SES New York 2010 – Interview of Matthew Brown, NY Times



On Day 2 of Search Engine Strategies in New York, you’ll find some great insight on news search optimization from Matthew Brown – Director of Search Strategy, New York Times. I had a chance to catch up with Matthew last week where we chatted about in-house SEO and news search:

[Manoj]: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in ‘In-House SEO’ and how have you overcome them?

[Matthew Brown]: The two biggest In-House hurdles we’ve seen are legacy architecture and the sheer number of content creation processes that can exist at an organization. The first can be extremely difficult to overcome, as there are often a number of business reasons why you can’t move off a particular content management system or magically change the URL or directory structure to something SEO friendly. Integrating SEO into the content creation process is less technically challenging, but requires a lot of elbow grease. There’s something that’s non-intuitive about SEO to folks that live in a traditional publishing environment.

As for technical challenges, I recommend focusing in on the most SEO-unfriendly parts of the site rather than creating a laundry list. Stick to a shortlist of basics like fixing problematic redirects, eliminating the worst duplicate content culprits, and cleaning up the worst URL structures. You’ll spend less time in prioritization meetings with the tech teams, and everyone can spend the most energy on the truly awful SEO aspects of the site.

Lather, rinse and repeat is our strategy for the editorial trainings. There’s always new folks to train, and even people that have sat through multiple trainings often learn something new. Frequent sessions also allow for you to update teams on what’s new in the SEO world, and to introduce them to new tools. Obviously, the focus in the last few months has been real-time search. It’s nice when it’s an interesting topic like that. We’ll have a hard time selling microformats as sexy.

[Manoj]: With the publishing industry having to shift heavily online, I am sure that measuring the effectiveness of your strategies has become really important. What metrics are important to your team?

[Matthew Brown]: Overall referral traffic is still important, but we’re shifting some of our focus to user engagement metrics. Things like time-on-site and bounce rates. These metrics can highlight problematic navigation, poor relateds, or confusing site structure. I think online publishing is slowly waking up to the ‘less is more’ theory of user engagement on pages. Pages that have more targeted links but less links overall have a tendency to earn better user engagement. The same can be applied to ad units, footer links, and all the usual page real estate suspects. Savvy publishers are truly looking at their article templates as landing pages, very similar to what the e-commerce folks have been doing for years.

[Manoj]: How have you prioritized search strategies for such a large and ‘real-time’ site?

Everyone has to integrate SEO into what they do on the site. It might be 30 seconds of keyword research before publishing a story, or it might be a day of promoting a piece on the social media outlets. The bottom line is that, from a content standpoint, there really is no such thing as a good retroactive SEO project to clean up any mistakes. In most cases, you’ve already lost the link popularity battle when the story had attention. Fixing the keyword focus of the page or putting the link up on Twitter doesn’t really have any point 60 days after publishing the article. The SEO work has to be done in the moment, and that requires everyone to play a role.

[Manoj]: What are some ways content publishers can take advantage of news search?

[Matthew Brown]: While the recent eye tracking study from OneUpWeb shows that many search engine users disregard real-time results, there are still good opportunities for publishers. Google real-time search blends in Google News results with tweets and status updates. So if users are tweeting a link to a breaking news article publishers can end up with multiple listings in the stream, and trusted sources tend to stand out from the clutter. Bing Twitter prominently features the top links shared in tweets and major news sites are often included in those results.

With Google Social Search the key is to become part of your target audiences’ social circles. The emphasis there is largely on individuals not brands, but if users are connected to you via Twitter, Google Buzz or other social outlets some of them will see your content in their social results.

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