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.

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