Search engines and journalism: Seven key issues as news goes online

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Recently the Future of Journalism conference was held in Sydney, run by the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the body that represents workers in media and entertainment, including journalists. One of the broadcast media channels which covered the event called me last week to get some ideas for their interviews with the keynote speakers at the conference.

Their first question to me was about the impact of search engines on journalism. While our conversation went off in quite different directions regarding the future of journalism, I think it’s a very interesting issue to address. There are seven important issues for how search engines impact journalism:

Traffic from search engines provides a significant proportion of online media income. In some cases up to one third of traffic to online news sites comes from search engines. With the primary revenue from most online news coming from advertising, search engine optimization is not an optional activity for news sites and editors.

Headline writing is becoming a completely new art (and now science). As many have written on headline writing for search engines before, including the New York Times and an article I wrote on newspapers, search optimization, and old-school editors, publishing online requires a very different approach to headlines. The cute wordplays that have characterized newspaper headlines through the last century (Headless Body In Topless Bar; Ice Cream Man Has Assets Frozen; Two Convicts Evade Noose, Jury Hung etc. etc.) don’t tend to bring search traffic. Morever, visitors will usually find the content was not what they were looking for, and will leave in seconds.

The biggest single change is that the feedback cycle has become faster and more accurate. It is now standard practice for editors of online news sites to shuffle stories based on how popular they are, making them more prominent on the page if they are getting a lot of traffic. While this seems strange to old-school journalists, there is in fact no real difference to how headlines have been chosen in newspapers for ever. Editors use their discretion to choose what goes on the front page of the newspaper, but that is because they have so little and slow feedback on what readers like and don’t like. Now that the the feedback cycle is fast and accurate, editors are better able to balance commercial and editorial interests based on this richer information.

As always, editors and proprietors must make decisions to balance commercial interests and media integrity. The fundamental issues that underlie media have not changed. Audiences will always make implicit judgments on whether advertising or other commercial interests influence the content of the media they consume. Media proprietors and editors walk a fine line between maintaining credibility and maximizing short-term revenue.

Journalists are learning how content influences search visibility. There are many ways to write content that make it more findable by search engines, including being aware of what people are searching for, using certain proportions of keywords in an article, using keywords as link text, and so on. Journalists will increasingly be aware of these issues, and will have the choice of whether they apply this knowledge in how they write. Writing search-engine friendly text can potentially impact the validity of the content, or it can be done without compromising it in any way.

Performance-based pay for journalists will increase. Already some publishers are paying journalists by how much online traffic their stories attract (so called pay-per-view journalism). This will no doubt encourage those writers to be aware of what will make their stories visible. Some will say this is a very slippery slope. However the reality is that journalists that are not being read will eventually lose their jobs. It is just another manifestation of a faster feedback cycle.

Advertising can be a significant source of traffic for online news sites. Since traffic is the lifeblood of online media, it can pay for media companies to advertise on search engines such as Google. Trevor Cook reported on a recent conference presentation by Pippa Leary of Fairfax Digital, describing how when Heath Ledger died they not only chose the very search-engine friendly term of ‘Heath Ledger dies’, but had also bid on Google Adwords for search terms such as ‘Heath Ledger death’ to get traffic. While this is an extreme example, search engine marketing has to be at least on the agenda for online publishers.

There are a range of other issues at play here which I’ll explore in more detail later. However these seven factors are fundamental to how search engines are changing the world of journalism and news publishing.

  • Great post, Ross. You’ve nicely summed up the changes in editorial style that online publications need to undertake to cater to the needs of an online audience. Sadly, having worked for a newspaper with an online presence and a purely online publication, many old school editors simply do not buy into these ideas. They’ve been trained since day one about the value of punchy headlines, which do not neccesarily correspond to how users search for news. It doesn’t help that there are few journalism schools that teach budding journalists about the differences in writing for an online audience.