Posts Tagged ‘SEO’

#MagNet11: The Yahoo guide to effective web writing (plus my two cents)

June 13, 2011

On Wednesday at MagNet Chris Barr, senior editorial director at Yahoo, gave a presentation on web writing. I wasn’t able to make it but my friend Jaclyn Law, a freelance writer and editor, was there and shared her notes with me. Looks like it was a good talk but I do disagree with some of the points so I’ve added comments in square brackets – please add your own in the comments, and Chris, I apologize if I misunderstood any of your points. Thanks, Jaclyn!


– Web is not the same as paper. 79% scan rather than read
– Reading on screen is 25% slower than reading paper
– Computer screens have about 10% the resolution of paper [Note that this is changing fast – the iPhone 4 screen is very high resolution. And not all paper is high resolution – eg documents printed on home printers.]

The medium is the message – write accordingly. [I would take this further than Barr did. The way you write sends a message, too. His tips below will make for effective web service but certainly don’t suit every register of writing. Your job as a writer and editor is to keep in mind your audience, your brand and your product – and why readers are reading on your site – and tailor Barr’s tips for those considerations.]

– Shape your text for online reading – modify writing to get message across
– Get to the point – put important info up front where readers can find quickly
– Make text scannable – arrange content so easy to scan for keywords and phrases
– Write for the world

How people read online
– Eyetracking studies show readers skim pages, browing for relevant words, info
– Scanning generally follows an F pattern
– Yahoo Usability Lab calls pattern a triangle

What is “voice”?
– Expression of your company/site through images, graphics, typeface, colours, content selection, words
– Effective voice makes people feel at home through words and pictures
e.g., globe vs sun; bank – UI, word choice, images to identify with; see

Writing and editing for online reading means:
– Organizing your story and writing headlines to make story more readable (and skimmable)

– Front-load most important info in first paragraph/above the fold. you have 3-7 seconds to hook readers. Don’t bury the lead. [This is important. In print, you have other ways to draw in the reader and you know they’ll flip past pull quotes, images, etc. With web they’ll just click away if you don’t attract them.]

– Write brief, keyword-loaded headings [I would add intriguing. See Glamour’s blogs for good examples of web-friendly headings that aren’t boring. Headlines need to be both keyword-rich/SEO-friendly and clickable. Always ask yourself: would I click on this?]

– Limit stories to about 300 words per page… unless you have a sound reason for going longer. That length keeps copy concise, focuses story on one main topic, and helps SEO. [Obviously this advice depends very much on your content and audience.]

– Organize info into compact (2- to 3-sentence) paragraphs or bulleted lists, one idea per chunk. [When repurposing print stories, consider breaking up longer paragraphs for ease of online reading.]

– Give visitors a next step and actionable takeaways (what can they do about this topic?). Never leave readers at a dead end, with no links or to-dos. [The end of a story is a fantastic place to put related links, even if you have to do them manually as part of your main body.]

Your headline is one of the most important pieces of copy on the page, especially on the web.

– Present accurate, complete and concise info about the story
– Help users filter stories to reach what they want, because of how people read now – motivates people to click
– Reflect voice and standards of your publication

Headline can also guide writing rest of story. You should be able to summarize your story in 5 or 6 words; if you can’t, your piece may lack focus.

Another test: if you can read nothing but headlines and subheadlines, do you understand the story? If you can understand narrative, you’ve done a good job of editing it. [Again, depends on the type of story.]

Print headlines don’t always work online. [Print headlines almost never work online. It’s a different art. Again, always ask yourself if you would click on your headline *in isolation*. Pretend you’re a reader who doesn’t know what the story is about.]

Headlines appear in many places – story title, titles of page (top browser bar), bookmark, name of the tab, related links, subject of comments, search engine results page.

Writing headlines
Headlines (and other headings) are some of the most-read words on the page. So use the most relevant words in headings, and make sure those words are correct in spelling and in fact.

Think clarity first, cleverness second.

Try subject-verb-object structure to put actor and action right up front.

Use concrete keywords, like proper nouns. What would readers search for? Try typing headline into a search box. Has someone used it?

