Ask a News SEO: Barry Adams and the importance of technical SEO
This week: WTF is SEO chats with Barry Adams, a news SEO consultant and technical SEO guru, about the importance of making a one-per-cent improvement every day
Hello, and welcome back. Jessie and Shelby here with a rare Tuesday newsletter. We hope all our American readers had the opportunity to rest and recharge over the long weekend after a long and difficult week.
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This week: Ask a News SEO with Barry Adams. Barry founded the SEO consultancy Polemic Digital in 2014 and has since worked with a range of major media publishers including The Guardian, MailOnline and Future Publishing. He publishes a semi-regular newsletter on SEO for Google News. He’s also the co-founder of NESS, the first-ever news SEO conference (NESS was fantastic and we learned a ton). Barry explains the core technical concepts news SEOs should know, internal links and why making a one-per-cent improvement each day can set you apart in a competitive landscape.
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Why is technical SEO important?
Barry: It's the foundation upon which all of your SEO efforts are built.
If you don't have a good technical SEO foundation, your content isn't going to do much. You're building a castle on quicksand. No matter how beautiful it is, it’s going to sink. Whereas if you do technical SEO properly, you can build skyscrapers. You can do whatever you want.
It’s something you don’t want to overlook. A lot of SEO is the day-to-day stuff – content execution, internal link-building, monitoring search results, adjusting to what Google is doing – but technical SEO is almost entirely separate from that. You have to say, “What is the foundation upon which we are building the success of this website?”
A lot of it aligns with just building a good website. But sometimes, you have to make extra concessions for Google: implementing structured data and having the correct site structure, ticking the Core Web Vital boxes – things that are relevant to how Google crawls and indexes your website.
If you don't do those things, you run the risk of having gaps and issues that have a significant impact on how Google crawls and indexes your website. Crawling and indexing is where Google starts, so you want to make that as uncomplicated as possible.
That way, whenever you publish content, Google can very easily crawl and index it. That's technical SEO at its core.
What are the top three technical concepts news SEOs should be familiar with?
It's important for news SEOs to have an understanding of the three core aspects of search engines: crawling, indexing and ranking. They don’t need to be experts – and it’s complicated material that’s sometimes best left to the hardcore SEOs – but having a baseline of understanding is important.
News SEOs should know how Google crawls your website – usually starting from the homepage – to find new content as fast as possible. All a crawler really does is find links. Translating that to news SEO: Having a story featured on the homepage prominently is a fantastic way to have it crawled and indexed.
Indexing is about making sure you have all the right elements in place so Google recognizes what the story is about. Knowing how Google looks at headlines and how it uses natural language processing algorithms to extract meaning from the content and headline. Knowing a little bit about how that works makes you a better SEO.
Lastly, structured data is quite useful to know. Google relies quite heavily on structured data because when it indexes news content, it has to do so very quickly because news needs to be served very quickly in search results.
Structured data helps Google understand a webpage’s purpose and meaning quickly. It takes away the guessing game. Google knows instantly if a webpage is a news article or a video page and can show those results accordingly in their ecosystem.
Let’s talk more about structured data. Why is it valuable for technical SEO? Are there areas for experimentation?
I have mixed feelings about structured data. Similar to AMP, it’s primarily for Google’s benefit. Structured data – a snippet of code you add to a webpage that tells Google almost everything it needs to know about that news article – has no benefit for the website itself. It is primarily for Google to very quickly understand the purpose and intent of the page.
It allows Google to shortcut some of its indexing processes. It can extract that meaning from the code – the headline, image, publish date, paywall status – everything it needs to show that story in its news ecosystem correctly. Google can use structured data to rank an article in its Top Stories or (for video data) show the video with the ‘play’ icon in Top Stories.
Publishers should experiment with structured data: If you have a review, embed the data because it enables the star rating as part of Google search results when your article shows up. The enrichment is great because it very quickly gets users an idea of your review and results in a higher click-through rate.
All those little things can be very valuable for a publisher to implement to squeeze out that extra one or two per cent better performance. In a competitive landscape, that one or two per cent improvement can make all the difference.
