Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
6 mins read

How publishers can strategically tag content, personalize articles and help users easily navigate through their websites

Most media companies now pay top dollar to big agencies to help them reorganize and restructure their websites so that they will be able to keep more readers engaged and motivated to browse through their pages. 

Why? Well, of course, it’s simple: website navigation directly affects user experience and user satisfaction, which – in turn – affects the total amount of revenue a publisher generates from ads and other digital revenue sources.

But most publishers can, in fact, solve these kinds of issues on their own by simply rethinking how they tag content.

We know this because a couple of days ago, Content Insights sat down with Christopher Pramstaller, the Audience Editor at Süddeutsche Zeitung for a chat. We wanted to talk about SZ’s refurbished tagging system.

Since they reorganized their tags, Christopher says that readers at Süddeutsche Zeitung are able to more quickly navigate through their website and get where they want to be. As a result, this has helped readers stay engaged for longer. 

So what did we discuss? Well, lots of really useful stuff: why properly tagging content is important, where most publishers go wrong, and how Christopher and Süddeutsche Zeitung replaced their bad content tagging habits with good ones that actually help their readers. 

Most publishers don’t really care about tags because they don’t understand their importance

Like a lot of publishers out there, Süddeutsche Zeitung didn’t really pay much attention to how they tagged content. Before the change happened, Süddeutsche Zeitung had a semi-regulated tagging system, as most sites do. It was SEO focused (meaning it was focused on keywords) and nobody put much thought into how people could use tags to quickly surf the site and stay on the topic that interested them. 

Of course, it was only a matter of time before things got crazy. The ad hoc approach to tagging content created a lot of clutter on site. There were certain tags which obviously had quite a lot of articles under them.

With a distorted influx of new articles happening every day, certain tags changed over time because they overgrew the topic that they were initially covering. Tags related to big occasions got polluted with random content as well and – like most publishers online – Süddeutsche Zeitung found out that they had a lot of unnecessary duplicated tags that were disrupting their user navigation. 

To take just one example, “Chancellor Merkel”, “Chancellor Angela Merkel”, “German Chancellor Angela Merkel”, “A Merkel” were all tags being used on SZ (like any other site that doesn’t have a clean tagging system) that lead nowhere because every one of these variations had a different number of articles in them.

So yes – problems started to emerge left and right.

Time for a change

According to Christopher, there were two main reasons that pushed Süddeutsche Zeitung to rethink how it tags its content:

  • The first one was tied to difficulties the publisher had with analyzing content. Süddeutsche Zeitung needed something that was bigger than articles, but smaller than sections. In order to successfully analyze similar content, SZ had to reorganize their articles into two clusters. In a lot of cases, sections were too big because they had so many topics in them which made them impossible to work with. 
  • The second reason was related to personalization. It was of great importance for Süddeutsche Zeitung to actually cluster articles with similar variables into certain tags because tags don’t necessarily have to come from the same topics. 

Christopher Pramstaller also believed that a clear tagging system would be able to help his organization better optimize their site and content for search engines as well. As he said:

“You need a good organization in a library to actually be able to find the right books.  If the shelves aren’t positioned in a certain way, people will just put books away at random and you will never find them again. “

For tags to work, you need to have a well-thought-through system

This is the starting point: come up with a single strategy and stick to it. If you want your tagging system to make sense, you can’t do a bit of everything. You need to figure out how to organize your content in a way that will actually provide a better experience and easier navigation through your site for your readers. 

When working out a new tagging system, you should:

  • Go granular: broader may work better for categories, but the more specific the better when it comes to tags
  • Fill your content containers well: a tag with a plethora of information on a very specific topic is likely to keep a reader more engaged than a tag that has only one or two pieces of content behind it (think near-empty container). If you are creating a new tag, make sure you have other content that could be tagged the same way.
  • Think about the right SEO angle: do readers search for the acronym or the spelled-out version? The singular or plural construction? Use Keyword Planner and check SERPs to find out.
  • Keep it simple – no over-tagging allowed: a single post should only have two or three tags that fit the bill.

Once you come up with a system, you will need to get everyone on board with it. 

Like most things in the publishing world, getting people engaged with new ideas is never as easy as you might think.

Making the new tagging system work

In Süddeutsche Zeitung’s case, Christopher needed to get the section editors on board with his idea first before he could take things any further. He sat down with them, one by one and started looking at tags from different angles and perspectives to find a better way of re-organizing them. 

The editorial staff identified tags through the app in such a way that they could see which tags were being used and how they were performing. The editors stopped looking at tags as something abstract, used only for SEO and more like an invaluable tool to help plan and organize.

“We sat down and vetted our new tagging system. I looked at all the tags used in, for instance, the sports section within a month, wrote them down in an Excel sheet, printed them out, and cut them in a way so that we could actually focus on them one by one. We handpicked the best tags and blacklisted all the tags that made no sense. We also eliminated tags we didn’t want to see on our site, like cancer, murder, etc. Everyone got the scoop and did their part to clean up the site. Editors now have a list of ‘effective’ tags to choose from.”

So, does this new system mean that there’s a limit in terms of the number of tags allowed? Apparently not.

“There’s no limit on how many tags a certain article can have, as long as the main tag is correctly assigned. Thanks to our new system, you can actually see in Content Insights if you have chosen the right or the wrong tag for your article. If you look at a certain tag, let’s say a month after you placed it and the articles don’t show up at all – you have probably missed the mark.”

Tags are great tools for organizing and analyzing content. They are bigger than articles but smaller than sections. For a site like Süddeutsche Zeitung that publishes a great volume of content on a number of different topics each day, tags are a great feature for readers looking to go deeper into the topic and learn more about it or its theme.

To successfully introduce the new tagging system and actually make it work, you need to prepare yourself for organizational, technical, and cultural change. So, you need to have the right tool (or set of tools), a structure or organization that has the expertise and capacity to use these tools, and a culture that’s open to embracing the change you’re introducing.

Every organization is unique, but the processes and usual hiccups tend to be universal. 

That said, you may find it surprising the time it took Christopher and his team to come up with a new tagging system.

An hour.

Yep, you read that right. Organizing and clustering tags for better content visibility and discoverability is essentially about making logical rules that everyone should follow. The task of cleaning up the mess that occurred due to the absence of a unified tagging system might not be exciting, but it’s necessary in order to establish a good foundation for the future. To make tags work, you have to acknowledge it’s actually a collective responsibility. 

by Goran Mirković

Republished with kind permission of Content Insights, the next generation content analytics solution that translates complex editorial data into actionable insights.

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