Favour strong, interesting verbs; simple present tense and active voice. [I think Barr is – not unlike many, many people – misusing the term “active voice” here. What he really means is clear and concise – simple verb forms rather than compound. Passive voice, in fact, is especially appropriate if it’s what people are searching for in a keyword phrase. For more on the passive voice fallacy see Language Log’s excellent explanation of the passive in English and multiple posts discussing passive voice.]

– Call out what’s important in the story. Why should people read?
– Make sure headline can stand alone.
– Stay under 65 characters [Not always necessary but Google SERPs show 65 characters in a title. Some fancier CMSs will let you choose multiple titles for multiple situations – eg one for Google, one for social, different ones for different areas of your site.]
– Remember headline may show up in newsfeeds, mobile browsers, etc.
– Make sure voice is appropriate for the story and the site.

SEO and linking
– SEO is a set of strategies for making your page easier to find.
– When you seed your page with words people are searching for, you’re more likely to make a connection.
– High search rank (ideally top 10) means more people likely to find.

Search engines crawl the whole page, but give particular weight to:
– page title
– headline
– other bold headings + subheadings
– links
– bulleted and numbered lists
– introduction and conclusion

Seed keywords in those spots, and search engines will like your page. [This is a simplification. I prefer to think of it as explaining to Google what your story is about. “Seeding keywords” is an apt description but keep in mind these keywords need to be relevant to and descriptive of the topic of the story.]

How to select keywords
– Make list of possible keywords. If you were looking, what words would you enter?
Test a few keywords:

Repeat keywords.

To add keywords, select 3 to 5 of longer keywords and seed exact phrases into headline, subheadline, first and last graph.

Try to repeat each keyword two to four times in 300-word story.

But you don’t want your text to sound artificial or so repetitive it’s ridiculous.

[Also note that Barr is using the word “keyword” but that you’re highly unlikely to rank a story on a single word. Better to think of “keyword phrases” and seed those.]

Links are like votes – when you link to a site, you endorse it in the eyes of search engines. [Note that this is a concept that Google invented and what made them top of the search engines.]

But they need to be good links. If you link to a less relevant site, the search engine may ding your page. You don’t get extra credit for linking to lots of pages.

Aim for 3 relevant links to relevant pages (to your site or others), on the same or a similar topic.  Use keywords in link text.

[Also: do your best to get links back to your page and site using relevant keywords. If you use a source with a website, ask them to link to your story. If you’re a freelance writer with a site, link to the story. Etc.]

More tips: word choice
If you have a broad, international audience, avoid unnecessary jargon and buzzwords, clichés, slang, references specific to one group, region or culture.

Make your pieces sociable

Add FB “like” or “share” button to every article.
Have a FB fan page, and “curate” it
Age of identity – people willingly put lots of personal info online. Mass personalization is going to continue.
Said not to worry about Twitter for now – says it’s too techy for most people, teens not interested in it, users tend to be older (compared to FB).

[As you might guess I disagree with the Twitter comment. Twitter has a much lower penetration than Facebook but it’s the power web users that are on it – and those are the ones who are more likely to have blogs, sites etc. and link to you, and to share stories with others. Also, now that half of Canadians are on Facebook, I don’t think users are “younger”. Besides, why do we care about the ages of social media users except where it’s relevant to our publications and works?]


The key to successful SEO

February 11, 2011

Google engineer Matt Cutts, in an article (related to the recent AOL acquisition of the Huffington Post) from the New York Times:

“One piece of advice I give to S.E.O. masters is, don’t chase after Google’s algorithm, chase after your best interpretation of what users want, because that’s what Google’s chasing after,” he said.

(Funny enough, I swear the NYT article had a more opaque title last night when I read it. They must have an overnight web editor web-ifying the titles.)

The power of your archives (and SEO)

October 12, 2010

On a recent Google search, a surprise came up in the results list: an article from the New York Times – from 1982.

It’s a good example of how powerful your archives can be when it comes to traffic-driving. One of the reasons sites like come up in search results so often is the power of sheer quantity. They do coach their writers to write for SEO, and often even come up with topics based on search research, but at the end of the day, having a lot of articles on a lot of things can get you far.