I'm a big fan of the concept of the aggregation of marginal gains. James Clear (who wrote Atomic Habits) writes about the concept, which says if you do something one per cent better each day, you’re on an exponential growth curve in the long run. It’s going to set you apart from your competitors.
You don't have to find silver bullets to propel your content up in the rankings instantly (that doesn’t really exist anymore). That's what all news SEO is about: Doing things a little bit better every single time.
What would be the most important technical consideration?
I’m going to pull the ‘It depends’ card.
Sometimes you have to work with a content management system that you don’t have a lot of control over the technical ins and outs. In that case, you can bang your head against the wall as much as you want, but you're not going to be able to make fundamental technical changes because it’s a third party tool. You’re stuck with what you have and its capabilities.
If you're running on a completely custom stack and you have in-house developers, that’s a really nice scenario because you can change almost anything on that website.
In that case, the first things to look at are crawling and indexing. Can Google crawl the content quickly and index it in such a way that it can rank very fairly easily in the Google search results?
There's no one size fits all answer there. It is very much context dependent.
Many publishers know that internal links are useful. But more broadly, how do you strategize around linking?
When we talk about internal linking, we’re talking about every link on a website that points to deeper pages within the same website – and that includes navigation links. The most important internal links on any website are the navigation links.
Google takes very strong clues from your top navigation to determine what your website is about and what topics you cover. Don’t just cram the standard set of links to the navigation.
How deep should the navigation links go: Just the main links or should you have dropdown menus? Or just links to a section page? Then there’s contextual sub-navigation to different sections. My preferred option is contextual sub-navigation to different sections because it shows your site’s specialties within a topic area.
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That's the first step: ensure your site structure aligns with what content you, as a publisher, are focused on in terms of content output and uniqueness of your journalism.
Second: internal links. Here we’re talking about article links – this is the extra level that will, if done correctly, set you apart from your competitors. Those links can build your expertise and authority in Google’s ecosystem on the topics you cover. Linking internally to related stories is great, but what we’re really talking about is topic, category or section pages that don’t fit into your top navigation.
Linking to these pages allows you to build extra authority. Google tries to connect all the dots and recognize the entities that those topics represent and how they're connected to each other and how your website is connected to those topics.
You’re building deeper connections by building those topic pages and those links to topic pages. You're creating two-way connections. It creates a more complete picture for Google about your output as a news organization and your reporting specialties.
In the long term, that translates to better rankings because Google feels it can trust you and your content on those topics more than publishers without that internal linking strategy. This aligns with “classic SEO” where everything is a long-term effort. News SEOs are often focused on short-term, but we also need long-term vision. In addition to optimizing articles, news SEOs need to build in the processes and tactics for long-term success. That’s what internal linking is all about.
What trends or predictions do you see for the rest of the year and the future for news SEO?
The dynamic between Google as a search engine and what its core mission is and the news industry, is in reporting accurate up-to-date information about current events. I’m quite pleased at the space that Google gives to news, but it’s not part of Google's core purpose.
There's a very strong disconnect between how Google treats news now and Google's core mission. I think Google feels it needs to do so because users need to know the latest development and they use Google for that purpose.
SEO for Google News: Five Predictions for News SEO in 2022
But the reason they originally launched the Google News vertical was so they didn't have to show news in their search results. It’s a very interesting dilemma that Google has: they don't need news for search results, but users demand it from them. So they dare not turn it off or send people to the Google News vertical. I think Google, deep down, wants people to use the Google News vertical for news and leave search to do its own thing.
But we have gotten so used to seeing those Top Stories and News boxes in regular search results and we use search results for that purpose to find new articles on the latest developments on stories. Google can't walk that back.
THE JOBS LIST
These are roles across the globe we see that are audience positions in journalism. Want to include a position for promotion? Email us.
Gannett | USA TODAY NETWORK is hiring a ASO and Lead Optimization Specialist. (Remote)
Knowable Magazine, a nonprofit online science publication, is hiring a Web Producer. (Keyword research and SEO support is a key part of this ‘many hats’ position).
The Independent is hiring an Audience Development Lead.
Google is hiring an experienced journalist to work as a Product Experience Strategist for News.
ICYMI: Google released their May 2022 core update last Wednesday. No need to freak out – yet.
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