“How do you think about SEO?” is a key question to ask anyone who is going to work with you on your web publication, and it’s a question clients ask us often. There’s a whole world of Search Engine Optimization agencies, freelancers, consultants, experts, ninjas, rockstars, and wizards out there, and their approaches range from smart and rational to shady and ill-advised.
Postlight isn’t an SEO shop, but I’ve worked hand-in-hand with several SEO partners on various properties. We’ve built publishing platforms for media companies like VICE, The Players’ Tribune, and The Village Voice. Search engine optimization — or more broadly, content accessibility, discoverability, and share-ability — is part of the conversation we have with our media clients from proposal all the way to pushing their new sites live.
When we build a publishing platform, we’re setting up our clients to distribute their content as widely as possible on search engines like Google and beyond. In the process, here are a few ways we think about SEO.
Forget tricks; focus on best practices
There are no secret tricks to good SEO. There’s no perfect meta tag that will unlock untold search traffic, mystical page title strategy that will best your competitor, no keyword stuffing, backlink-generating, or invisible army of underpaid content writers who are going to make your site rank high in Google search results automatically.
There are only well-documented best practices that your tech, product, and editorial team should understand and internalize–with the caveat that it’s important to stay user-focused, and think about what’s best for your site’s visitors and readers first. If your goal is to game the ranking algorithm, your users are going to suffer, and eventually Google will penalize your site. Serve your users well and your ranking (and sharing, and return visits) will follow. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.
Optimize the entire stack
Once you understand SEO best practices and how they apply to your content, bake those practices into every layer of the cake. From the database structure to the content management system to your site’s page structure to the content strategy to the editorial workflow, content accessibility and discoverability in search engines and beyond has to be top of mind.
Your publishing software should do what any great piece of software does: Make doing the best thing the easy thing. Give your editors and writers as much control as they need to customize the various aspects of a piece of content, and no more. Set sensible, well thought-out defaults that can be overridden, but make the best practices the default workflow, and great results will follow.
Once you integrate SEO best practices into both your software stack and team, it’s no longer an extra effort: It’s just part of how you publish.
Use the tools
Now it’s time to check how your site is doing, and iterate where you can. Google’s own tools will go a long way to helping you diagnose Google-specific SEO issues and implement fixes, especially Google Search Console and Google Analytics. Third-party keyword research and competitor analysis tools can help inform content strategy, like Ahrefs and SEMrush. At the enterprise level, there are services that combine analytics tools and in-depth analysis and consulting. One of the rising firms in this category is Conductor.
Play the long game (and diversify)
Once you start to see success in your search engine ranking, focus on playing the long game. I’ve seen great media businesses become so dependent on search traffic that any algorithm change Google rolls out can become a painful dent in revenue numbers. Search algorithm weather patterns will change; Google will always make adjustments. This month one factor may get weighted higher than others, next it might be different. Keep on top of current best practices but think long-term. If you’re publishing useful content following best practices then it will win.
If your business is at the mercy of Google algorithm changes, then it’s time to diversify. Search traffic should be one piece of the pie for your site, but not the only piece. Build up social, email, and other audience growth strategies as well as relevant cross-promotional traffic drivers to supplement.
The SEO work is never done
Bringing in a strong, smart SEO partner for a temporary engagement can be an effective forcing function for tech, product, and editorial to focus on search placement, but that’s just immediate pain relief. Search-optimizing your site isn’t a matter of a couple of sprints, or a task you can check off the list and consider done. At some point someone will wonder why search traffic isn’t better and the whole cycle will repeat again.
Ultimately, SEO isn’t a time-boxed effort to make a few fixes and move on–it has to be an active consideration in content development, CMS and site redesigns, and every press of the “publish” button.