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SPECIAL REPORT: Building Web Traffic Through 'Search Engine Optimization'.

As newspapers continue along in 2008, only one major aspect of the industry will surely show true growth this year: online ad revenue. Topping publishers' New Year's resolutions was wringing as much money as possible out of the Web. This, of course, largely hinges on traffic.

There are many ways to goose the numbers, including the addition of video, podcasts, and blogs, not to mention breaking stories and providing intelligent commentary. But publishers are also quietly tweaking content -- under the hood, that is -- to make stories place higher in search-engine results. This strategy entails crafting headlines and ledes in certain ways to ensure that search-engine crawlers lock onto certain words, for better search-engine results. Of course, it's far more complicated than that -- but in the following story, E&P explores how search engine optimization (SEO) gets done, and why.

Yet any surge in traffic -- if it's not accounted for correctly and credibly -- could be a wash, and collating that user data is a science all its own. Site-centric and panel-based metrics each have their benefits and drawbacks.

Part One: Putting Numbers to Work for YouThere have been some uncomfortable mumblings of late amid the fanfare surrounding newspaper Web traffic. Since the Newspaper Association of America started keeping tabs on monthly unique users, average time spent per person, and the number of page views -- all increasing in importance as circulation slumps -- the organization has been able to tout some astounding growth rates.

"More than 59.6 million people visited newspaper Web sites in July 2007, a 9% increase over the same period a year ago and the second-largest monthly audience since NAA began tracking these numbers in 2004," blared a press statement released by the association in late October.

Buried in the data, tracked by Nielsen Online, is that the most recent monthly traffic numbers actually show a slowdown. In September, total newspaper traffic year-over-year fell slightly, down around half a percent to 58,160,363 visitors.

That could be a blip, the general nature of news cycles, or it could point to a plateau in traffic. Regardless, publishers are relying on their online properties now more than ever to pick up the slack from the ailing print side. Traffic is the currency of the Internet -- and if newspapers want to reap more revenue, the number of hits needs to grow, and keep growing.

So what are news-papers doing to get more online readers? Providing more content is one way to net more visitors. Videos, podcasts, blogs, chats with the city editor, and the ability to comment on stories all play a role.

Equally important, however, is the ability for newspapers to tweak the back-end data so they get the most bang for their dollars for that content. It's here behind the curtain where newspapers are beginning to fiddle with how that content fans out across the Web -- through search engine optimization (SEO).

SEO is a way for Web sites to push their links higher up on search results, increasing the probability of people clicking. This differs from paid search, in which specific words are bought in order to ensure placement: On Google, for example, paid search results run on the right-hand side under the heading "Sponsored Links."

SEO is particularly important for the larger papers, especially the nationals. But smaller papers can learn to benefit from it too, if they want to truly dominate their local markets online. Ken Doctor, an affiliate analyst with Outsell Research, points out that as more newspapers form alliances with Yahoo and Google, they need to get more sophisticated in employing this method.

Straight Up We'll ClimbSEO works in several ways. For one thing, a newspaper Web site can garner more traffic by paying closer attention to headline writing, placing frequently searched terms in the hed.

Manipulating meta tags also can affect search results. These tags of data (which readers don't see) are computer code, a digital map of sorts, for what can be found on a particular Web page. "Meta tags will tell the search engines all kinds of information about what's on the site," says Gordon Borrell, CEO of Borrell Associates in Williamsburg, Va.

Search engines like Google, Yahoo, and MSN each have unique sets of criteria used to determine where Web sites rank in search results. "There are different proprietary techniques used by each of the search engines," says Bruce Murray, the founder and former CEO of the research firm Corzen. "If your strategy is to move higher up the list, you should start with understanding very deeply what the actual algorithm is. Once you do that, you can take actions to improve your position."

Google, the dominant search engine, also takes into account how many sites link back to a page. "If you have a page that thousands of other sites point to or link to, your page is going to be ranked higher," says Murray. And if the sites that link to your site get lots of traffic, your site or page will likely jump in the listings. Cracking those algorithms is difficult, since they are always morphing. Google -- which has published many aspects of how its search works -- is constantly changing its methods; the company is well aware of people trying to manipulate search results. "It's a game of cat-and-mouse," Murray adds.

