Simple SEO for journalists

Search engine optimisation (SEO) is not part of a journalist’s traditional skill set.

In fact, there are probably some journalists who don’t know what it is. And those that do know what it is probably think it has to do with the dark arts of marketing.

They would be right – there’s a lot of marketing thinking in SEO. But there are also good reasons for journalists to establish a nodding acquaintance with some basic SEO techniques. Stories written by journalists (or bloggers, or marketers) live online, and you want people to be able to find them – if only for reasons of ego.

But the Internet is a very, very big place – and there’s no guarantee that a reader will find your article about (say) a protest outside a local high school instead of someone else’s.

The good news is that there are some really simple things you can do to increase the chances that your article will rise to the top of the Google pond.

Here’s your guide on how to do that:


First, it helps to understand the various ways in which a reader might find your story online. Here’s a breakdown of what are loosely called “traffic sources” (traffic is the total number of “clicks” on your website or article):

Referral: Traffic that occurs when a user finds you through a site other than a major search engine (for example, when someone links to your story about the protest from their own blog article).

Social: Traffic from a social network, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or Instagram.

Organic: Traffic from search engine results that is not paid for (a reader searches in Google on “high school protest” and they find your article).

Paid search: Traffic from search engine results that is the result of paid advertising via Google AdWords or another paid search platform (your publication pays Google to boost articles on the website)

Email: Traffic from email marketing (for example a newsletter).

Direct: Any traffic where the referrer or source is unknown.

(Source: The Difference Between Direct and Organic Website Traffic Sources)


In this article we are talking about organic traffic: ways in which a search term typed into a search engine will produce a set of results.

Now, there are whole companies of people who devote their lives to trying to discern the methods by which search engines decide which articles to display – how Google will rank one story about a high school protest as more worthy of display than another.

This is a highly complex field, but one of the major factors in understanding rankings is the all-important concept of the keyword. To put this in its most basic form: if a reader types “high school protest” into Google, the mysterious algorithms inside the search engine will scan the internet, looking for content that has that exact phrase. If the phrase is buried at the bottom of 1000 words, Google will in all probability not “see” that story. Therefore, place the keyword phrase high school protest in the headline or in the first one or two paragraphs.

From a hard news journalism point of view, this is something that will happen naturally: if you are writing about a high school protest, those words will inevitably be at the top of the story (unless you are a really bad writer!).

From the point of view of headline writers, however, a paradigm shift is needed. The time-honoured tradition of the “clever” headline is not very helpful. Complex puns and erudite references mean very little to Google, sadly. To give another example, if you are publishing a set of five ice cream recipes, a print headline like “Five ways to chill this summer” is not going to tell Google to show your article to the reader who searched for ice cream recipes (though it does work on a print page where a reader can see immediately that they are looking at recipes). A much better headline for SEO purposed would be: Five ice cream recipes to keep you cool this summer. (And would of course make sense for the person who is only seeing the headline in a set of search results).


It’s important to remember that search engines are not very good at understanding images. The picture accompanying a story is a mystery to Google (artificial intelligence means this is an evolving field, but it’s best to assume the machine is not very bright). But a search engine can “read” the file name of the picture, the words in the caption and the “alt text”. Let’s break that down:

  1. If this is something under your control (ie not done by another department), always change the file name of the picture to language. So rather than a file name like WhatsApp Image 2020-10-29 at 4.49.02 PM.jpg, change the file name to Police at high school protest. jpg.
  2. The caption for the picture should contain the keyword, if possible. Rather than: Police surround the school in Joan Bloggs street, say Police surround the high school in Joan Bloggs street, in anticipation of a protest by XXX political party.
  3. Alt text is “the written copy that appears in place of an image on a webpage if the image fails to load on a user’s screen. This text helps screen-reading tools describe images to visually impaired readers”. If the content management system you use allows it, always write something meaningful in the alt text field. In the first place, you are helping visually impaired readers (who will hear the alt text). In the second place, your alt text gives you one more opportunity to tell search engines what your story is about. So rather than leaving the alt text blank, or typing “police at protest”, use your alt text to say: Police erect barricades at high school protest.

(Definition of alt text above from this really good article: Image Alt Text: What It Is, How to Write It, and Why It Matters to SEO


Another highly complex SEO field – but to break it down to its basics, search engines use links to understand how articles connect to each other. Sensible linking tells search engines that a particular piece of content is worth looking at, because it forms part of a matrix of meaning. And both internal and external links are important. In any given story, it’s a good idea to link to your own related content (do a link to the previous story about the high school protest) and to outside content – do a link to the website of the political party which is organising the protest.

Again, these are good practices anyway: doing links to relevant related content is helpful to readers, and then the SEO follows naturally.

And that really is the big takeaway here: the steps outlined above are important because they are helpful to people. And because they are useful to human beings, it follows that they are helpful to a search engine. There are no dark marketing arts here: there are simply quick ways to make your content accessible to the people who matter the most: your readers.

Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your organisational or communication needs (coaching, editing, writing, social media). And you can subscribe to my newsletter here.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Social media for journalists who don’t want to do social media

It’s 2020 and social media is all round us – on our phones, on our computers, the subject of countless news stories.

Young journalists effortlessly navigate this landscape, as people born to it should.

