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February 21, 2005

Search Engine Optimization

Jay Rosen writes about About and the New York Times:

PressThink: A Little Detail in the Sale of About.com to the New York Times: I couldn't tell you if this page has the proper meta-data-- or any. My method of search engine optimization is to get a lot of links by writing something original and useful that people will elect to recommend at their own sites. It works. But only because links to PressThink don't expire.

'Frankly, they bring a lot of competencies to us. They're the leaders in search-engine optimization.' That's from an interview with Martin Nisenholtz, Senior Vice President for Digital Operations at the New York Times, who spoke with Staci Kramer of Paid Content about his company's recent acquisition of About.com for $410 million. In a conference call with stock analysts, Nisenholtz again mentioned search. He talked about 'some very useful synergies such as cross marketing and search optimization expertise.'... [T]he logic of this portion of the transaction intrigued me. They know how to show up in search; we don't. Let's buy them. Then we'll know too. 'We own you now. Tell us what you know.'

About.com is a network of about 500 mini-sites where people who know a lot about a subject--they're called 'guides,' but they could also be called bloggers--write columns and offer links and resources about specialty topics from personal finance to parenting to fly-fishing. The mini-sites are surrounded by ads--including 'cost-per-click' advertising--and sponsored links; that's where the money comes from.... Search engine optimization means the business of getting your site noticed by Google, Yahoo and other engines. Some firms claim to know how it works and will 'boost' your site for a price. But About.com is not in that business (a very shady business.) What About.com, and it's competitor, iVillage, know how to do is design pages that find their way into search engines, and thus have a second life.

Say you write the definitive guide piece on 'Is Your Sick Kid Too Ill To Attend School?' Naturally you want it to show up when Web users query for information on that subject. And putting keywords 'sick child stay home school' into Google brings up that page from About.com in the top ten results. According to Susan Mernit, a majority of About.com's readers find the company's content this way. They aren't subscribers, members or regular visitors. They get there through what is called 'natural' search. By contrast: "The New York Times, like most media sites, uses a content management system and a dynamic, cookied URL structure that means that only some landing pages and the home page get the presence in search results--and of course, the URLs for the news stories expire and move into the archive where they are walled off."

You rarely find New York Times articles in the top ten results of any Google search. The reason is simple: Search works by counting the quantity and quality of links to a page. In most cases, links to the New York Times expire after a week, the url's (web addresses) change, and the content moves behind a pay wall.... The second life of content, made possible by search, is of critical importance to journalists whose work is on the Web. (That's almost all journalists.) The very phrase 'on' the Web tells us that things may land on the surface of the network and not get woven into it. These stand a very poor chance of surviving and having a second life, where there are probably more readers available than in the first....

I have direct experience with this as a blogger. In the beginning, I was writing 'on' the Web-- meaning on its surface. Over time, as PressThink has embedded itself more into the Web, and become inter-linked with other sites, it has gained more and more traffic from 'natural search,' visitors who went to Google and found PressThink because when they looked up, say... Ted Koppel, there it was: my post from May 1, 2004, after Sinclair Broadcasting refused to run 'The Fallen.' (The number two result on Google when I wrote this. For Eason Jordan, PressThink was number three when I wrote this.) You can generate significant traffic that way.

Martin Nisenholtz spoke of it as a competence his firm was buying (and knew how to value): getting your content found by search engines and then ranked so that users find it.... I e-mailed him for more details about the search knowledge at About that he found valuable enough to mention in a conference call with analysts. This is what he told me:

About.com has built a long standing institutional knowledge in building pages that are easily read by the spiders the search engines use to build their databases. These techniques evolve over time, but include accurately titling pages, use of metadata, proper syntax of key content, providing machine-readable links, page formatting that doesn't interfere with machine automation and other like details which allow spiders to be able to accurately understand the content of the article.

Additionally, About.com maintains long-term relationships with the major search engines to ensure compatibility and accessibility to their databases as they undergo constant change. All of this ensures that the content is read and placed into the databases, but in the end, it is the quality of the content and the relevancy of the article that is most important in search.

In addition, because the guides are solely writing for the Internet consumer, they write in a style that is focused on the medium (links, lists, images, forums, etc.) Of course, most print and broadcast media companies do not do this, as the content is created primarily for offline use.

...'Indeed, demand for Internet advertising has grown so quickly that many media companies are finding themselves without enough Web pages on which to sell ads,' wrote James Bandler of the Wall Street Journal Friday. And they're finding themselves without much knowledge of how to show up in search. I'm a blogger, not a company. I couldn't tell you if this page has the proper meta-data-- or any. My search engine optimization method is to get a lot of links by writing something original and useful that people will elect to recommend at their own sites. It works (sometimes.) But only because my links don't expire.

On January 19, I wrote 'Bloggers Are Missing in Action as Ketchum Tests the Conscience of PR.' Much of it was based on facts and impressions in Stuart Elliot's 'Advertising' column, published the same day in the New York Times ('Public Relations Industry Debates Payments to Commentator') which I linked to and discussed.

Today if you put Ketchum 'Armstrong Williams' payments into Google, Elliot's column is not there at all. Nowhere on the first ten pages. PressThink was the number 2 result on the first page when I tried it, Editor & Publisher number one. Change it to Ketchum payments 'Armstrong Williams'--switching only the order of two terms--and the Washington Post story is the first result, and again Stuart Elliot's column is nowhere to be found.... The Elliot column couldn't embed itself in the Web, and sink proper roots. It's effectively 'gone.' From Elliot's point of view, he loses a potentially huge readership for his work. Can he afford it?

Right now there is little in the way of 'search engine optimization' at the New York Times. For Stuart Elliot's colleagues, the reporters and writers at the flagship of the American fleet, this means that, in the main, their work is lost to Google, lost to online forums and conversation, lost to the long tail where value is built up-- and in many ways lost to cultural memory.

Do they know this? Do they care about all the lost readers, and the lack of stickiness even their best work has on the Web? What, if anything, do they plan to do about these losses? To me it is one of the mysteries about the editorial staff at that great institution....

Posted by DeLong at February 21, 2005 08:41 AM