There's an article in today's New York Times that talks about the growing interest in search engine optimization among journalists, editors and newspaper staff. The obvious point of the article is that in a world that increasingly turns to the Internet and search engines to search for news coverage, newspapers can no longer afford to ignore search engine friendly tactics like keywords in story headlines and text.

The article brings up a point that more and more people are beginning to consider. From bloggers and journalists to major corporations to the smallest small business, everyone is realizing that search engines can send massive amounts of traffic their way, if only they'll take a few moments to give the engines what they are looking for.

From the article:

JOURNALISTS over the years have assumed they were writing their headlines and articles for two audiences — fickle readers and nitpicking editors. Today, there is a third important arbiter of their work: the software programs that scour the Web, analyzing and ranking online news articles on behalf of Internet search engines like Google, Yahoo and MSN.

The search-engine "bots" that crawl the Web are increasingly influential, delivering 30 percent or more of the traffic on some newspaper, magazine or television news Web sites. And traffic means readers and advertisers, at a time when the mainstream media is desperately trying to make a living on the Web.

So news organizations large and small have begun experimenting with tweaking their Web sites for better search engine results.

That makes things tough for the creative editor that prides him or herself on the ability to draw readers in with a catchy headline. After all, the limitations of having to fit the two or three keywords that match a story into the headline can severely limit an editor's ability to be catchy. That said, part of the problem seems to be the need to "re-teach" creative writing to some of these journalists and editors.

For example, the article points out that the headline "Tulsa star: The life and career of much-loved 1960's singer" is quite a bit more catchy than "Obituary: Gene Pitney," yet the latter is "necessary" for earning search traffic. The reality is that twice as many searchers use the word "dead" than use the word "obituary." Thus, there's no reason that a search friendly headline couldn't read more like "Tulsa star Gene Pitney: Much loved 1960's singer dead at age 76."

This is a common problem that search engine copywriters have to deal with. Taking text that is designed to be fully of PR and marketing speak and transforming it into something search friendly. While that used to be the end of the focus of search engine copywriting, modern day writers understand that bringing in the search traffic means little if your page copy can't hold their attention long enough for you to make the sale. Thus, good online writers are learning to combine keywords with creative copy to come up with engaging content. There is no reason to think that newspapers couldn't do the same.

Another problem is the resistance of many writers to learn a new style of writing. We actually had this question come up during the keyword research session of Search Engine Strategies in New York earlier this year. One of the audience members was an editor of a fairly large online news source and was asking us how he could convince his writers to work with him to make sure their articles were search friendly. He said that much of their resistance came from the fact that they felt it was the publications job to market them (as opposed to the writers jobs) and also that writing with search engines in mind would "cramp their style."

That leaves two issues here for newspapers to deal with before they can move forward.

First, they need to appeal to their writers egos. Journalists write for an audience and in most of their minds, the more people that their story can reach, the better. This is where editors need to work with them to help them understand that by embracing these types of techniques, they can dramatically expand their readership. A search engine visitor that enjoys a writers' article or commentary may bookmark the site and come back for more. In other words, journalists need to learn that it's about more than just that one story, it's about building a readership base.

Second, they need to challenge their writer's creativity. There's no reason that a good writer cannot learn how to include a keyword now and then while still writing an interesting article and headline that will capture readers' attention. In other words, both the world of journalism and businesses as a whole need to get past the fallacy that search engine friendly writing is boring and robotic.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

April 10, 2006

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

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