What archives does your publication have that you could be putting online (preferably with SEO-friendly titles and URLs)? Are you making sure to put as much as possible online now – and negotiating with freelancers to get web rights for all content? What else could you be doing to increase quantity without sacrificing quality?

(By the way, pineapples apparently don’t ripen after they’re picked, which is really the answer I was looking for.)

6 things every journalist should know about SEO

November 23, 2009

Today we’ve got a guest post from Rob Maurin of Toronto SEO Workshop. Enjoy!

Search engine optimization (SEO) sounds about as sexy as pocket protectors and Pentium chips. That’s unfortunate, because good SEO can be a game changer, for independent bloggers as well as newsroom editors, freelance writers and anyone who handles the words that end up on the screen.

SEO is the craft of playing Google’s game – writing your web copy in such a way that Google will like your story better, and place it higher on a search result page, than that of your competition.

Old-school editors and writers can get a little defensive about SEO. They feel it infringes on their own wordsmithery, or it strikes them as marketing or tech (i.e., “not my job”). But while they’re arguing, someone else’s web page is getting pageviews (and, yes, ad impressions), and that person is securing a career in the new media landscape.

The best news in all of this is that the fundamentals of SEO – and particularly the elements that lie within the control of an online editor or writer – can be easily taught, and using them doesn’t mean a compromise of your editing or writing. Here are 6 practical SEO lessons for writers and editors.

1. Keywords over cleverness
Nine times out of 10, writers and editors would rather be clever and creative than clear. Unfortunately, Google (though a brilliant piece of machinery) isn’t all that good at wordplay. Even common headlines that work well on magazine covers, like “10 ways to blast belly fat,” are lousy SEO headlines, because nobody goes to Google on the first day of their weight-loss resolution and punches the words “blast belly fat” into the search bar. Quite obviously, most people use keywords (i.e., search terms) like “weight loss tips,” “diet plans” or “lose weight.”

Your best ally in figuring out what terms to use in your writing is the Google Adwords Keyword Tool. For a screencast demo on how to use the Keyword tool, check out, or visit our YouTube channel at

The Keyword Tool was built to help advertisers create better ads, but it also helps editors and writers discover what words real people around the world use when searching for certain kinds of stories online.

A quick look on the keyword tool shows that your pool of potential monthly readers is 5 million if you use the words “lose weight.” You can also see that it you choose “weight loss” instead, your pool grows to 16 million, and “diet” puts you in the running for 37 million searches. All else being equal, I’d rather get a slice of the “diet” group than the “lose weight” group, so I can now write my headlines and web copy accordingly.

You can use these heavy-hitting keywords in conjunction with your clever titles too. Just change “10 ways to blast belly fat” to “Diet Tips: 10 ways to blast belly fat” or something like that.

2. Know where to use keywords
It’s self-evident, but the best places to use keywords are in all the traditional display copy spots: headlines, subheads, captions – any place where you would normally have your print typeface differ from your body copy typeface. In our weight-loss example, weave the word “diet” into as many as those spots as you can, without it becoming obnoxious to your human reader. You’ll be giving Google clear signals that your story is a good one to serve when those 37 million people a month search for something with the word “diet.”

3. Links matter
Google cares a lot about the number of links around the web that point back to your website. (In SEO terms, those are called “inbound links.”) All else being equal, Google will give preference to a site with lots of inbound links over one with fewer links, with the pretty convincing rationale that lots of links means lots of people are recommending the story or the site. This is as good a reason as any to get on social media like Facebook and Twitter: when you spread your story, you’re doing more than encouraging readers to click today. You’re planting the seeds for inbound links that will boost your Google rankings.

4. Good stories get links
The same things that made stories great a decade or two ago are the  things that make people want to link to you now. Be interesting. Be scandalous. Be creative or funny. Be an expert, a news-breaker, an insider, a pest… All the same traits that have defined great writers and editors will make for the best stories, and the best stories get more links and better Google ranking. In this way, Google is very fair.

