Ready for it? Olympics 2021 best practices for news SEO

In issue no. 22, Shelby covers everything you need to know to prepare for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (happening in 2021). Here's how to plan and execute SEO strategy

Happy Monday, friends. Shelby’s here, officially counting down until the Olympic torch is lit to signal the beginning of Tokyo 2020 (or 2021, whichever you Google) – and, since Ontario is now in stage three of its reopening plan, counting down the days until I get my first haircut in two years!

Today, we look at how to prepare for planned news events. In this case: the Olympics. The pinnacle of live news. The big one. Whether you’re a small, medium or large newsroom, the Olympics will bring an abundance of angles for news stories, and with it a ton of potential top-of-funnel traffic (remember: traffic = readers. Readers = subscribers or supporters. Subscribers = money!). 

While we’re focusing on the Olympics today, much of what we’ll discuss can be used for any planned events of major interest.

In this issue: 

  1. How do audience editors prepare for the Olympics of SEO?

  2. What content will help my team win in search?

  3. How do I communicate efforts and success?

THE 101

The Olympics are coming: Creating a content inventory

My hope is by the time you’re reading this, you have an Olympics plan started – or are implementing it. (If you’re not, here’s your wake up call to get going! The opening ceremony is four days away!) Consider this a complement to what great work you’ve already done.

The Olympics are a seasonal event. They happen every two years (if a pandemic doesn’t postpone it), and will follow a lot of the same patterns. 

The Olympics are also a lot! Your first priority is to establish your capacity. Can your publication realistically expect to create 5-10 stories a day? Or is it better to prioritize one major story a day with an additional rolling file? Set that level now and adjust your efforts to where your capacity will be spent.

Build an inventory of Olympic-focused search terms

After you know your capacity, build out an inventory of Olympic-focused search terms that you feel your publication should target and theirsearch intent. These are the general terms that should be in your headlines and URLs as part of a consistent search strategy. You can use Google Trends to compare terms that compete to see which works best in your specific region.

  • Protip: Keywords that perform very well for Canada may not work in Toronto, Ontario. What performs well in New York City will not perform the same in Queens. Use the regional filter in Google Trends to see how readers in your province, state, city or borough search for stories around the Olympics. Focus on your region.

  • Use Google Trends to compare the most common search terms for your publication’s coverage area. For example, if I was working for a Canada-wide publication, I’d use Trends to see that Canadians search “olympics 2021” most often. “Olympics 2021” should be the main-focus keyword for an Olympics landing page and used in the majority of coverage.

A complicating factor for these Games (thanks, COVID): This year, the Olympics are branded for the year 2020 – i.e., when they were supposed to take place – but the event itself is happening in 2021. The result is that search volume is being split between the two terms.

The New York Times’ Olympics section handles this split in search volume beautifully. Their Olympics page uses an <h1> tag1 that says, “Tokyo Summer Olympics,” but has a section of curated stories that says, “Tokyo 2020 (In 2021).” Brilliant.

After you’ve established the main-focus keyword, continue with keyword research. Write down the questions that are already being asked on search – usually around the five W’s of the event – and any additional localized questions. 

When building your list of keywords, nothing is out of the question:

  • The main-focus keywords;

  • Athletes: What names are relevant to your coverage area? They will be searched – even if it is at a low volume – and especially if they medal;

  • Your country isn’t necessary, but do keyword research around your country and “olympics” to see what returns on SERPs. You may find a story idea or angel to address later (ie., did your country make baffling uniform decisions?); 

  • Your country’s governing organizations (USA Gymnastics, Taekwondo Canada, British Swimming) are good to include when writing about policies or social issues. 

Build this keyword list in a Google Spreadsheet, or somewhere where it is easily accessible for everyone on your team. Outline the main-focus/overall keywords, and how those phrases are relevant to each component of your coverage.

✔️ Action item: Build your list! What key terms do you need to consider when building your coverage? Remember to get as hyperlocal as possible.


On your marks: The Olympics on search (and how we win it)

Now that you have the coveted list of search terms that will help drive and inform your coverage, we must build our content pillar. 

A content pillar is a topic of news coverage. It’s broader than a single news story (ie., Andre De Grasse medal in the 100 metre race), but more specific than a section page (sports). The pillar page is usually considered a “hub” for a topic before breaking down into further subtopics. 

Content pillars are huge for SEO – it is a main page that will be linked to from all of your stories on a particular subject, which builds authority among Google. It is also easier for other websites or organizations to link to a hub, accumulating backlinks, versus various stories of differing angles. And finally, it is a place that answers your readers’ answers in many different ways.

Build out content pillar pages 

For subtopics or clusters on the content pillar page, you can break it down by type of content:

  • Stats: Recaps, medal counts, information about contests, events or matches that are relevant to your audience (for example, don’t write about Hungary winning in water polo if you’re a small newspaper based out of Las Vegas. This seems silly);

  • People: Human-interest pieces about athletes or behind-the-scenes folks;

  • Politics: Hard-hitting analysis or investigative journalism on the scandals among governing bodies;

  • The ‘magic’ moments: The inevitable song that will become the theme of Canada’s coverage. Jon Montgomery’s beer walk. Rio’s green pools. These colourful stories all count and can have their own subtopic if it makes sense.

