The Journalism Basics in SEO Techniques

Published on
October 22, 2010

It's the kind of thing that makes traditionalists in journalism cringe, and convinces them that technology will ruin the integrity of news. SEO is the tech acronym for "search engine optimization," ways to design websites and content that will rank highly in search results. What many journalists might not realize is that the techniques of SEO are actually not that far off from the fundamentals of hard news.

This week at Career GPS, we're diving in SEO for health journalists. How can it drive more traffic to your reporting and what are some of the basic principles to consider? You can find new jobs, awards and fellowships at the end of this post. If you have ideas for future posts or listings you'd like to see here, log in and let me know. Keep up with Career GPS by signing up for weekly newsletters or via RSS.

Chad Graham, social media editor at The Arizona Republic, is in charge of SEO for In a Reynolds Center Webinar, "Think Like Google – What You Need to Know About SEO," he explained SEO as techniques to make sure that content -- text, images, videos, and any kind of multimedia -- is found and indexed by Google, Bing, Yahoo!. Search engines "crawl" websites for changes. They index not just the content of articles, but headlines and leads, photo captions and the titles of web pages.

The more often a site is updated, the more often it will be crawled by search engines, which then attempt to serve up the most relevant content to people who search from their sites. The goal of SEO is to get up high in those search results.

It's not about tricking the search engines, though. The purpose of SEO is not to write for Google, but to understand that really clear, good writing actually complements SEO.'s efforts to train its newsroom in SEO raised traffic from search engines by 30 percent in 2009, Graham reports. What did they teach journalists?

1. Headlines are extremely important. Use specific keywords. "Search engines don't get 'funny' or 'clever,'" Graham says. "If you're doing a health care story about some new diet on the market," Graham says, "you want to lead with those terms, particularly if they're well-known. You don't want to lead with 'health care story.'"

Here's another example: A print headline in The Arizona Republic reads "Freedom, jubilation for entombed miners," but isn't very Internet-friendly. Proper nouns, such as "Chile," should be included on the web. Think about the terms readers might use to search for that story and include them "without making the headline unruly," Graham says. "Chile miners: 11 Chilean miners rescued after 69 days underground" or "Crew continue lifting Chilean miners" are better choices.

2. Adding keywords to URLs, the addresses of web pages, can help with search. Some content management systems do this automatically, while others give you the option of creating custom URLs for each new page you generate. As with headlines and articles, "Don't pack these URLs with words," Graham cautions. Search engines do not appreciate efforts to "game the system" and can sniff out non-topical keywords pretty well. They could penalize your site's rankings for disingenuous keywords. (So don't add "Lindsay Lohan" to all your URLs or repeat keywords over and over again. It's not a good long-term strategy.)

3. Find the keywords that readers use to search for content. You can look at trending topics on Twitter, on the homepage or left rail if you're signed in, or test out Google's instant search to come up with those terms.

Manny Hernandez, president of the Diabetes Hands Foundation, social media consultant, and advisor to this website, recommends a powerful Google Adwords tool that takes your text and returns potential keywords, allowing you to sort by competitiveness (how many advertisers use that keyword) and how many people search for those terms.

"In general, very popular keywords are hard to get good rankings for," Hernandez writes in an email. "Diabetes" and "healthy eating" are common search terms, but many websites use them. "Longer keywords or more specific keywords, also called 'long tail terms,' work best, you just need a lot more of them," he explains. "Healthy eating for type 1 diabetes" and "LADA diabetes" are specific but still popular enough to help your search rankings.

4. The inverted pyramid is a very search engine-friendly style of writing. So if you are a reporter with newspaper grounding, you're in good shape. Getting the basics of a story up top is a great way to optimize for search engines, and considering how readers look at web pages, it makes sense to get the most important information up high.

5. DO use specific terms. DON'T use jargon. Using the "five-cent word" is a good choice for SEO, Graham says, but write for your readers first. Choose the simpler word if it is appropriate for your audience and be specific. The "Phoenix Suns" works better near the top of your article than just "the Suns," for example.

6. Google is crawling Twitter, images and video as well as text, so think about SEO for this content, too. Adding hashtagged keywords to your tweets, without sacrificing clarity in 140 characters, could help get your short messages to more eyeballs. For videos and photos, always add alternate text, titles and descriptions (metadata), which are discoverable by search engines even if readers don't seem them on your site.

What's Graham's big takeaway? SEO works in concert with your content, which should be geared to what your readers want. "You can drive yourself crazy by sitting at Google News waiting for something to appear," Graham says. "Don't get discouraged if you don't see immediate results." Google's algorithms are privileged information, so there's no sure-fire strategy to getting to the top of their search results. "You can't just go SEO-crazy and forget about the readers," Graham says.

Jerry Monti and Scot Hacker at the Knight Digital Media Center created a thorough tutorial last year that is worth checking out as you advance your SEO skills.