5. Good SEO is good for people
In a print world, art directors and editors work hard on packages that hang together as a whole, so even a story with an unclear headline will make sense to the reader who can pick up on visual clues like strategically positioned images. But when that story goes up online, the cleverness usually becomes a liability. Stripped of context, it’s just not as clear as it could be.  On top of that, the rumours are true: readers online don’t browse around the same way they do in print. It’s a results-oriented medium, and directness is a virtue.

These points go hand in hand with SEO: by making your display copy clear and direct, you overcome problems with clarity, you give the readers direct information to pull them into the story, and you play nice with Google. Win-win-win.

6. Throw SEO away in favour of the human user
This much has always been true in media and it continues to be true now: you can’t sell out your readers. Don’t cheat them for an advertising buck, and don’t cheat them for an extra bit of SEO traffic. For success in the long run, you need to make sure your user experience is a good one. Squeeze as much good SEO in as you can, but if SEO is truly at irreconcilable odds with the user experience, ditch the SEO.

Rob Maurin spent 15 years in magazine editorial before making the switch to online content and strategy. He’s currently running the Toronto SEO Workshop, and will be offering an “SEO for Writers and Editors” training session in December and January. Contact him at

What you can learn from Demand Media

November 15, 2009

Thanks to D.B. Scott and Graham Scott for pointing me to a recent Wired article on Demand Media, a company using proprietary search analytics to create article and video ideas/titles – then corresponding content – to overpower the internet (and Google) with the answers to people’s very specific questions.

Demand is focusing on quantity over quality, and I’m not suggesting you go that way. And focusing on SEO at the expense of other traffic sources is in my opinion shortsighted. But there are a few thing that branded media sites can learn from Demand:

Give your readers what they want
There’s no room online for the pet projects that no one actually reads. Even if you think an article/series is the best thing ever written, that’s not worth much if it gets a fraction of the traffic of the rest of your site. It’s simple math: with limited resources, put what you have toward what has the most impact.

Don’t be afraid of going niche
People search for the oddest things – and it’s information they really want. So don’t think you have to regurgitate the same old mass-audience content year after year online. That’s why we have archives. Build a good base of evergreen content, then branch out into the more specific and esoteric. Demand, for instance, claims to have done well with the search phrase “Where can I donate a car in Dallas?” Think of (and research) what similar keyword phrases are a good fit with your brand and site.

Don’t put in more effort than you need to
I’m not saying you should sacrifice quality – far from it. I’m a strong believer in having your website meet the print product’s standards. But only to a point. You don’t need to spend hours tweaking every word on the screen. Make it good and then move on to the next project. And this is especially true of video – web video doesn’t have to even come close to TV production standards. Why waste the time and money?

Aim for trust
It may seem like Demand is spewing out content with little care for how good it is (and I’m sure that’s sometimes true), but there’s still a lot of trust inherent in their brand. Take YouTube, for example:

[Google] has struggled to make money from the 19 billion videos on YouTube, only about 10 percent of which carry ads. Advertisers don’t want to pay to appear next to videos that hijack copyrighted material or that contain swear words, but YouTube doesn’t have the personnel to comb through every user-generated clip. Last year, though, YouTube executives noticed that Demand was uploading hundreds of videos every day — pre-scrubbed by Demand’s own editors, explicitly designed to appeal to advertisers, and cheap enough to benefit from Google’s revenue-sharing business model. YouTube executives approached Demand, asked the company to join its revenue-sharing program, and encouraged it to produce as many videos as possible.

The bottom line? Demand knows what it does and does it well. Can you say the same for your site?

What SEO means for you and your audience

December 10, 2008

There’s a very good article in the current issue of the British Journalism Review called “How SEO is changing journalism” (thanks to @doshdosh on Twitter via @wingszetang). In it, Shane Richmond, communities editor at, explains what SEO really is (and isn’t – i.e., some sort of voodoo marketing deception) and what it means for journalism online. Some key points:

On writing for computers vs. writing for people:

We are writing to be read and these days that increasingly means ensuring that our stories are found by search engines. Readership patterns are changing. Online news may seem similar to its offline equivalent – it is after all just words, pictures and moving images – but it is fundamentally different.

