Digital Publishing Platforms
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What we should learn from Google’s “helpful content” update

It’s not about the click; it’s about this relationship

SEO is an acronym standing for Search Engine Optimization. If you try to ask journalists working for a typical digital newspaper what they use SEO techniques for, you will probably hear an answer like: “To bring clicks to our websites, of course!”. 

This widespread answer is part of a vast problem related to the traditional business model: publishers – and therefore newsrooms – look for clicks because advertising is historically associated with quantitative metrics. 

If you need clicks to survive, the traffic goal becomes obsessive, and you will do anything for them, whatever it takes (starting with clickbait). And maybe sometimes you will forget the main aim of a journalistic website: to deliver pertinent facts in proper context and serve your audience with the best journalism you can produce. 

In the last 18 years, I’ve seen a desperate search for quick (and sometimes dirty) shortcuts to get clicks from search engines. But newsrooms and journalists often look for simple and deterministic to-do lists: how many times should I repeat the main keyword of my articles? How long should my content need to be? Do I need to use bold for relevant words? Conversely, someone sees the SEO consultant as someone who interferes with the newsroom’s work with crazy, mechanical rules. And many journalists complain because they say that those strict rules and SEO technicalities limit and constrain their ability to write good articles.

If these kinds of things might have seemed helpful in the early days of search engines – and they weren’t because instead of focusing on the quality of the content, they shifted the focus on possible techniques to fool the algorithms – things have changed. And they are still changing a lot.

However, SEO is much more than this and could be a powerful ally for journalists. 

We should try to demystify this click-related approach to SEO by providing proper knowledge and tools to the newsrooms. To do that, I’ll combine my personal experience working on SEO and journalism since 2004 and Giorgio Taverniti’s work.

Taverniti is the author of Google liquido (Liquid Google). His book focuses on Google, which still dominates market shares, and analysing its evolution provides the reader with tools to understand and adequately work in the search field. I’ve been working for years on SEO as a relational tool between content producers and people looking for information online using the most powerful asset a newsroom can have: good pieces of content. 

People and their needs are the starting point of a revolutionary brand new approach to SEO. To apply this starting point, we should at first erase what many journalists and content creators (at least in small markets) have learnt about SEO.

Forget the keywords!

“Many people have taught content writers that the important thing is to have the keyword somewhere to put it here and there,” says Taverniti. “Of course, in the first phase of its job, Google tries to figure out if that content actually talks about that topic and then goes to check where the keyword is. So, you probably need that keyword in the title and the text’s body. But there is a second phase, where Google looks for relevant content. A proper job in creating content tries to understand the topic we are writing about and offers relevant content.”

Offering relevant content hasn’t anything to do with repeating keywords

You can find tons of spammy content online built just for search engines. But search engine developers are focusing their efforts on giving more importance to content written for people. That’s the case with Google’s helpful content update

Chris Nelson (Senior Staff Analyst, Search Ranking at Google) wrote about the algorithm update: “People-first content creators focus first on creating satisfying content, while also utilizing SEO best practices to bring searchers additional value. Answering yes to the questions below means you’re probably on the right track with a people-first approach”.

Questions and answers

“If you look at those questions mentioned by Nelson, you will see that they seem to be there for people used to writing, and so for journalists, too,” says Taverniti.

Let’s analyse the questions and see how deeply connected they are with journalism.

  • Do you have an existing or intended audience for your business or site that would find the content useful if they came directly to you?

This question is clearly about the homepage and the so-called direct traffic. Any newspaper should engage its audience, bringing people to read its website spontaneously. It also means creating brand awareness among the newspaper, its brand, and journalists themselves. Aggregating a loyal audience is the first requirement for a newspaper. And it’s also part of an advanced SEO strategy.

  • Does your content clearly demonstrate first-hand expertise and a depth of knowledge?

From a newsroom point of view, this question is clearly related to journalists’ expertise and knowledge. If you are doing a proper job as a journalist, you will develop a robust experience in the topics you are dealing with; you will probably be engaged in on-the-field coverage. And you would write about sources you’ve dug, stories you know very well, first-hand knowledge. 

  • Does your site have a primary purpose or focus?

This question seems to involve vertical and thematic publishers only, but it’s important also for generalist media. Of course, (digital) newspapers have a primary purpose: to provide accurate facts in proper context to their audiences. 

  • After reading your content, will someone leave feeling they’ve learned enough about a topic to help achieve their goal?

This question is probably at the core of the essential journalistic aim: informing the audience. “A lot of people have been instructed on the fact that they should write short articles. It’s a legacy of paper journalism, where you have a finite space to fill. But this is not the case in the digital field,” Taverniti says. “Journalists writing an article shouldn’t be worried about mechanical rules. They must focus on their original reporting and on the information needed by the readers”.

  • Will someone reading your content leave feeling like they’ve had a satisfying experience?

The question relates to the relationship a newsroom can build with its audience through content and user experiences. Which also probably means engaging readers in the conversation. Comment sections are a powerful tool to increase a webpage’s relevance, but the newsrooms too often forget them. 

As you can see, nothing of these questions has anything to do with repeating keywords or other strange, exotic, or strict SEO techniques.

The essence of journalism and the essence of SEO are substantially identical. 

Can we trust search engines and algorithms? 

Trusting search engines and algorithms is another kind of problem to analyse: as journalists, we should be aware that private companies with their own interests run search engines. So, we must know very well how they work and learn their mechanisms. We must know business models, stakeholders, and policies; we must test searching in our field to see which content is listed. We must know when and why content is not listed or even removed from search results web pages (SERPs). In other words, we should apply journalistic verification methods even to search engines. 

On the other side, the main goal of search engines is to provide people with the information they are looking for. Given this as a structural assumption and knowing it’s an over-simplification, journalists can do a great job from an SEO point of view by doing their job excellently.

Search engines are everywhere: even if this is not their primary purpose, you can for sure use TikTok or Instagram as a search engine, or – this is more self-evident – YouTube. Newsrooms should understand how these tools and platforms operate as search engines. And use them to provide the searching audience with their answers.

Of course, we can’t blindly trust algorithms. “There are grey zones,” explains Taverniti, “but today, for example, Google’s algorithms can spot out content written with certain standards just for the machine and not for the people.”

“People first” shouldn’t be another mantra but a goal.

“People first” is a crucial concept. It’s been out since the beginning of the internet, and journalists should understand it very well: is journalism valuable without an audience to serve? Of course not. And so, since people search for information, the newsrooms can fulfil their needs. “But I’d like very much,” says Taverniti, “that we would focus on the quality of content, quality of the resources we are offering to those people.”

However, newsrooms asking for help with SEO strategies – and I am speaking from my personal experience here, which is vast enough on the Italian market – are always looking for clicks. 

“To be honest, I don’t think this approach will die,” Taverniti concludes. “I’m optimistic, but I’m also trying to be a realist here: we are still chasing numbers, basic quantitative metrics. However, we can find solutions as popularizers of these ideas related to the digital ecosystem. We can drive newsrooms to understand other metrics. If they want to look at the clicks, that’s fine. But we can also help them focus on other metrics, like session duration by pages or time, page depth, or bounce rate. And we can help them understand how these metrics are related.”

So, the essential SEO technique is to become, for the audience, the most relevant source for a topic. 

It requires some technical rules for sure, but it demands excellent journalism as an indispensable requirement.

Alberto Puliafito

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission.