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Letting Google Be our Guide?

Our executive editor, Skip Perez, has announced that he’s retiring. The last thing he gave me (about a month ago) was a clipping from Poynter.org from 2008 called Eight Things I Learned as a 40-Year-Old Intern.

The account is quite interesting, but it was the circled item which was the reason that Skip gave me the article. It was about the writer’s experience with search engine optimization – particularly at the LA Times.

Editors at the LAT carefully monitor this through Google Hot Trends, which measures sudden spikes in search terms. That can affect what words copy editors use in headlines. For example, when couples of the same sex began applying for marriage liceses in California, headlines and text described this as “same-sex marriage,” as per LAT style. But when it became obvious through Google Hot Trends that potential readers were searching “gay marriage” instead, editors decided to allow that term in headlines.

The writer then questions,

To what extent do journalists let Google guide what they do?

To that I answer: Not at all. Most newspapers are regional papers that are concentrating on growing a local audience around niche products and hyperlocal news. While it’s great if they gain a spike of national/international traffic through a search or link on a popular website, sustained local traffic is much more valuable to our advertisers than a spike of people who will never visit the website again.

The extent of which we need to market ourselves for our particular market – the market that few, if any other organizations compete with us for hits and attention spans – is far larger than the extent we should be going to make ourselves appear high in search results for issues of national or international importance. And that’s where social media really comes it. Twitter, Facebook and most other social media engines can be tweaked to target local audiences. This means that instead of changing the style we refer to gay marriage as, we should be making sure our website is the best source for information about any local gay marriage events or news.

Of course there are good SEO practices that we should put into use. The idea of using full names in headlines is one. Basically, any rules that were created simply because of headline restrictions should be thrown out, since we have unlimited space online. That’s not changing our style or bending to the Google gods. That’s just good common sense.

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