Behind the Bylines: 5 SEO Challenges for Publishers}

Behind the Bylines: 5 SEO Challenges for Publishers

Published 26 January 2024

In this, the first in a series of articles diving into SEO for publishers, Emina Demiri-Watson explores 5 of the biggest challenges news sites face when it comes to search. 

Of all the sectors out there, publishing is likely one of the most complex and rewarding when it comes to SEO. In the UK alone, online sources are the second most used platforms for news behind broadcast TV, used by over two-thirds (68%) of UK adults. 

So the audience is there and they're reading! But not every publisher is benefitting from this expansion in digital readership – partly due to an inability to rank well for relevant search terms. This is where search engine optimization (SEO) comes in…

Not only must publishers use the right SEO tools, they must also understand the complex dynamics and challenges of today's newsrooms in online spaces. 


What is SEO for publishers and why should news outlets care? 

According to Statista, The New York Times had 8.8 million digital-only subscribers as of December 2022, while The Wall Street Journal and The Athletic have 3.2 million and 2.7 million respectively. How are they doing this? Well, a lot of it has to do with SEO. 

To get those subscribers, there are individuals working behind the scenes for these publishers to ensure their content is visible to their readers on search engine results pages (SERPs). The goal of SEO for publishers is to drive organic traffic that will generate ad or digital-subscriber revenue. 

Ultimately, this is why you, as a news publisher, should care. Because SEO has the power to bring your news outlet more revenue. It's that simple!

Understanding the challenges in SEO for publishers

The benefit of SEO for publishers is easy to grasp, but that doesn't mean it's easy to do. The first step is to try and understand the unique dynamics between publishers and SEO. Some unique SEO challenges publishers face include:

  • Multifaceted search visibility 
  • Accelerated content production and frequency
  • Lack of evergreen content
  • The impact of the helpful content update 
  • Slower websites and complex architecture 

1. Multifaceted search visibility

Publishers, like any company out there, have a few different ways to get that coveted visibility in search engines. They need to rank in “traditional search” but more importantly, they need to focus on increasing rankings in Google's “News surfaces” and other news relevant search features. 

Specifically, SEO for publishers should focus on: 

  • Traditional search engine results page (SERP)
  • News in Google Search
  • Google Discover
  • Perspectives (above Top Stories)

Additional features include:

  • News on YouTube
  • News on the Google Assistant

To put things in perspective, the latest Reuters Digital News Report found that only around a fifth of respondents (22%) prefer to start their news journeys on the actual news website or app – that's down 10 percentage points since 2018.  At the same time, social media is getting even more  traction. 

Source: Reuters Digital News Report

This is particularly relevant for younger readers who prefer to access news via social media, search, or mobile aggregators.

Source: Reuters Digital News Report

To understand how to make your news appear across this complex search environment, publishers first need to understand what these different avenues are and how they work. 

Traditional search engine result page (SERP)

This is the basic organic search result. The example below is a SERP result for our client, the Retail Bulletin, which holds the first position in the SERP for the term ‘retail events'. As this is a commercialization avenue for this client, this keyword was particularly important. 

How to rank in traditional search for publishers is basically no different than any other sector. And, how Google crawls, indexes and ranks publishers is based on the same system of over 200 ranking factors that apply to anyone. 

News in Google Search

News in Google Search has two sections of note: Top Stories and the News tab. The Top Stories feature focuses on delivering relevant and high-quality content results for specific news topics, presenting a curated selection of the most noteworthy updates. Below is one of the examples of a news piece featured in Top Stories for Retail Bulletin.

On the other hand, the News tab offers a more comprehensive view by displaying additional news articles related to a given search, providing a broader context for users seeking more varied information. 

You will notice that both the News tab and, particularly Top Stories, often have the freshest news displayed. We'll talk a bit about accelerated content production later on. For now, it's important to note that this has an impact on how Google crawls, ranks and indexes news. 

For a while now, there has been talk in the SEO community about how this is different from traditional SERPS. While traditional search is not encumbered with “the need for speed”, Google News surfaces are. Freshness is everything. 

Google Discover

In essence, Google Discover is a personalised content feed that's based on the individual user's Web and App Activity. It's currently available only on the Google app and the mobile version of Google Chrome. But, there have been some reports of Google testing a desktop version. 

See below an example from the Google app:

The logic is simple: your readers who express an interest in your topic or your publication might see your articles in Discover, giving you a better chance to bring in relevant traffic. In their guidelines, Google specifically mentions news as one of the examples of Discover updates they surface. 

An interesting distinction between News and Discover search features on Google is longevity. While News features are all geared towards speed, Discover can surface content that is relevant but not necessarily fresh. This ability to rank older content is something that should appeal to publishers! 

Perspectives (above Top Stories)

Positioned beneath Top Stories, Perspectives is a carousel that showcases insights from various journalists, experts, and trusted voices related to the searched topic. 

It is a fairly new feature in Google and, in this context, shouldn't be confused with the other Perspectives feature, the Perspectives filter that appears at the top of search results. Not to say that both are not important for publishers, but why publishers should pay close attention to the former can be seen from the latest data US shared by John Shehata from NewzDash on Twitter. 

  • The majority of Perspectives come right after Top Stories (News Box)
  • 15.5% of all News queries have Perspectives.
  • Twitter (X) is the most dominant, followed by YouTube and Reddit

2. Accelerated content production and frequency

When it comes to news publishers, volume and frequency of content is king. The idiom “news travels fast” is apt here. When it comes to publishers, the online space is no different than any other traditional channel. Those publishers who are fast and cover the topic in depth get rewarded with visibility. 

From an SEO perspective, the importance of freshness can be seen in a number of algorithm updates over the years and some key terms to understand.