Search engines send out "crawlers" or "spiders" to read tags and a page's content, but not all Web sites are visited equally by the crawlers. In the case of Google, the crawlers could hit one Web site once a month, another one every 10 minutes, and so on. "You don't really know, because it's proprietary," Murray says. In some cases, it doesn't matter how many descriptions a meta tag contains; depending on how often a crawler visits a site, the tags could go unnoticed.

Tweak Heds, Get More HitsOne thing is certain: Newspapers big and small should be trying harder to get the most hits for their content. "The basic way journalism is created and tagging it -- saying what it is -- really determines the current and future value of all content in the digital universe," says Outsell's Doctor, who is also the author of the "Content Bridges" blog. "Newspapers have long cut off their noses by refusing to standardize the meta tagging and naming stories at that root level. They are throwing that value away."

He argues that the industry can strengthen its position in alliances formed with search engines: "If the industry could deliver content properly meta tagged, that will increase the value of that content. You don't need to buy new technology. You need to retrain people."

Take writing headlines. Using Rudy Giuliani as a test case, the first thing to know is how people search for the presidential candidate. There are hundreds of variations of his name, but data shows that more people type in "Rudy Giuliani" rather than his formal name, Rudolph Giuliani. "It's important to use 'Rudy Giuliani' on the page," explains Bill Tancer, general manager/global research at Hitwise. Where the politician's name appears also matters -- and here's where it could affect the jobs of those in the newsroom: A phrase like "Rudy Giuliani" should be kept whole as part of the headline.

Several observers say that while there is a lot of talk about SEO, especially at larger metros and at the corporate level, that doesn't mean they're quick to implement it. "I think the far bigger challenge of the idea, which seems so simple, is controlling the writers who write the headlines" and other text, notes Greg Harmon, director/interactive for Belden Associates in San Francisco. "There is a lot more talk about this than substance."

The Wall Street Journal started paying attention to SEO about 18 months ago, and the effort is starting to pay off. WSJ.com has seen an upsurge in what Ramakrishnan Sadasivan, senior product manager at Wall Street Journal Online, calls "sideways traffic." These are readers coming to WSJ stories via blogs or search engines, rather than the homepage. "We look at [sideways] traffic as an important metric," he says.

The Journal's online home has taken several steps to give its content a lift in search results. It instituted a search engine site map -- basically a hierarchical index -- making stories easier for search engines to find. WSJ also reduced its story duplication. A piece that ran in Start Up Journal might have also appeared in the Business Section. To prevent splitting traffic, all the vertical sites (such as CareerJournal) were brought back into the WSJ.com fold.

The good old inverted pyramid helps immensely, Sadasivan explains, since a crawler gives more weight to the first few graphs of a story compared to the bottom graphs. This is one of the reasons why WSJ.com started bringing back its preview pages -- the headline and the first few graphs of the story -- for its content behind the pay wall, in essence bringing out that content and making it more visible to search engines. And the company's new owner Rupert Murdoch has signaled he even wants to drop the site's subscription model, in order to get more traffic.

Additionally, writers have started to cross-link between Dow Jones properties, connecting to Barron's, MarketWatch, and AllThingsD. WSJ.com partnered with Loomia, for example, a service that recommends other articles with the heading, "People who read this ... also read these."

Search traffic for WSJ.com has doubled year-over-year in October. But as of now, all this is occurring on the business side. Next year, staffers from the site will be going to the newsroom to share some best practices when writing headlines. Gannett Co. serves as another example of this type of sharing: For the last six months, the digital side has made suggestions to newsroom staffers about headline writing to boost traffic.

Evergreen Content Makes GreenMurray brings up the point that the fleeting nature of online news stories -- "here today, gone tomorrow" as he puts it -- means there is not much time to link to it.

Rethinking some content can improve the odds of getting linked. Relatively static information -- bar listings, for example -- that is evergreen rather than yesterday's baseball scores works well, and is one reason why Wikipedia ranks so high in search results.

Barry Parr, a media analyst at Jupiter Research, explains that a newspaper can increase its traffic by 5% to 10% just by opening up its archives and making sure that content can be found by the search engines. He suggests that online news- papers make sure that content from databases is scoring high on search engines, too.

"Topic pages like 'restaurants' are really good search-engine fodder," he adds. "They are good landing pages. The search engines are playing a big role in local, and [newspapers] can't ignore it. They need to think of it as an opportunity, not as a threat."
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Author:Saba, Jen
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 26, 2008
Words:1807
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