Remember to make the topics relevant to what your readers want to know. 

Back to the New York Times example: Their page is catered to what the Times is focusing on, which is a wide net. Some sections include their guides to the Games, the coronavirus effect and athletes to watch.

Keyword research should help inform your clusters (or topics) underneath your content pillar. 

  • If your outlet focuses on climate and the environment, a cluster could be the  environmental impact of the Olympics.

  •  If your publication is a local or regional site, a cluster could focus on hometown heroes: “Jasper, Arkansas’ Olympic Athletes.”

Technical SEO considerations: Make sure the section includes top-referring keywords in the title tag, <h1> tag and in the URL. Use appropriate <h2> tags for your subtopics.

Get set: The live coverage

The Olympics is a two-week long live event. Even when it is overnight in Tokyo, there’s still going to be interest across the world – which means your live files need to be at their best at all times. 

Whether you choose to do a live “file” is up to your team’s capacity, but a rolling file should be simple if you’re expecting the Olympics to be a large portion of your job.

A rolling file:

  • Compiles all of the day’s events in one place;

  • Provides easy links to that day’s coverage as well as links to the broader coverage;

  • Links to your content hub, which houses all of the information someone may need.

Pro tip: While a rolling file will link out to many pieces of more in-depth reporting, the file itself should still serve some kind of reader intent. The content should be easily digestible and readers should be able to get all the information they need so they can continue on with their day.

Technical SEO tip: Look into how live Schema can work on your page. Structured data can help indicate to Google that this piece of content is actually a live event and is being updated regularly. 

When to publish: Publishing times for live files are up for debate, but I’ve found having them in line with the Olympics’ days has worked well for continuity (i.e., publish your Day 1 of the 2021 Olympics file at 8:00 a.m. Tokyo time and update for 24 hours). This may mean that you are running a file over two days in your local time zone, but this will help keep them organized and structured based on the Olympics’ schedule.

Go: On-page SEO considerations for Olympics reporting

The best practices for optimizing a live or rolling file follows our on-page SEO checklist:

  1. A good keyword-focused headline/title tag;

  2. A reader-friendly deck/meta description;

  3. A URL that matches the content and search intent;

  4. A strong internal linking structure;

  5. Content that provides a service to the readers. 

Remember: Your URL should be keyword-focused (for example: /day-one-live-olympics-2021/) and not changed more than twice.

[Go deeper: Review SEO best practices for breaking news events (parts 1, 2, 3).]

Post-game conference: Measuring success and communication

Before you begin, you should have some understanding of what the objective is for your coverage. Success is measured based on the key performance metrics that you set for your team. 

Success metrics to consider:

  • Did we reach a certain threshold of unique page views that is higher than last Olympics?

  • Is the time spent or engagement rate higher than average?

  • How many subscribers did you convert from Olympics-related coverage?

  • How much traffic arrived from search as a percentage of overall visits? Did you set that as a goal? 

These will help you interpret what success means when it comes to day-to-day traffic and coverage of an event as big as the Olympics. 

Success for planned news events happens when newsrooms over-communicate. With search, it’s important that as audience editors, we reinforce what we’re working on and how it helps our coverage. 

  • Make a Slack channel for all Olympics stakeholders to ensure you can communicate any quick changes to headlines, decks or URLs. This can also help you share insights or potential story ideas. 

  • Share a daily “wins and opportunities” note with the newsroom. Recap the work audience editors did to contribute to a story’s success (i.e., search insights led to a story assignment; keyword research informed an on-page change for a piece that over-performed in search) and outline an example where competitors beat you (ie., they ranked higher for your keywords) – and how you could improve in the future.

Each day at the Olympics is truly different. It’s important to flag any trending searches or breakout terms as early as possible.

Best practices:

  1. Build your keyword inventory

  2. Create and optimize your content pillar

  3. Have great live coverage

✔️ Action item: Take a look at your current Olympics stories. Can we optimize any headlines? Add some subtitles to the content? Is the URL keyword focused?

The bottom line: Big planned news events like this are audience editors’ Olympics. We’ll be in the story more than many people. Make it count to serve your audience what they want to know as your country plays for glory.



Olympics quiz

This week, an Olympics quiz question! She’s the only athlete in history to win multiple medals at both the Winter and Summer Games. She competed at six Olympic Games and earned six medals, tying with Cindy Klassen for the most decorated Canadian Olympian of all time. Who is:

  1. Tessa Virtue

  2. Clara Hughes 

  3. Penny Oleksiak

  4. Hayley Wickenheiser 


  1. The winners and losers of Google’s July 2021 update

  2. Answers to some questions about appearing in Google News

  3. How to use emojis in Google snippets 💪

NEXT WEEK: What should we cover next?

Have something you’d like us to discuss? Send us a note on Twitter (Jessie or Shelby) or to our email:

(Don’t forget to bookmark our glossary.)


The answer: Clara Hughes

Written by Jessie Willms and Shelby Blackley


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