your assertion that it trumps AP style. You have provided zero discussion on that matter, simply childish retorts.

    Finally, it’s pretty funny that you’d point out the company that I work for, laden with more insults. As if one company’s woes have any bearing on this discussion. It’s a company, I might add, that is doing some of the best SEO work in spite of its financial issues (which, if you were paying any attention whatsoever, you would know are the results of poor financial practices, not journalism or SEO).

    If your think your position is strong, defend it with logic instead of fallacies. I dare you.

  13. says:

    Bob, you continue to be my digital media guru.

    I teach SEO techniques to my students my “Introduction to Journalism” classes. I start by asking them to each bring to class a print headline (newspaper, magazine, whatever) they like and think is effective. In class, I ask them to explain why the headline works. Then, with a little audio-visual magic, we turn it into a web headline and discuss whether it is still effective. That leads to a discussion of effective web headlines and SEO tips.
    If I was still a newsroom hiring editor, I would think hard and long before hiring someone who could not write a strong SEO-based web headline.

  14. says:

    Conforming articles to AP Style, or any other kind of style has traditionally been the work of experienced copy editors. If they were good, copy editors made the work of writers and editors sing. I count myself lucky to be one of those

  15. There’s definitely a ‘quality’ issue with much of the content strewn about the web these days. At one time it was Amazon clone sites, which were dealt with. The current ‘sub-par’ content floating around on certain nameless sites that are huge is good ‘old school’ SEO, but the future of it lies in truly blending things like LSI and copy that engages readers and hits them on an emotional level – depending on the audience. And there’s a lesson – the tighter the niche, the easier it is to find the voice to direct outward to the traffic coming in.

    Good to see this stuff being talked about, though!

  16. says:

    “Really, j-schools need to ditch AP style and start teaching their students SEO instead. More valuable to their careers.”

    That’s odd, because I’ve always thought that style guides – AP, Chicago, others – were meant to help the journalist write something in a way that a reader could best understand it. When did it become all about us and not about the reader?

    As a journalist turned marketing writer, I find SEO/SEM invaluable. And there’s certainly no doubt that using SEO in any type of article makes it far more searchable. But it can also make the writing stilted and awkward, difficult to read, and even erode credibility – readers know how SEO works, and why it’s there.

  17. says:

    I see you’re not willing to post a logical rebuttal pointing out your fallacies.

    Personal attacks, straw men and then half-outing a commenter? You’re not really good at this Internet blog thing, are you?

    Stay classy, dude.


    Your Tribune pal

  18. says:

    Before we start talking about key words or search engine optimization, or whatever cute little short form you want to use for that (I write about business and I DESPISE abbreviations), the product itself needs to be addressed. If you are not writing something someone wants or needs to read, all of the clever search engine tricks in the world are only going to do you a marginal amount of good, if any.

  19. says:

    You’ve got to be kidding, right? “Search-engine optimization” is a “skill” best suited for management, not writers, because its goal is to get Google users to click on it, not to explain stories or write well.

    Unless — are you training your students to become newsroom managers instead of reporters?

  20. says:

    Focusing on SEO is an ill-advised venture for any journalist, and especially those who are just getting into the profession.

    I’ve posted an entry to my blog (Why journalists should forget about SEO) in response to this post. You can view it at

  21. In response to: “Unless — are you training your students to become newsroom managers instead of reporters?”

    Every journalism school had better be training its students to do both. With traditional newsrooms collapsing, many graduates will have to rely on entrepreneurial skills in order to get and stay in the business. Learning how to write in a way that acquires traffic is a core skill for today’s student journalist.

    One more thing: I’m not knocking AP style’s effectiveness is creating a comprehensible standard for writing in the print news medium. But that style does not confer the traffic-acquiring advantages online that a focus on SEO techniques provides. That’s why journalism students need SEO training more than they need AP style training. Remember that I’m writing from the perspective of an online entrepreneur who has to fight for every reader I attract. I don’t have the luxury of a monopoly brand and promotions department delivering me thousands of readers each day.

    Again, we’re hurt here in this discussion by the lack of a single publication that summarizes SEO techniques for journalists the way that the AP Stylebook presents AP style. (Can I drop another hint that someone needs to write this text?)

    If such a work did exist, I’d urge professors to assign it first. If students master that, and there’s time for the AP Stylebook later, then go ahead. (Or, if you are teaching a print-focused class, include AP then.)

  22. The idea that “Learning how to write in a way that acquires traffic is a core skill for today’s student journalist” is exactly what failed me as a student journalist when I attended USC’s Specialized Journalism program. Part of its first class, I attended because I was interested in honing a specialty, on deep, expert knowledge of a field supported by extensive academic studies in that field. As it turned out, during the program’s early stages, it felt as if there was a shift in the program’s emphasis — and in the attitude more broadly at Annenberg — towards crash courses in entrepreneurial journalism and developing new writers.

    Thankfully, I was still able to hone some of my subject expertise thanks to KC Cole’s masterful teaching of science writing and guidance on my master’s project by Larry Pryor (buttressed by urgings by people like Michael Parks and teachers out side the journalism department to learn how to delve more deeply into subject matter and to better analyze decision-making). Nevertheless, I witnessed an attitude shift among my fellow students and colleagues. Some became less and less interested in what they were writing about, in truly understanding what they wanted to discuss, in favor of drawing eyes to that writing. Such shifts are sad. They are meaningless, and overall, they are detrimental to sustainable economic ventures.

    If we must commodify journalism — which I am quite hesitant about — we are wisest if the products we produce are compellingly, effectively presented with lasting informative value. That is why I find arguments like those put forth today by Lisa Barone — a branding expert no less — in her Outspoken Media post about 5 Old Blogging Rules Killing Your Readership so much more useful to writers, including journalists, than insistence upon search. Why? Because Barone focuses so squarely on lasting value.

    Ultimately, I’m expanding upon much of what’s been written in this comment section (and, I must admit, I’m somewhat turned off by the vitriol bubbling up in this discussion). Perhaps SEO editors could further hone what we do, but, considering Aspake’s thoughts, journalism should remain committed to “information, ideas, emotion, and context in an original and engaging manner.”

    I agree that SEO isn’t about conforming to a robotic standard, but it’s also not about speaking to people, it’s about speaking to some sense of the mean average of what people are looking for. The thing is, if we want to succeed — both in reaching people and in drawing them back to our work — we can’t just be producing what the public is looking for, what the public wants to read. We must, we absolutely must tell the stories that the public doesn’t know it is looking for, that the public isn’t looking for, that the public hasn’t even conceptualized the terms for. If we don’t, in very short order we will tell fewer and fewer stories that matter, that impact society and we will lose not only all impact, but all value we are capable of offering the public.

  23. says:

    Interesting debate – I would have to say I agree that SEO is more important than AP, but even more important is being able to use both of them together in a manner where the average reader is unable to tell that either is being used. Also, I’m wondering from a PR standpoint, if I send in a pitch that is NOT in AP Style, what the journalist will do with it…?

  24. says:

    SEO is just as important to online media as subscribers are to a printed newspaper. It’s not about writing for robots…’s about search engine optimization.

  25. From someone who does search engine optimization professionally, I would need to warn something to your readers: SEO is not just a matter of writing a text in such way or such other way. It goes beyond that. I agree that every writer or journalist should know how to set up a blog post and the basic HTML tags properly, but getting into the bells and whistles of how to optimize a website should be left, in my humble opinion, to programmers and designers.

    SEO is not hard to learn, but nobody will write a text book about it. SEO is learned by trial and error, researching how specific websites behave before intentional changes we do on them.