What makes SEO different for news publishers? And how much organic traffic might you be able to drive as a news publisher?
That's what we're going to be covering today with a Springboks supporting Dutchman living in Northern Ireland. He's a specialist in SEO for news publishers at newsseo.io and is an SEO consultant at Polemic Digital. A warm welcome to the In Search SEO podcast, Barry Adams.
In this episode, Barry shares three key episodes of SEO for news publishers, including:
It's all about Top Stories Boxes on SERPs
The headline is the key to optimization
Barry: Thanks very much for having me, David.
D: You can find Barry over at polemicdigital.com. So today, we're talking about SEO for news. So why is SEO for news publishers different?
B: It’s a very interesting space to be in when it comes to news. When you're talking about classic SEO, we talk about long-term activities to build up quality signals, to build links to a website, to improve content, and therefore improve rankings, which then results in more traffic. A lot of that still applies to news publishers. They still have to build up those quality signals over time and they have to build up authority. The key difference that news publishers have versus any other website in Google's ecosystem is the speed with which news moves.
When you publish a news article, it will either rank or not rank in Google within a few minutes. And that is generally in the Top Stories box that we see as part of regular search results. About one in ten search results on Google will have a Top Stories news box of some description, some bigger than others, depending on how popular the news stories around that particular topic are. This is very different from an e-commerce website or another content-driven website that is not news, when you publish a new piece of content, you don't expect it to rank within a few minutes, that would be quite rare. But for the news, that's your golden opportunity for traffic from Google. The first few hours after you've published the article is when most of the traffic from Google to that article will come. And the shelf life of an article in Google's news ecosystem, which is their Top Stories box, the news.google.com vertical, as well as the News tab on regular results, is about 48 hours. After that, the article will drop off because it's not news anymore and new articles will take its place.
And that's what makes SEO for news very much different. You get one shot at ranking in Google's news ecosystem. And if you don't manage that, going back later to tweak the article and the content, which is something we tend to do in classic SEO, is almost pointless because the news has already moved on. And the article is probably not relevant anymore. So that's what gives news publishers very unique challenges when it comes to SEO and optimizing for that initial view.
D: So you talk about Google's news ecosystem, how do you actually become a part of that ecosystem as a publisher?
How do you qualify as a news publisher?
B: That's a tough nut to crack. It used to be relatively straightforward. As a news publisher, of course, you had to be a proper news website. Up to the end of 2019, there was a manual form you had to submit. And there were some people in Mountain View California who took a look at your website, and then manually approved you for inclusion in that news ecosystem as a news publisher. Nowadays, however, it's an algorithmic process. This means Google will automatically detect whether or not you're a news publisher, and whether or not you deserve to rank in those specific ranking elements that Google has across a wide variety of its services, as we call them, like the news app, the Google App in general, search results, both mobile and desktop, Google News as a vertical, as well as the Discover feed on Android phones and in the Google App on iPhones. That algorithmic inclusion process is very opaque. We don't really know what Google is looking for, besides some very generic recommendations and guidelines that they've put out there like to be a proper news publisher. So it's become very hard for websites to consistently achieve that visibility in Google.
Only in the last year or so have I seen websites that were not manually approved in the old process starting to get traction in Google News. So it's taken them about two years of consistent effort for Google to recognize them as a valid news publisher and news source, whose articles should rank in those news elements across Google's ecosystem. It has made it a lot harder and created a bit of an unfair playing field where websites that were approved in the old manual process continue to appear in Top Stories and Google News with no real effort. And new publishers are really struggling to get traction in Google News.
It's an interesting dynamic we have at the moment where the old publishers are getting a free ride and the newer publishers from the last two years are really struggling to get traction. They don't have a lot of recourse because there's not a lot of documentation. And there's not a lot of clarity about what the algorithm process is actually looking for.
D: What really annoys me at the moment is clicking on news stories and Google News and that the majority of links tend to have a pay-to-play situation going on. So when you click through you can only read about two lines of the story and then you have to actually pay. It’s not a lovely user experience. Is Google going to do something about that?
B: Probably not, if I'm honest, Google specifically doesn't penalize paywalled websites in its news ecosystem, because it doesn't want to be seen to steal even more money away from publishers. Google is already being accused on multiple levels of robbing publishers' incomes. And if they will say that subscription-based websites are not going to rank as high in our Top Stories and in Google News, then Google will get even more heat from them. Google is trying to find ways around this with the Google News Showcase where publishers that have a paywall can sign up to a model where Google will show content for free to the users of the Google News app and in turn Google will give them a share of the revenue. There are also other mechanisms in place doing similar things.
But yeah, in general, searching for news can be an annoying user experience. If you click on an article, and you don't know that it's a paywalled article, there's no visual clue there that it's a paywall article, and then you get hit by the paywall, and then most users will click the back button. But I think Google very deliberately doesn't visually indicate that it's a paywalled article because they don't want to be seen to be favoring free news websites in case they get accused of all kinds of nefarious shenanigans. And the news industry and Google have had a pretty eventful relationship anyway, in the last decade or so.
