Even a novice blogger needs to understand how people use search engines to find the content they are looking for. You want to help people find your posts. This practice is known as search-engine optimization, abbreviated SEO.
I am not expert enough in SEO to cover the matter in depth (for more on the topic, I recommend Danny Sullivan‘s excellent Search Engine Land blog). I will cover some basics for a workshop today for the music staff of the CBC. When you are working on a blog post, consider these factors to help people find your post:
- Google trends
- Photo captions
Don’t litter your post or headline with irrelevant terms that you think might help your Googlejuice (the term for your attractiveness to Google’s search engine). With its downgrading of content farms and its use of “+1” endorsements to enhance search results, Google is trying to improve the search process, so apply all of these techniques only by choosing words and links that are relevant to your post. Don’t drop gratuitous references to Lady Gaga into your post (unless you are doing it for humor, as Gene Weingarten did).
The headline is the most important part of your post to help search engines find your content. It should include the words people might be most likely to use in trying find content on the topic(s) you are writing about. If you were searching for something like this post, what are the first few words you would type into a search engine? Those words should be in your headline, ideally the first few words of the headline. Often this will be a performer’s name, but it might be the name of a venue, genre or instrument.
Writing a headline for search engines is significantly different from writing a headline for a newspaper. In a newspaper, the reader sees the headline in context: A reader of the Toronto Star or Globe and Mail entertainment section sees “lang” or “Cohen” in a headline and will assume you mean k.d. lang or Leonard Cohen. But people searching for stories about those musicians are likely to type their full names in the search window, so your headline should include the full names. A newspaper headline can be intriguing because you read it in context, seeing it on a news, entertainment or sports page. But a headline that tries to intrigue the reader online actually tends to withhold keywords that search engines want to see in the headline.
On my Hated Yankees blog, before I understood about the importance of headlines to SEO, I wrote a blog post about Don Mattingly, comparing his career achievements to Kirby Puckett’s (they’re nearly identical), and arguing that since Puckett was an automatic Hall of Famer, Mattingly should be, too. My headline would have worked fine in a newspaper, where it would have run on a sports page, probably above photos of Mattingly and Puckett. But to a search engine, You be the judge: Who’s a Hall of Famer? isn’t going to show up high when people are searching for Don Mattingly. I’ve written other blog posts on Yankees who aren’t any more famous than Mattingly (Ron Guidry, Graig Nettles and Thurman Munson) that attracted significantly more readers because I put their names in the headlines, making it easier for people to find them.
It’s also a good idea to include words such as poll or video that people might search for (photo is not as helpful, because so many posts include photos and Google has a separate image search, so people are less likely to include photo in a search term). You can just do this in parentheses after the headline: (VIDEO). By the way, I didn’t do that here, because the videos aren’t really about SEO, so they wouldn’t be relevant to a search. If I were blogging about Gordon Lightfoot or David Allen Coe, the videos would be relevant and I should mention them in the headline.
While the headline is the most important part of your content for a search engine, the words in the text also help search engines find your blog post. So make sure that you place keywords people might search for high in your post. It’s best to place the keywords in the first sentence, but that concern should not override your need to write a strong lead. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” was a great song, written before SEO mattered, which is good because it had lousy SEO. The headline probably needed the words “shipwreck” and “Lake Superior.” But the offense was compounded in the lyrics because it never used the term “Lake Superior.” The lake is alternately called “Gitche Gumee,” “Superior” and “the lake,” but to be most attractive to search engines, you want to use the exact phrase people might search for. Good writing should trump clumsy SEO writing, but try to smoothly use the most likely relevant search terms in your blog posts.
4. Google trends
Use Google trends to check for popular keywords. You can enter a few different possible keyword combinations in the search window to see which is the most popular combination. If you enter the first word or two of a search (perhaps an artist’s name) into Google’s home-page search window, the auto-completes that Google provides will show you some popular searches. If one of those searches is relevant, consider using that exact term in your headline and/or in the post.
Links are how a search engine’s spiders find your content. Relevant links boost your SEO. They not only help Google find you, but other blogs and sites get “pingbacks” (notifications that you have linked to them), so they might link to you, or blog or tweet about you, which further boosts your SEO. It also helps your SEO if the hyperlinked word (called the anchor text) are relevant. For instance, in point #2 above, I underlined and italicized blog post because that’s where I might have put the link about the Don Mattingly post. You’ll notice that instead, I linked the actual headline. Or I could have linked Mattingly’s name. Those are more relevant, so those links are more helpful to my SEO. Another bad practice is to hyperlink words like click here, rather than linking in relevant anchor text.
6. Photo captions
Photos often have their own URLs, so sometimes they will be the side door into a blog post. Someone searching for an image will find the image and end up reading your post. Or a photo or video might be a blog post by itself. Because the photo and video are not searchable themselves, you need to provide keywords that will help people find them. In the caption of the photo or the introduction to the video, be sure to use the keywords and phrases that people interested in this photo or video might use in a search. Write captions for three different audiences: the search engine itself, the person looking at a page of search results and the person who is actually looking at the photo. Be sure to identify people and places in the photo or video and to answer any questions the photo might raise. Don’t feel you need to state the obvious, unless that might help the search engines find the photo or help someone reading the caption in a page of search results.
Metadata is essentially data about data. In this case, it’s information about your blog or photo that might not be immediately visible to readers but is visible to search engines. If your content management system allows you to enter tags and SEO keywords, be sure to provide relevant tags and keywords.
Much of my understanding of SEO comes from my former TBD colleague Mitch Schuler, who led a workshop for our staff and later was a guest speaker for my entrepreneurial journalism class at Georgetown University. He hasn’t blogged about SEO, or I would link to him and quote him, but I certainly should attribute much of this blog post indirectly to Mitch (except for any errors, which are mine).
My favorite anecdote about Mitch’s SEO expertise comes from the Discovery Channel hostage situation, which was the first big breaking news story, just three weeks after we launched on Aug. 9, 2010. The suspect was named James Jay Lee, and we initially identified him in our story and headline using all three names, as criminal suspects have been identified by journalists since way before Lee Harvey Oswald, just to avoid any misidentification. Mitch quickly noted that people were searching more for “James J. Lee” than for “James Jay Lee,” so we quickly rewrote our headline to cut the middle name down to just the initial. And we rocked in search results and search traffic that day.
I will use short clips from these two videos to illustrate some points about SEO. This David Allen Coe song makes fun of country music clichés by gratuitously singing about mother, prison, truck, trains and getting drunk. It makes for a fun song, but it’s not good SEO to gratuitously drop irrelevant words into a blog post: