Publishers renew focus on search optimization — and find new tricks

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Publishers are putting renewed effort into Google search, and with it, SEO tricks.

Variations on the “What time does the Super Bowl start” trick of answering a question people are searching for might be passé. But other tactics are taking their place. Tactics like  stuffing headlines with keywords and passing off old stories as new may have lost favor with Google. But that leaves publishers to try to figure out what Google wants today and optimize to those preferences. They’re also keen to land the coveted spots in its carousel that sits at the top of Google’s mobile search results, a feature it introduced with Accelerated Mobile Pages.

One popular tactic among publishers is social swaps. It’s widely accepted that Google considers a post to have more authority if other sites link to it. Health and lifestyle publisher Rodale, whose titles include Men’s Health and Runner’s World, has begun putting links in its stories to other like-minded sites as part of a larger SEO push. “If we’re slow in search, we’ll link to a PureWow and they’ll do the same for us,” said Beth Buehler, Rodale COO.

Google has also driven publishers like Rodale to migrate their sites to the https protocol since the search engine said it would prioritize https sites, which are supposed to protect consumers’ privacy. It’s already paid off, according to Buehler: In the January-April period, Rodale’s search traffic increased 32 percent over the year-earlier period. Many publishers also have stripped down their pages to be compliant with Accelerated Mobile Pages, Google’s effort to speed up the mobile web.

“People are still gaming the system,” said Kelly Maloni, head of product at New York magazine.

Behind all this is the reality that it’s getting harder for publishers to get people to come back to their sites. Platforms are less reliable sources of traffic. Facebook and Apple News are encouraging publishers to post their articles so they’re read directly in those closed platforms rather than on the publishers’ sites. Google is displaying more information inside Google itself.

“They’re trying to make their platforms stickier, so there’s less of a reason for people to go to your site,” said Eric Gillin, a digital gm at Condé Nast. “It’s just harder out there.”

Time spent is another area publishers are paying attention to. In the past, New York magazine might have chopped a big article into multiple pieces so it would have more stories to drive traffic to. No more. The current thinking is that Google will reward stories that get more time spent with them. “Now we’re saying, a longer piece can do better,” Maloni said. This is a common tactic in the SEO-driven food category, where it’s taken the form of longer recipe posts, Gillin said. “If before they had 12 recipes, you’ll see them do 25,” he said.

Publishers of news and evergreen content both see big opportunities to gain from search. Google’s algorithm may be as mysterious as ever, but publishers feel like they more control than they do with Facebook because they can see how their strategy is working in real-time.

The Guardian US gets 31 percent of its traffic from search, more than twice the percent it gets from social, and accordingly, it spends more time on search. Its two-person SEO team puts almost everything it publishes through an SEO check (on average 40 stories a day), and gets heavily involved in big or ongoing stories, tweaking, or “rolling,” the headline.

“That can keep us in strong positioning in search, particularly in that organic carousel,” said Ross Maghielse, audience engagement editor at The Guardian US.

For evergreen content, publishers troll for higher search results by removing dates from their urls (or, controversially, on their stories, as if to suggest the content is new). New York magazine created dateless urls in its CMS that it uses for certain articles like its popular annual Best of New York feature, but it does maintain dates on the articles themselves.

Still, if publishers think they have more visibility into what’s working in search, that doesn’t necessarily mean search is easier to game. The publishing landscape isn’t what it used to be when The Huffington Post honed the Super Bowl trick. Other publishers have caught up. And publishers just aren’t chasing scale at all costs as much anymore, so ploys that just get fly-by traffic no longer align with publishers’ business goals.

“The Huffington Post can’t just dominate search the way they used to, which makes it a more competitive landscape,” Maghielse said.

And Google is getting stricter anyway. “They’ve shown they’re not going to put up with the gaming, so there’s no sense in trying to keep up with it,” Buehler said. “So if you’re smart, it’s not a great use of energy to try to game it.”

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