On where your online audience comes from:

Now, audiences can form at article level, driven by news aggregators such as Techmeme, social bookmarking sites such as Delicious, and news sites, such as Digg, that are “edited” by their users. There are still audiences, and large ones, that are loyal to a single title, but every publisher is seeing more and more people arrive at their websites via search engines, and the potential to use this trend to increase audiences is huge. Ideally, many of these surfers will see that your site comes high in the search results time and again and will become regular readers.

On web-friendly heds:

Unfortunately though, and there’s no gentle way to put this, the witty, punning headline is finished when it comes to the internet. The greatest headlines of the web era will be the most functional ones and they’re unlikely to be remembered by anybody at all even a month after publication, let alone years later.

SEO: Why matters

November 24, 2008

One feature of Google that not everyone’s aware of is that its results change from country to country – searching something on will get you different results from

Why is this important? Well, to start with, Canadian sites will rank higher on as Google sees them as more relevant to the searcher. And most Canadian searchers will be on as in most cases, you are automatically rerouted, even if you type (The exception is in some searches in the navigation bar on your browser – I find I usually get routed to there.)

Since most of us are looking for ad revenue, and our advertisers are generally looking for a Canadian audience, this is a good thing – it means more Canadians going to Canadian sites, which is the most useful kind of traffic.

So when checking your search results to see how you rank, make sure you’re checking – but look at as well (or other English sites, like, for that matter) to see if you rank there, too. It’s interesting to compare the results.

And don’t be surprised if Google pushes our searches even more locally in the future.

SEO: How to get started

November 17, 2008

Looking for an intro guide to SEO? Google’s Webmaster Central Blog recently posted links to their SEO Starter Guide, a downloadable that’s aimed at getting people started on good SEO practices. And really, who better to provide this information than Google itself?

SEO: More on creating great titles

October 21, 2008

There’s an informative post up at Search Engine Journal on the essential criteria of effective page titles (as a reminder, these are the titles that show up on the top bar of your browser window, in your bookmarks and in the results listings in search engines). It’s worth a read, and here are a few key points:

Don’t make it too long. It will get truncated wherever it shows up, so keep it as short as possible: readers in the comments suggest 60-65 characters.

Make it unique. Google wants to know that every page is different, and the easiest way to show that is for every page on your site to have a different title. Also note that the unique part should go first as the end gets truncated not only in search results, but in tabbed browser windows.

Make it catchy. You want people to click through from search results.

Include keywords, and make sure they match the keywords in the body text.

Most CMSs these days will create titles based on your heds – if so, pay extra attention to your heds and in all cases, definitely consider rewriting the print hed when repurposing as they rarely work for web.

SEO basics
SEO: HTML titles and URLs
The 3 secrets of writing effective web heds

SEO: Make use of your URL

September 19, 2008

Kim Pittaway sent in a question (thanks, Kim!) in response to my post the other day about web heds vs. print heds:

Isn’t it also important to repeat keywords of the hed in the address for the article page? I still see magazines assigning page addresses like – shouldn’t they be doing something like I’ve been told this makes a difference in search – is that in fact the case?

Kim is completely correct. In fact, the URL is important enough for search that I’d been planning to devote a post to this topic. No time like the present.

The simple answer is, Google likes keywords to appear in your article’s URL – and as far as I know, the closer to the beginning, the better, which means your domain name is extremely important. For instance, in a bit of shameless promotion of my own site, while the keyword phrase “best health” is a pretty common one, Best Health magazine ( comes up first on – but only second on, after the website (This result could also have to do with the fact that has likely been around a lot longer than

You’ll notice when you do a Google search that the words you searched for are highlighted in your results. Next time you search for something, pay attention to whether the search terms appear in the URL (aka the web address) of the top-ranked pages. It’s likely that they are. For instance (click the image to view full-size):

You’ll notice that in the Seafood Paella recipe from (oops, did it again), the keywords “paella” and “recipe” both appear in the page title, in the body (here, the dek) and in the URL. This distribution of the keywords really helps the results. (The external link I just gave it won’t hurt either, but that’s a topic for another post.)

Bottom line? If you want to increase your site’s traffic from search, it’s worth figuring out how to get more keywords into your URLs. You should notice a big difference in your rankings.