D: So today you're sharing three key elements of SEO for news publishers. Starting off with number one, it's all about Top Stories boxes on SERPs.
1. It’s All About Top Stories Boxes on SERPS
B: This is always a fun one. When a publisher says we want traffic from Google News, they don't actually mean Google News as in the news.google.com vertical. Because that vertical alone, that separate website, usually accounts for a low single-digit percentage of traffic to a publisher, like 4 or 5% at most. They also don’t mean the News tab, or the regular search results, which also is about 4 or 5% of traffic to most publishers. Those Top Stories boxes on the regular search results, that's where the magic happens. That's where most news publishers will get their Google organic traffic from. For a lot of publishers, this can be as high as 40-60% of the total traffic coming from those Top Stories boxes. This is in addition to the social traffic that they get, direct traffic, bookmarks, and external links. So Google has a huge influence overall on the amount of traffic the publishers can get based on whether or not they’re visible in those Top Stories boxes.
So for publishers, it is absolutely key that they optimize their articles for visibility in those Top Stories boxes, so that they have a good chance of appearing there when someone types in a given search. And the reason those Top Stories boxes are incredibly powerful is that about one in ten Google searches will have a Top Stories box of some description that shows some news articles which can be as little as one article or as many as 15 articles in a Top Stories box. So one in ten Google searches will have a Top Stories Box and Google handles trillions of searches a year. So we're talking about hundreds of billions of searches that happen on Google that have a news element to them. And that's why they're such a huge source of traffic for publishers, an enormous amount of news being shared as part of Google's regular search. results. And if you can get visibility there as a publisher, the traffic potential is enormous.
D: I guess you'll be covering a few different ways to appear in those boxes in your next couple of points because point number two is that speed matters and articles have a 48-hour window to rank in Top Stories.
2. Speed Matters
B: Absolutely. This is one of the interesting areas where publishers can sort of exploit Google's weakness in news a little bit. Like I said before, the 48-hour lifespan of a typical news article in Google's news ecosystem, including the Top Stories box, is usually less than that. 24 to 36 hours is more or less the maximum you can expect for an article to show up in those Top Stories boxes. Unless it's a very popular news story, with a lot of publishers writing content about. Google does have a preference for newer articles in Top Stories, which is an interesting dynamic. Where some publishers break a story and are the first one to report a story but they often very quickly lose rankings to publishers who cover the story that they broke because those publishers are later and therefore their stories are more recent. Google has tried to mitigate this to a certain extent by trying to highlight original publishers as much as they can detect them. But it's very hard for Google to do that. Because the speed aspect plays such a big role in multiple facets. It's not just you as a publisher have to publish content. It's also Google having to very quickly index and rank news articles.
Again, I'll compare this to classic SEO. With classic SEO, Google basically can take its time when it crawls a website and indexes new content. It often renders the content in a headless browser to get a complete picture of the user experience. It does all kinds of deduplication and canonicalization, and it tweaks its index. For news articles, Google does not have the time to do all of that. It doesn't have the luxury of leisurely processing all those different processes of its indexing system. So Google takes shortcuts. Google never explicitly says this. But if you read the documentation, when it comes to news publishers, there are a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle hints that Google has to take shortcuts when it comes to indexing news articles. They specifically say article content should be in the pure HTML source and not rely on client-side rendering, which indicates Google probably doesn't render as part of news indexing. They also say that articles should be original content. And if it's a syndicated article from another source, basically duplicate content from another source, you should have a canonical tag or prevent Google from indexing it. That's probably because Google doesn't have the time to do its own deduplication as part of indexing because it very quickly has to rank articles in its search results. And there are a lot of hints like this as well, that shows that Google basically indexes news articles very quickly, and doesn't have time to do all these other extra processes that it does as part of its normal indexing of content. That allows publishers to basically exploit Google systems because that lack of thoroughness when it comes to indexing news also means there are windows of opportunity there for publishers.
I’ll give you a very basic example. When it comes to new stories, Google looks at the URL of an article as the unique identifier. Not the headline, not the title tag, not the page content, just the URL. The URL is a unique identifier, which means if you change the URL of an article and that is the only thing you change, everything else is the same, the headline, content, image, you name it, just change the URL, Google will see it as a new article and will index it and rank it as a fresh article. That is a weakness. And that weakness only exists in the news ecosystem, it doesn't exist in any other part of Google's ecosystem. And publishers can exploit that a little bit. If they want to give the story a bit of a boost in Top Stories, they wrote a good story, it lost rankings because competitors are writing new stories on that same development, you can just change the URL of your article, or maybe also change the last updated date or the publish date just to be a bit more thorough about it, and Google will generally pick it up as a new article and rank it as a new article in Top Stories. That's where that speed element comes into play. You as a publisher have to be fast and Google has to be fast. And that's a very interesting dynamic that makes SEO for news publishers quite a different game for SEO for classic websites.
