How Much Should Journalists Know about SEO?

If you’re in the media business, like it or not, search engines have largely become the arbiter of your career.

In a recent Wordtracker blog post, “The Bad, Good And Ugly Advice Given To Journalists On SEO” (search engine optimization), U.K. journalist Rachelle Money made some excellent points about how journalists can craft stories in ways that will attract more search engine traffic.

I agree with much of what she said. I disagree with her, however, about the role of a journalist in the editorial process.

Money wrote that some SEO advice offered to journalists seems “overwhelmingly concerned with headlines and how to write better ones for the Web. I hate to throw a couple of spanners in the works, but I have never, not once, had to write a headline for a newspaper. That’s the job of a sub-editor; they write headlines, they write the sub-headings and the picture captions and the stand-firsts. I have never had to write a title tag either; that’s the job of the online editor, and they are likely to write the links too. So in many ways the advice given to journalists isn’t really for us, it’s for the production department or the online team.”

That may have been generally true a decade or more ago. However, today news is being published by all sorts of individuals and organizations — not just from established, well-staffed mainstream media newsrooms.

Small news operations, or even individual journalists and bloggers, are publishing a considerable amount of news without a multilayered, multidepartmental structure and process. These people are writing their own headlines, tags, links and other microcontent elements, and that makes sense. When you’re trying to establish relevance in the context of search engines, it really helps to have the person who knows the story best (the reporter) choosing and using appropriate keywords.

I agree with Money that it’s important for journalists to know more about how SEO works — because if people can’t easily find news, it might as well not exist. I just don’t think it’s reasonable to advise journalists who don’t work directly online to avoid learning key SEO skills and assume other parts of the staff will handle those details.

Tidbit contributor Mac Slocum points out that “You don’t need to know the intricacies of indexing, but basic SEO is the conduit between an audience and content. It’s not just a business initiative.”

Even if you currently work for a news organization that delegates some SEO functions to other staff, you can’t assume that those other staff will remain on the job long term, or that you will either. Better to learn how to write search-friendly headlines and leads now than play catch-up on your own later.

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