Query Deserves Freshness (QDF)

QDF is a Google re-ranking function and it is a very literal one. In essence, it's Google's way to determine if a search query is a “hot” topic, something that requires up-to-date and current information. 

QDF was invented by Amit Singhal, Senior VP and Google Fellow, who first talked about it in 2007 and it has been a ranking factor ever since. 

It's not difficult to understand why QDF is important for news publishers. Again, news travels fast. Well, Google travels faster! QDF uses the Google search stream, which means they can catch a hot topic trend in a matter of seconds. This puts even more pressure on publishers to produce news quickly! 

Caffeine and Freshness Update

Rolled out back in 2009/2010, the Caffeine update was a change to Google's indexing system. The Freshness update was the subsequent ranking algorithm change introduced in 2011. 

Both had similar goals to ensure that freshness is added to indexing (Caffeine) and rankings (Freshness update). 

This need for freshness and the sheer amount of content produced by publishers has other SEO implications. The sheer volume of content means there is a LOT for Google to try and crawl, render, index and finally rank. And, a lot of content for publishers to physically manage. So most often, this management simply doesn't happen. 

Often, articles are left in the dark recesses of the publisher's website. They rank for a while but then get outranked by fresher, more up-to-date articles. This means that any traffic and revenue the content brings is short-lived. 

3. Lack of evergreen content

The need for freshness and the nature of news has also resulted in the third challenge faced by publishers in SEO: lack of evergreen content. The term in SEO and digital marketing is often used to describe those content pieces that are written with longevity in mind. Unlike news stories, evergreen content is updated regularly with new information and is much less likely to fluctuate in rankings. 

Most news publishers that know SEO will have a selection of articles that are evergreen. See below a client example on the topic of retail HR. 

These evergreen pieces are intended to provide helpful information to readers on a particular informational query that is not as time-sensitive as news. As such, they don't have to deal with the same sorts of challenges presented by the previously mentioned Google updates. 

However, it's often the case that publishers are not aware of the need to build evergreen content. After all, they are in the business of news, not content and SEO. 

Smart publishers on the other hand understand this and are building their evergreen content via their blog and website taxonomy. But it's important to remember that, whether evergreen or not, your content must always be helpful ⬇️

4. Helpful content core update

Now, this is where it gets interesting. In 2023, Google rolled out the Helpful content update that has wreaked havoc on some publishers

The helpful content update in essence seeks to: 

  • Re-rank content that is written for solely SEO purposes.

In theory, this should be simple to understand when it comes to publishers. For example, you are a retail news publisher and you publish a piece called ‘Best testosterone boosters'. Now, you could argue that retailers sell this and that's why you have written it but it's most likely that the purpose is ranking. 

(If you're interested in why this example was used, have a look at the brilliant piece on search rankings by AJ Kohn called It's Goog enough!

  • De-rank articles that are deemed not helpful for the reader and reward content that is helpful.

This is a bit more complex to explain. It's a debate even in our offices; just take a look at the below SEOs getting coffee. Our client's article could be intended for ranking. But does this make it unhelpful? Since their audience is HR retail professionals, we would argue it's driven by audience needs first. But the question is, where is the line? 

5. Slower websites and complex architecture 

The last challenge for publishers is more of a technical one. Most publishers' commercial models rely on ad and subscriber revenue. This of course has deep technical SEO implications on the website, as these are usually handled by some kind of JavaScript. Google is not a fan of JavaScript for many reasons, two of which are site speed and user experience. 

JavaScript is used, for example, to serve online ads on publisher websites, and paywalls intended to drum up subscribers. 

Now let's be clear: JavaScript is not an issue if managed correctly. The problem arises when developers implement the Script without keeping SEO in mind. For example, making sure your JavaScript can be indexed and crawled is key. And, something that can easily be forgotten by a developer. his is particularly relevant for news publishers. Coming back to the freshness point, Google will crawl, index and rank news FAST. If, on that first crawl, you have resources hidden in JavaScript, you'll miss the boat on getting into News surfaces. 

Another problem is the impact of JS on page speed. If not implemented correctly, your website's load time can be affected. 

JavaScript crawling is included in every Sitebulb plan and our Hints will tell you if Google cannot ‘see' any JS elements on your website.Learn more about JavaScript crawling

The other technical challenge, or better-said opportunity, is in the complexity of a news publisher's website. There is a LOT of content there, and organizing it in a way that is user and search-engine friendly is not an easy task. But, it is an opportunity for publishers to do better and think about how they can use website taxonomy to build topical authority and improve rankings. 

TL;DR summary

Dominating the SERPs in publishing is not an easy task. Today, news publishers cannot afford to simply rank in the traditional SERPS. In fact, ranking in Google's News surfaces is becoming more important for traffic and commercialization. 

As news travels fast, so does Google's algorithm prioritize speed and freshness of news. However, for sustained gains, evergreen content is also necessary. But the recent Helpful Content Update has added another layer of complexity to this debate.

The accelerated content production schedule of news websites, coupled with JavaScript-heavy commercialization models, has serious technical implications for SEOs, which can only be understood by using the right tools.

Understanding this complex and unique environment for online publishers is the first step towards SEOs helping news outlets to:

  • serve their readers better,
  • gain valuable traffic, and
  • thrive commercially. 

Read the next in this series of SEO advice for news publishers: Technical SEO for News Sites

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Emina Demiri-Watson

Emina is the Head of Digital Marketing at Vixen Digital, a Brighton UK-based digital marketing agency. She has over 10 years of experience in SEO and digital marketing. Her special connection to publishers also comes from her BA in Journalism. Emina’s marketing passions include technical/on-page SEO, analytics, channel alignment and automation.

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