D: And your point number three is that the headline is the key optimization. What is an ideally optimized headline? What does it look like?
3. The Headline Is the Key Optimization
B: This is always a fun one. Again, in classic SEO, we look at title tags as a primary on-page SEO element. And in the news, the title tag is almost irrelevant. Google looks at the article headline page, specifically the headline that is part of the article structure data in the source code. Again, this is because Google has to take shortcuts when it indexes news articles. So it just looks for the H1 tag, if it has one. And it looks for the headline attribute of the article or the news article structured data snippet that exists in the HTML source code, which is required. You need to have an article or news article structure data in the source code, otherwise, Google will not see you as an article.
And that headline attribute is the most important ranking factor. That determines whether or not you show up in Top Stories, combined with the long-term quality and relevancy signals that your domain has built up over time, based on what you write and the kinds of links that you get, etc. But for an individual article, it is the headline, and the headline is so valuable. You have to pay a lot of attention to how you craft it because Google is still a machine. And again, here's where the speed aspect comes into play. Google doesn't have a lot of time to properly process your headline and look at all the context of the headline, it basically just looks at the keywords in your headline. It's a fairly old-school approach to SEO.
D: Is there any place that you can go to identify the keywords that have been popular in the last six hours, for example?
B: Yes, there is actually, Google Trends has a real-time trends option for most countries in the world where you see what is trending at any given time in the last few hours in any country. You can keep an eye on that in real-time to see what's happening and whether or not it is something that you want to write about as a publisher.
When it comes to crafting the headline, you need to be fairly explicit. You need to specifically state the keyword within the headline so that Google understands that that article can be ranked for that keyword. You don't want to be too subtle about it. You don't want to be funny about it. You don't want to put any word puns or clever jokes in headlines. They might work in the context of a print newspaper, but they really don't work in Google. You have to be very explicit in what your article is about. Specifically mention people, places, names of events, countries, etc. You have to be fairly clear with the headline and what the article is going to be about so that Google knows when it can rank that article or when the article is not relevant.
The Pareto Pickle - Just Write Good Content
D: Let's finish off with the Pareto Pickle. Pareto says you can get 80% of your results from 20% of your efforts. What's one SEO activity that you would recommend that provides incredible results from modest levels of effort?
B: That's always the tough one, we always want the silver bullet approach, don't we? What I find actually worked really well in my own context is I've sort of stopped worrying about things like links. And to a certain extent, when it comes to a smaller website, I also stopped worrying about what technology stack I build it on. I'll give you an example. I launched a newsletter, seoforgooglenews.com, which runs on Substack, which is pretty decent as a platform. It has certain capabilities, but also certain limitations but it does all I need it to do for SEO purposes. It ticks the boxes, it gets ranked, indexed, and +++by Google fairly well. So I don't have to worry too much about optimizing the technical SEO. The effort I put into that is entirely about the content. I just focus on writing the best possible content that I can on that particular topic, in this case, optimizing news websites for Google News. And that has actually resulted in that domain getting really good rankings from Google in about a year and a half since I started that newsletter, off the back of maybe 12-13 newsletters, I haven't written an awful lot of them, less than one a month really. But because the content is good enough, and oftentimes, sorry to toot my own horn a little bit, it's the best content on that topic that anybody's ever written. That's not because I'm so good, it's because Google News as a niche is fairly under-serviced. There's not a lot of content on optimizing for Google news out there. So any content, as far as Google is concerned, is good content.
So for me, 80% of the results came from 20% of the effort of just writing good content with some regularity in publishing it and occasionally promoting it. And the links have come of their own accord. The calling and indexing are already sorted by the subject platform. So I just focus on the stuff that I want to do, which is to write good content. And I think if more websites do that if they just focus on providing the best possible content that they can do, the rest tends to just fall into place.
Once you get to a certain level of maturity and competitiveness, then the small little competitive improvements here and there can make a really big difference. If you do travel or finance or something like that it is very competitive. Just having the best content alone is not enough. That's where you need to get the 1% improvement here and there to really squeeze out the maximum. But if you're just starting out as a business, or even if you've been around for a while but you're trying to find that next level that really sets you apart from your competitors, just focus on the kind of content that you're providing to your users and the rest can wait for a bit until you get to that top level where you feel you can't squeeze anything more out of your content.
I think that's an underappreciated aspect of SEO. People are still looking for that silver bullet, that magic unicorn dust they can sprinkle over the website, and voila, they go to the top of Google. They don't realize that they have to put in the effort to create something that is worth ranking in the first place.
D: Great advice. Barry, thanks so much for being on the In Search SEO podcast.
B: Thank you very much for having me, David.
D: And thank you for listening. Check out all the previous episodes and sign up for a free trial of the Rank Ranger platform over at rankranger.com.