Editorial and SEO: What's the right mix?
Crafting incentives for writers and measuring the effectiveness of their work with regard to the business may be the last part of our craft not ruled by strict analytical guidelines and metrics. For better or worse, that’s changing.
I won’t say how long I’ve been knocking around in journalism; I will say I’ve been in online publishing since I helped launch s-t.com in 1994, making the modest Standard-Times of New Bedford the first daily newspaper in Massachusetts with a website. Two years later, I was on the launch team for the Providence Journal’s debut website, projo.com. In the ensuing years, I gained some perspective from three other employers (two former, one current) on the state of editorial metrics.
The most ambitious – though hardly the most effective – recent example I have about building incentives for writers based on numerical performance comes from Ziff Davis. I did two stints at Ziff Davis – from 1999 to 2005 and from 2007-2008. When I returned in 2007, the place had completely morphed into a web-centric operation and the only numbers anyone wanted to talk about were page views. The company had developed programs that gave freelance and contract writers bonus money for exceeding certain thresholds, usually 100,000 page views per month (as measured by Omniture).
Staffers were not eligible for the extra dough, of course, but they were eligible to keep their jobs by hitting strict page view quotas issued by the business side of the house. Many argued that the targets were arbitrary and didn't take into account the nature of the highly specialized audiences targeted by the different Ziff properties. But the directives were issued nonetheless.
Training, not just a mandate
But here's the problem: Telling several dozen editors to increase page views is one thing. Teaching them how to do it and giving them the tools to succeed is another. Can you guess which two things Ziff did not do? Without a decent SEO training and production plan, editors were left to try to meet traffic goals the only ways they knew how. They leaned on multi-page presentations and continually spammed their e-mail lists with links.
These methods worked, to a point, but they diminished the Ziff content and brand into what you see today – a purveyor of unreadable slideshows that pollute every corner of their Web properties. And God help you if you get on one of their mailing lists.
At the beginning of its great Web push, Ziff was generating about 15 to 18 percent of its traffic from organic search. That figure hovers around 20 percent today – an indication that they haven’t really done very much to improve SEO.
There are two lessons here. First, an edit staff does not intuitively understand how to increase Web traffic. Editors need training. And the effort needs to be built around sensible SEO and other traffic-driving efforts that combine sensitivities to both business goals and editorial concerns. Second, raw page views are a terrible metric to use alone to measure the success of your editorial programs. Ziff never gave any credit -- or much thought, apparently -- to measuring unique visitors, conversions, product sales, additions to the email database, or anything else.
The Newsmax strategy
On the opposite side of the Web metrics coin is Newsmax Media, a spectacularly successful media company that is, in reality, a marketing company with media as its product. Nobody ever mentions page views at Newsmax. Most employees, especially those in editorial, don't even know what the traffic figures are. The place has traditionally and perennially done 28-30 million page views per month on 5-6 million uniques, all with less than 5% organic search traffic (as measured by Google Analytics). The bulk of site traffic comes from the constant barrage of very targeted content (right-wing, conservative news) sent on a relentless schedule to 3 million VERY eager and engaged email subscribers.
I worked at Newsmax from 2008 to 2011 as its managing editor. I was mostly alone in my efforts to improve SEO and drive traffic to the sites, which I did by training editors (sometimes even reading passages to them from “The Art of SEO”), working with IT's CMS administrators, and introducing some traffic candy like multi-page stories and slideshows. It boosted overall figures a bit and upped organic search referrals to about 7%.
Senior management thought I was adorable, if slightly annoying, and let me have my way since I wasn't hurting anything. But there was never any push for editorial to contribute anything more than timely news and analysis written to engage the core readership. Once a month, a clerk distributed a list of the top 10 trafficking stories on the main site, the health site, the money site and the blogs. I'm pretty sure I'm the only one who ever opened the attachment and looked at the numbers. It was never spoken about.
So if not the editors, whose job was it to promote the site? Marketing and sales. Newsmax senior management's top concerns are conversions and email open rates. Every content asset they publish is studied relentlessly to determine two things: Did it lead someone to open one of our emails? And did it convince someone to buy a subscription to a newsletter? The e-mail marketing team was given strict target figures to meet for both of these metrics.
While I can't argue with Newsmax’s success, I believe most publishers would do well to have a better balance between page views and conversions.
TechTarget: The right balance?
Earlier this year, I joined TechTarget as executive editor. My experience during my first five months months indicates that the tech publisher has perhaps found the proper balance.
Editorial isn't incentivized to drive traffic, per se. Marketing, sales and a special SEO department are all on the hook for those numbers. But there is an understanding that editorial content – and the editors and writers themselves – play a big role in fueling the engine that makes the conversion and sales metrics hum.
Every editorial employee undergoes training developed by the SEO team. There is a strong, constant, organizationally driven push for editors and writers to improve the SEO value of everything they craft. Story templates include a number of elements meant to maximize SEO. Titles and descriptions are included along with maximum character lengths. Writers must provide targeted keywords/phrases along with the most current data on global searches and competition. Copy editors and the SEO team review this information to ensure the content is optimized for search.
Each month the TechTarget SEO team gives all of editorial a comprehensive performance report that shows trends in a variety of measurement areas including total and unique site traffic, and organic search engine versus paid content views. Editors can see how their media unit fared in isolation as well as compared to other groups and to the company as a whole. For context, the somewhat arcane report is accompanied by a bullet-list analysis breaking out the key areas of growth or decline, which makes it easier for editors to see how they are doing and where the content soft spots are.
Awards for best SEO efforts
As an added incentive, the company, through the SEO team, doles out quarterly awards to editors for the best SEO efforts as measured by page view performance, effective keyword strategy and cross-linking efforts within a particular article. The award is good for a $50 American Express gift card. Not too shabby.
The copious cross-links within each article being celebrated in these awards really are part of TechTarget’s special sauce for SEO and Web traffic. The most trafficked part of the franchise is the highly optimized WhatIs site, which is full of basic definitions of business and technology terms. The WhatIs definitions beat out even the top news and analysis content by a factor of 20-1. So, rare is the TechTarget news story that doesn't have several links to terms in WhatIs, as part of an effort to keep that huge engine running.
TechTarget now lets individual editorial groups take ownership of the valuable WhatIs definitions that pertain to their domain (e.g., security, storage, healthIT). The result should be a nice spreading of the traffic wealth, and even more SEO and definition get re-linked within more relevant content sets.
There is one downside: The relative ease of creating this content, along with the huge payoff in traffic, has many highly paid senior editors spending an inordinate amount of time on this low-hanging fruit. The search for the best way to leverage this content continues. A work in progress.
The takeaway here is that, while few media companies have alighted on the perfect balance of driving traffic and maintaining editorial quality, some are doing it better than others. Places such as TechTarget and Newsmax prove you don’t need to sacrifice editorial quality in order to move the needle online. The key is to focus on areas that you believe mean success for your organization and give the stakeholders the data, tools and training to execute on those directives.
For one publisher, the objective might be conversions, click-throughs or open rates managed by online marketers; for another, it could be page views and organic search traffic being driven by editorial. The approach doesn’t matter as long as it is being properly measured, reported and presented to the stakeholders in a way that makes sense and can be used to take some action.
If I were asked to give a presentation showcasing best practices with regard to measurement and incentives for online content performance, it would probably go something like this: Blend the metric-focused marketing efforts of Newsmax with the editorial-driven SEO sensibilities of TechTarget … and pin Ziff up on the bulletin board as a warning of what can go wrong when you don’t.