Thursday, October 30, 2008

What's SEO?

In the last few days, as the newspaper industry continues to implode, I've been invited by a former newspaper colleague to join a facebook group called "Newspaper Escape Plan." The description starts out like this: "Escape from newspapers while you can! At this rate, everyone will be laid off." I think you get the picture.

The backdrop to the invitation has been e-mails, phone conversations and text messages from friends -- some who still work in the industry and others who have been laid off -- who want to know what they need to learn to jump from the print game to the web world.

Note: I'm not an expert. What I've learned, I've learned -- as I did in print -- by doing. Yes, I was in charge of managing online projects and database reports for my last newspaper. But that doesn't make me an online expert by any stretch of the imagination.

At my job as editor at an Internet startup company, they asked me to come up with content for a reference web site, kind of a no-brainer for me. In return, I got a job that allows me to learn as I go, and I've done it by using my journalistic skill for adapting to change. As much as I miss traditional newspapers, this job allows me to do what I've been doing all week -- explaining some aspects of the web to former colleagues who are eager to learn, particularly now.

In the last few weeks, I've had a number of conversations about search engine optimization. They followed after I noted on several social networking sites in my "status" that I'm working on a project to improve seo on our web site, Most of the conversations began like this: "What's seo?"

If you're going to make the jump to online, it's important to know what it is. So here's the layman (or woman's) version from a former print person.

Search engine optimization involves examining urls and headlines in web content to make certain that the Google bots (robots or spiders) that come to the web site find enough of the right words in all those things to push your content up to the top of the search pages.

So when someone searches on google for a term, let's say...divorce laws... or parental alienation syndrome...the stories on your site that include those words will pop up at the top of the first page of the search engine results.

You can also improve search engine optimization by doing what's called metatagging. It sounds really exciting, but for a journalist, it can feel like watching paint peel. Essentially, it means you pick key words from the story and tag the story with them. The purpose is the same -- so that the bots, which crawl around web sites, can examine your content, decide it's worthy of improved seo and then spit them out closer to the top of the search that a user does. You can do the same thing with key words in the stories.

Why would you do all that? Because if you improve seo, you can improve traffic. Simply put, if your content is higher up on the searches, users are more likely to click on it -- more often.

It's a lengthy process, to be sure. And it's not an exact science. Google has patented the way it calculates search engine optimization. So there's a whole industry of seo specialists who say they know the secret code to seo, but it's really trial and error.

It isn't exactly the kick you get when you're breaking a good news story. But once you publish the seo changes and see your content move up the ranks, it does feel similar to something else we used to do in print -- deliver the news to the readers who want it.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Social Networking Highs

Some months ago, we added a social networking side to the web site, divorce360. You could post comments and upload a graphic image. But given the personal nature of the topic, the profiles were anonymous, unlike many of the other social networking sites on the web.

What we discovered was fascinating. People didn't just want to talk about their relationship struggles with one another. They engaged in lengthy intimate conversations, sharing the details of their lives in a place they felt safe. They commented on each other's blogs, offered advice and answered questions. And their comments were often two or three pages long.

Recently, we added a wall to each of the user's pages. If you use facebook, you know this is one of the easiest way to talk to a friend -- as long as you don't mind sharing your commentary with the world.

On our site, the wall has become an increasingly popular tool -- and an addition to the commentary. What users are doing is posting their comments first for everyone and then talking directly to the other person on their wall. Literally, they're posting twice about the same thing, even though both posts are public.

The theory in the room is that the anonymity on the site's community is allowing people to engage more deeply in conversation than they normally would if their profiles were public. In the meantime, the number of users and the user time is climbing. So there must be something to it.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Interesting Post for Journalists

If you're a newspaper journalist and haven't seen this article "Will Algorithms Make Human Editors Obsolete? Not If Journalists Collaborate, you need to read it. Given the state of the industry, it's got some great advice for the new media landscape.