Jobs, Fellowships, Internships and Awards

Online Health Content Producer, Boston Globe Media (via PoynterOnline)
Location: Boston, Massachusetts
Status: Full Time
Medium: Online

Public Affairs Manager, consultants, associates, Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media
Location: Phoenix, Arizona/Jacksonville, Florida/Rochester, Minnesota
Status: Full Time
Medium: Communications

Public Affairs Specialist, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Location: Washington, D.C.
Status: Two-Year Full Time Internship (apply by Oct. 26)
Medium: Communications/Multimedia

Senior Medical Editor/Copywriter, Maricich Brand Communications (via Creative Hotlist)
Location: Irvine, California
Status: Full Time
Medium: Communications

Request for Proposal for the Los Angeles Toxic Tour, and
Eligibility: Short-term projects using text and multimedia to document pollution and communities in greater Los Angeles
Included: Maximum proposed budget of $6,000 with funding mostly from individual donors; work will bepublished and promoted by Newsdesk and Spot.Us, and shared with regional and national media partners, including the Investigative News Network
Deadline: Nov. 12, 2010
From the Website: "Would you like to bring the award-winning "Toxic Tour" reporting project to Los Angeles? and Spot.Us welcome proposals from journalists interested in developing new coverage of pollution and environmental health in Los Angeles communities."

Kaiser Media Internships Program
Eligibility: New journalists who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents with experience reporting on health issues of diverse and immigrant communities, typically graduating from college and/or journalism school
Included: 12-week summer program with stipend, travel, training, and some accommodations, and 10 weeks residency with a news organization
Deadline: Dec. 1, 2010 doe print, Jan. 6, 2011 for broadcast
From the Website: "The Media Internships Program provides an initial week-long briefing on health issues and health reporting in Washington, D.C. Interns are then based for ten weeks at their newspaper, online, or radio/TV station, typically under the direction of the Health or Metro Editor/News Director, where they report on health issues. The program ends with a 3-day meeting in Boston to hear critiques from senior journalists and to go on final site visits. The aim is to provide young journalists or journalism college graduates with an in-depth introduction to and practical experience on the specialist health beat, with a particular focus on diverse and immigrant communities."

REMINDER: Science Writing Internship, Nature Medicine
Eligibility: One year in a graduate program in journalism or have equivalent work experience in journalism
Position: Six-month internship in New York City with $1,600 monthly support
Deadline: Oct. 22, 2010
From the Website: "The intern will be closely involved in the editorial process and write news articles and briefs, as well as blog entries. This is not a paper-pushing internship! The person selected for the position will be reporting stories and working on editorial content full-time."

REMINDER: Association of Health Care Journalists - Centers for Disease Control Health Journalism Fellowships
Eligibility: Professional journalists working in the United States
Award: Week of study of public health topics at CDC campuses, membership, travel, lodging and meals
Deadline: Oct. 22, 2010
From the Website: "The AHCJ-CDC Health Journalism Fellows will: Attend sessions on epidemiology, global disease prevention efforts, pandemic flu preparedness, climate change, vaccine safety, obesity, autism and more; tour the CDC director's National Emergency Operations Center; meet new sources on policy and research; learn how to tap the agency's abundant resources to produce better stories."

REMINDER: Philip Meyer Journalism Award
Eligibility: Work published between Oct. 1, 2009 and Sept. 30, 2010 reported using social science research methods, entry fee $25-$115
Award: Cash prizes of $200-$500
Deadline: Nov. 1, 2010
From the Website: "The awards are in honor of Philip Meyer, professor emeritus and former Knight Chair of Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Meyer is the author of Precision Journalism, the seminal 1972 book (and subsequent editions) that focused growing numbers of journalists on the idea of using social science methods to do better journalism. He pioneered in using survey research as a reporter for Knight Ridder newspapers to explore the causes of race riots in the 1960s."

REMINDER: Interactive Census Workshop (Dec 12-17, 2010)
Eligibility: Journalists with interest in multimedia
Included: Lodging and meals at UC Berkeley, but not travel
Deadline: Nov. 6, 2010
From the Website: "The KDMC at UC Berkeley is offering a customized visual storytelling workshop to train journalists on new ways to process data from the 2010 Census. Fellows will illustrate the information using visualization and mapping tools to create a clearer, more meaningful picture of the complex statistics gathered in the national survey."

REMINDER: Nieman Fellowships in Global Health Reporting
Eligibility: Full-time journalists with at least five years experience
Included: One academic year of of study at Harvard's School of Public Health, access to faculty and courses across the university, three to four months of fieldwork in a developing country
Deadline: January 31, 2011
From the Website: "Nieman Fellows represent the changing face of journalism. They come to Harvard from locations as different as Bangor, Maine, and Younde, Cameroon. They work for national and local print publications, broadcast news outlets, news Web sites, and documentary film ventures. Some are making their mark as freelance journalists. Some have practiced their craft under repressive governments or on far-flung fields of conflict. Together, each year they form a Nieman class that is rich in diversity, experience and aspirations for the years ahead."