Older journalists are probably using some platforms, some of the the time, with irritation or resignation or resentment. Because social media took our lunch, right? Google and Facebook and Twitter took the advertising and now our business model is stuffed. Continue reading

Four email newsletters worth trying

My 17-year-old son doesn’t understand how people can possibly spend large portions of their day reading and answering email.

As far as I can tell, he deals with the issue by magisterially ignoring all email sent to him.

For the rest of us, the inbox is a place where we seem to spend a lot of time. I have systems to make email easier, and I regularly cull emails that I don’t ever read, or that I don’t need.

And yet, email can be a source of good reading, and of inspiration and knowledge.

I recently wrote a post about staying abreast of the latest trends in journalism. One of the steps I recommended was to subscribe to email newsletters – they bring the latest news to you, instead of you spending time seeking out what you need to know. I generally subscribe to any newsletter that looks interesting. I then read it and decide whether it stays or goes. Over time, my interests might change, and then my newsletter subscriptions change too.

Here, then, is a list of the newsletters that I actually read at the moment and find valuable, both as a journalist and a private individual.

Naked Data

Naked Data comes out every Friday and is co-written by Jason Norwood-Young and Adam Oxford. It covers the global South and tends towards data and coding, but it always has links to stories and projects that are interesting or ground-breaking, or both. For journalists of all kinds, it is a weekly prod in the direction of new trends and a resource specifically for people working in data visualisation. Also – it’s funny.

One man and his blog

Adam Tinworth writes a range of newsletters, and I subscribe to all of them (except the one about the ospreys, though I have been tempted). He offers a wide take on journalism trends, social media, newsletters and business models for the journalism profession. Articles he links to are preceded by his own take on the issue, which is always sensible and thought-provoking. I’ve given up many of the journalism newsletters that I used to subscribe to in favour of Tinworth’s missives.

Bloomberg City Lab

Not journalism related. A look at issues of urban planning, climate change and related matters. There’s always something worth reading – even though I hit the Bloomberg article limit quite early in any given month.

The Ruffian

I think I was pointed to the Ruffian by Adam Tinworth. These newsletters are a collection of links to interesting things Ian Leslie found on the Internet, or to his own writing – accompanied by thoughtful summaries. I have never been disappointed by following a link from one of his newsletters, and use them in my own social media sharing.

Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your organisational or communication needs (coaching, editing, writing, social media). And you can subscribe to my own newsletter here.

Main image: Stephen Phillips – on Unsplash

Journalism skills – what you need to learn (and keep learning) to succeed

In the old days, just four or five months ago, if I met new people (remember that? going out and meeting people?), if I was asked what I did, I would say: “I am a journalist.”

Truth be told, that doesn’t really cover what I do at all. In the lengthy process of re-evaluating my business this year, doing an online business questionnaire revealed that what I actually do is help busy people get things done. I take the skills I have acquired and put them to use doing whatever needs doing: writing, editing, proofreading, sub-editing, online journalism, social media, being a shoulder to cry on, making a plan when things have gone wrong, providing gentle observations about what I see, helping untie management knots, cutting through to the heart of a problem, keeping track of projects… you get the picture.

Continue reading

How to tell truth from… everything else (Fake News 101)

This is the year of the little round virus. So it’s also the year when we all really, seriously, need to get a grip on “fake news”. It’s always been important, but we are now in a place where sharing something dodgy on WhatsApp might affect someone else’s health.

Journalists are engaged in complex debates about this (of course) – what is fake news, how to counter it, is fake news even the right term for it?

For everyone else, this is what you need to know.

“News” is a report on events that happened, generally found in a newspaper, an online newspaper, a TV news broadcast or a radio news broadcast. Or perhaps a Twitter thread, or a live blog. (It can also be an investigation, an interview, an exploration of two sides of an issue. The people quoted in these ways will have been subject to some due diligence by the reporter or publication.)

The basic idea is: this news refers to something that actually happened, or something that is widely understood to be factual or truthful

(And, yes, of course, those reports will be slanted in some way: the reporter and the news publication will have their own ideas and opinions and prejudices.)

When it isn’t news

BUT If the report says something happened, but it didn’t, then it is a lie. If it so distorts the event that most reasonable people would think something was fishy about the report, it is dis- or mis-information. If it is written to further a particular political aim, it is propaganda. If it gives health advice that is not based on generally accepted science, it is quackery. If it interviews people who are at the fringes of anything, without making that clear, it is dubious. All of that is now called “fake news”. Journalists might not like the term, but it is useful shorthand.

Most people don’t really want to be guilty of sharing lies and trickery (I assume). But they do it anyway, mostly without thinking too much about it. I think that is because a lot of the time, the “report” confirms their own beliefs, or says something that they would like to be true (and perhaps they just want to share something entertaining with their friends). We are all gossips, in the end.

Simple rules

So how to tell when not to share? I have some simple rules. The first, and most important, is to click on the link and actually look at whatever it is you are about to share. Then ask yourself:

1. Does it come from a reputable source? (My 2018 post about that is still useful.)

2. Does it have a date and the name of the person who wrote or produced it? (The date is important – people often share old stories, which are then taken up as if they are recent news).

3. Does it have links to other places where this has been reported, or to background sources?

4. Do a Google search – are there other reports about the same topic?

If you can answer yes to those questions, you can probably go ahead and hit the share button!

* A version of this was first published in my newsletter.

* Main picture: Hayden Walker, Unsplash