Search Engine Optimization

How SEO Storytelling Can Help News Publishers


How SEO Storytelling Can Help News Publishers

Anthony Moor
July 17, 2019

We just passed the 10th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death, and it was around that time that a representative for a company called Associated Content phoned me to ask if my website wanted to make use of the articles they published.

I was the editor of the Dallas Morning News’ site,, and “Associated Content” rang a bell. I’d been seeing their name pop up in news search, so while she was talking about how their contributors could write about anything we needed, I typed “michael jackson dead” in my browser bar. (Remember how everyone typed in “search-ease” syntax back then to ensure Google would understand?)

And there it was. An Associated Content "article" right at the top of my results. I wish I’d printed it out, because it was the most laughable excuse for a story I’d ever seen. In my mind’s eye today it read something like this:

“Paramedics found Michael Jackson dead today, according to the news from Los Angeles. His physician was already at his house when they discovered Michael Jackson dead. Nobody knows why Michael Jackson is dead, but Michael Jackson was apparently dead of a heart attack.”

It went on for another paragraph or so, but that’s all I needed to see to emphatically declare to my caller that there wasn’t any chance Associated Content authors would be featured on our website, regardless of how Google ranked their articles. (Turns out my affiliation with Associated Content didn’t end there, but that’s another story.)

It’s not clear news or content website owners adequately understand the gift they have been handed.

My oh my have we come a long way. Keyword stuffing died as Google got smarter over the next few years and made algorithm updates that filtered out this kind of “thin content.” Another hack they blocked soon after was the practice of artificially boosting the number of links back to your pages by trading, paying or spamming other sites to get them.

Ten years on, the amazing thing is if there’s credible, trustworthy information on a subject, you’re likely to find it at the top of your search results, despite the Internet’s exponential growth. That’s heartening to those of us who value actual journalism. But it’s not clear journalists or website owners (which means everybody) adequately understand the gift they have been handed. Today, if you report, write edit, produce and publish high quality information, you are much more likely to be rewarded in search than if you try to hack your way to the top.

Consider how different this is compared to what’s happening on the world’s other major content distribution platform, social media. Spurred by the fake news revelations from the 2016 U.S. elections, companies such as Facebook are just beginning to realize what it means to rank content only by popularity, personal traits, and advertiser-selected filters. So perhaps publishers and journalists should focus more on writing for search rather than spinning over social while so much there is in turmoil.

But what constitutes high quality content in a search engine’s eyes? Google takes over 160 pages to describe that in its General Guidelines for search quality. There are a lot of specifics that get into technical, business and design features of content experiences. But for journalists the overarching message is one that has been followed by the finest in the profession: Become expert at what you cover, develop a track record that acknowledges your authority in your space, earn the trust of your audience. Google calls it E-A-T: Expertise, Authority, Trust.

They’ve also coined a second acronym: YMYL. Your Money or Your Life. It’s their way of reminding their own search evaluators that when it comes to the most important personal decisions humans have to make, special care must be taken to ensure the “E-A-T” of that content. Google defines YMYL pages as those that provide financial, medical or legal advice, shopping pages where transactions occur, or news articles “important for having an informed citizenry.”

At NerdWallet, the financial advice site where I headed up content product experiences, our editorial team lived these E-A-T and YMYL precepts. They were recruited from the most authoritative publications and many already had deep expertise in relevant subjects. As journalists, by training, they understood the importance of consumer trust. And company policy and culture ensured strict separation between business and editorial. 

Yes, as a product team we overlaid a constantly improving UX and design while optimizing words and code for search, but at the core, it was high quality, journalistically sound content which was the ingredient we invested in most. Here’s a sample, “Surveys for Money: Here’s What We Earned."

The reward has been a rapidly growing audience looking for financial advice and understanding. Today NerdWallet consistently ranks near the top in search for each of the topical areas they cover.

Now, Google’s ability to understand high quality content better isn’t a journalist's panacea. First, search isn’t the primary place we discover news (yet.) It’s a demand platform that consumers go to when they have an active need to know a particular thing. Explanatory stories and service journalism, which are evergreen, are what works in this ecosystem.

But beware, Google is stealing all the “quick answer” content for itself. Those stories that merely respond to a question of fact, even if highly engaging and anecdote filled, won’t be clicked on by someone who just wants to know the date that Michael Jackson died (like I did this morning.) Instead a smart content strategy for search is to seek to own those stories that demonstrate your thought leadership (E-A-T) in a space. They tackle subjects of inquiry, not just facts, and of course they can still center on news of the moment, rich in storytelling and reporting.

The revelation that high quality content works in search isn’t going to stay a secret for long.

I’m intrigued by NPRs recent foray into this, called Life Kit. They’ve paired an engaging set of podcasts that tell stories of peoples’ struggles around money, health and parenting, with text content that can deliver consumers the bulleted “how to” answers quickly and permanently. They are starting to show up in search results for long tail queries such as “saving secrets.”

The revelation that high quality content works in search isn’t going to stay a secret for long. Publishers who employ the journalists that can produce it tarry at their peril. An entirely new competitor has sprung up, “content marketers,” brands going aggressively direct-to-consumer with well researched, journalistically sound coverage of subjects they want to own as thought leaders. That's just what my current startup, StoryCraft, helps brands do.

Through high quality content, StoryCraft helped increased the visibility of Rally Health, an employee health engagement tool in search. We targeted benefits leaders who are important for Rally Health's growth, because they make the decisions about bringing wellness tools and programs to their companies. "Why Disease Management Is the Hot New Benefit" is one article that ranks highly because it comprehensively and journalistically explains this new employee benefit area. A deliberate side effect of that high quality work is to introduce Rally Health as a thought leader in employee health engagement.

It takes less effort than news providers might think to jump in and compete for audience researching the topics publishers should own. I just gave a talk at the invitation of the Local Media Association on how metro newspapers and TV stations can start with the well researched, trustworthy content they already create. That's just what Google Search is searching for these days. Hacks need not apply.

(“Google” by nicoangelo is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0. A version of this story originally appeared on

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Wednesday, July 17, 2019


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