Published on January 31st, 2013 | by Derek Slater0
5 reasons to become a search expert
This article was originally published August 2009 on emediavitals.com.
The Web is a fantastic publishing medium. That’s true for a lot of reasons, from rich media storytelling to the ability to make instant corrections. (Not that any of us make mistakes, right?)
But for my nickel as an editor and writer, nothing is more interesting, or more potentially useful, than search.
Web search engines are a fantastic tool for finding information and also for presenting your content to audiences both familiar and new. I think content-makers of every stripe (journalist/writer/editor/blogger/videographer – whatever you call yourself and your editorial colleagues) should develop a level of expertise in three essential search topics:
- how to do advanced search;
- how to present information so other searchers find it;
- how to use search-based tools like WordTracker and Google Trends to find out what searchers want to find.
Those are the topics this column aims to cover, with an emphasis on practical information that you can use right away.
What I write is what I’ve learned in my own career transition from print. By day (and by night too, actually) I edit CSOonline.com and CSO Magazine, two B2B information resources about security. Despite early involvement in online publishing, I didn’t really grasp the fundamental nature of the shift to online until 2005. (Hat tip here particularly to David Churbuck and Janice Brand.) Search and SEO drew my attention the most. There are lots of great folks out there sharing their expertise in search. Many of them are in marketing or sales or SEO. I hope to report back their discoveries through the lens of an editor.
This editorial perspective is important, because I see some resistance to SEO among journalists. Some editors dismiss SEO as a form of “gaming the system” or “writing for machines”. Done right, i.e. with intelligence and ethics, it is neither.
SEO is also not some new, foreign activity that editors have never confronted. I submit that most or all search-related tasks are simply old activities done in a new medium. Time once spent thinking about creating a lot of visual entry points on a magazine page might now be spent researching keywords and making headlines and subheads consistent. The mechanisms change, but the goal is absolutely the same: To get people to read your fabulous content.
How do you get editors to think more positively about search? Here are five useful observations about the Web in language that may be more familiar to the editorial ear.
1. Hey, aren’t you an expert at gathering information?
Journalism is an information-gathering activity. Web search is an information-gathering activity. If Google levels the playing field between reader and journalist, the journalist will simply have to raise her game.
To provide maximum value to your Web audience, why not get better at Googling than they are? If you can find more relevant information more quickly, remove the irrelevant results, and add context as you present your findings, your audience will keep turning to you for information.
An advanced understanding of search operands (not to mention things like RSS readers and Google News Alerts) is a competitive asset in journalism and a critical reader service tool.
2. Google is today’s newsstand.
Newsstand publications spend lots of time and energy and money on their covers, trying to pop out from a crowded jumble of competing mags and grab the reader’s attention.
SEO is part of the same task, as it is done on the Web. Google is the newsstand of the digital age. Obviously SEO is not the whole task; putting keywords at the beginning of the headline and the body text isn’t valuable if the result is awkward gibberish that no human will want to read. Writing with panache is still important. But SEO considerations have to be part of the process.
It’s a new mechanism but it’s just part of the age-old, “How do we get readers to pick this up?” conversation.
You may run across the argument that SEO is “writing for machines, not humans.” To me this is like publishing a great book and then objecting to librarians stamping it with a Dewey decimal number. You are presumably writing great articles, taking great pictures, recording great audio and video. Google is a foundational tool to get that great content in front of people who will find it interesting. SEO isn’t writing for machines; it’s writing for humans who use the computer to find information.
3. You are your own circulation department.
I have worked on controlled-circulation publications most of my career. In a traditional publishing organization, the editor of a niche, controlled-circ magazine might be able to convince himself that the content is mailed to all the right people, and only the right people.
To believe that, though, he would have to ignore the activity of the circulation department, which most likely spends a lot of money finding new subscribers to replace those dropping off the list each year due to retirement, career change, layoff or disgust. So yes, the magazine might be mailed to 10,000, but promotional materials might be mailed to 30,000 per year in search of the right readers.
On the Web, you skip the middleman and do your own audience development. Google is a great distribution tool for that purpose. Let’s say that on Tuesday, 50,000 people search for the term “business continuity”. How many of them are valuable readers for my site? I don’t know for sure, and in the absence of that knowledge, I’d like to put a CSOonline article about business continuity in front of all of them and then let THEM decide whether it matches their interest. For some of them, it won’t. That’s okay. Lots of magazine circulation cards go to waste too.
4. It’s about online readership. Not traffic.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the word “traffic,” but it does conjure the image of running a meth lab.
In discussions with editors, it may be useful to discipline yourself to think and talk in terms of online readership or audience or community, rather than traffic.
Picky? Sure. But editors are word people. So if another word is more effective in getting people enthused about the Web, use it.
And here’s the most compelling reason for editors to learn about search.
5. It’s the best reader research tool ever.
Another flashback: We used to conduct a very extensive reader survey every year – in fact, two surveys, one blind and one open. Very costly. What’s the strength of the magazine? What else do you read and why? What are your biggest challenges next year? What technologies are you evaluating? And so on. We got the results in a huge set of binders with trending against previous studies, and I read every single page, every verbatim comment.
That told me a lot about the people already reading our content. What it didn’t tell me was anything about the people who aren’t reading our content.
To reiterate a point made above: if I thought I already had 100% reach into everyone in my target audience, that kind of reader survey would be enough. But it’s not.
Google Trends can tell me about those people I haven’t reached yet. WordTracker and Google Analytics can tell me about those people. What they’re looking for, how they spell it, how they abbreviate it, what unexpected words they associate with each other. Those things in turn tell me about articles I should be assigning, what over-the-horizon topics I should be learning, and even how I should modify my style guide.
There are lots of tools like that in the online world, but that’s a subject for a deeper dive in a future column.