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Front-page Round-up: On-page SEO and UGC for Publishers}

Front-page Round-up: On-page SEO and UGC for Publishers

Published 2024-04-30

Everyone’s favourite Head of Digital Marketing at Vixen, Emina Demiri-Watson, is BACK! This is the next in her series of articles covering SEO considerations specific to news sites and publishers, and today she’s diving into on-page SEO and UGC. Haven’t read the first and second instalments yet?👇

A lot has already been written around on-page SEO and, when it comes to evergreen content, publishers are no different than any other industry. Helpful content, that takes into consideration how search works and answers users' needs, reigns supreme. 

But search for news is multifaceted; remember, you are not only trying to rank for traditional SERPs, you are also putting effort into ranking in Discover, News and Top Stories in particular. Optimising news for ranking in news surfaces is where SEO for publishers gets interesting. This and user-generated content are two of the biggest opportunities.

Google Discover and Top Stories can drive more traffic than traditional SERPs. And, scaling with UGC, in a world dominated by AI, may well be the differentiator news publishers need to stand out. This is what we’re going to explore here.

Contents:

Optimising news for Google news surfaces

As the name itself suggests, on-page SEO is all about optimising pages for search engine rankings. In other words, optimising content or, in the case of publishers, specifically news articles or evergreen content. 

News articles are a distinct beast. Going back to both technical and industry-specific environments, we can see that one thing stands out: the need for speed. This need for speed has coloured everything to do with publishers' SEO, including optimising content. 

In the simplest sense, there just isn't enough time to apply all the bells and whistles you “normally” would. News travels fast and so does Google when ranking news!

It all comes down to how Google crawls: there is the initial crawl and then the rendering. It’s in that initial crawl that news publishers must “make an impression” if they are going to rank in Google news surfaces. This is also why you should always try and edit your articles BEFORE they are published and not tweak them after publishing. By the time the bot comes back around you’ve missed your chance to rank! 

But time is limited in journalism and news needs to go out ASAP, so the name of the game is: tweak strategically. Here are a few areas to get you started. 

Note:

It is not often possible to optimise before publishing. Plus, publishing businesses often have editors and writers that are not particularly SEO aware. This is why working closely with your editorial teams is super important! One way of implementing this, while at the same time making your life as a publisher SEO easier, is automation. Here’s an excellent guide: Automating SEO in a Publishing Business. 

Optimise the basics: headlines, HTML tag and URL 

The basics of on-page SEO are likely even more important to get right when it comes to publishers than in any other industry. That initial crawl is super important for publishers. It’s your opportunity to give Google enough information to rank your piece well. By the time rendering happens, your news story might already be old news! And, you’ve missed your chance to catch that traffic via Google news surfaces. 

While there are several things that could be considered “basic optimisations”, the 3 that come to mind as being critical are:

  • Headlines
  • HTML tag
  • URL

Optimising headlines

Headlines are important in traditional search but for news surfaces, they are critical. Think about how Google crawls news pieces with speed in mind. Your headline is the most important element to get right. 

This is also why you should enable article or news schema markup as, because of the need for speed, Google can quickly crawl your Schema markup and quickly understand what the article is really about. 

Two general rules to follow here:

1. Don't make it click-bait but make it impactful 

Google specifically warns against using click-bait tactics if you want to get onto Discover. One example of a clickbait title would be using “You’ll never believe… (see here other examples). This doesn't mean your title should not entice readers to click though! 

2. Use keywords 

Closely connected to the first point is the use of keywords. Here more than ever you want to be clear about what the article is about, and what you want Google to rank you for. 

If you hide your keywords behind clickbait or you fail to tell Google what the piece is about, chances are it won’t rank. Yet again, due to the fact that crawling, indexing and ranking are done at speed! 

However, and particularly when it comes to journalism, you will want to stay away from keyword stuffing! Readers of news are an unforgiving bunch and filling your articles with keywords won’t go unnoticed. 

Shelby Blackley, SEO editor at The Athletic and co-writer of the amazing WTF is SEO? Newsletter (a must-sign-up for anyone working in SEO in publishing) said it best in this Verge article. 

Optimising HTML tag

One of the tactics used by publisher SEOs, particularly the ones that have full articles hidden behind a paywall for commercial reasons, is to differentiate your headline from your HTML title tag

The reasoning is clear, the headline of the piece is a kind of a teaser while the title is more full, e.g. contains keywords that can help Google see what the piece is about and therefore rank it better. Google also says that it uses title tags as the title it shows in ranking 87% of the time.

Now, let’s look at this through another lens: Google has the power to change how your news article appears in search. And, they often do! In fact, a study by Zyppy.com found that Google rewrote 61.6% of title tags at least partially. 

Sometimes Google even ignores the headline and the title and simply uses anchor texts from within the article itself! 

So what can publishers do? While the answer here, as always in SEO, is test and “it depends”, it’s useful to look at an example. New York Times always comes in as one of the best in the industry and this is no different. Have a look at the recent article on floods in China. 

We can already see that the headline here is simple, not clickbait and yet emotionally charged. And, emotionally charged headlines perform better in Discover than those that do not use this strategy. Of course, the headline above is going to be emotionally charged due to the subject matter, however the same principle applies to other types of reporting. 

Looking at the HTML title for the floods piece, we can see it is different. It reads: Heavy Rains and Potential Flooding in Guangdong, China, Force Evacuations - The New York Times

You can see that the title provides search engines with more information, e.g. location Guangdong, potential flooding and evacuations. 

In Top Stories, the article appears using the headline but it’s interesting to see exact location added below the Top Stories alert. 

Looking at this example a few things are clear. Yes, Google can rewrite your titles, but ultimately for search you need to be thinking about both your headline and your title tag. Those can be the same or they can be different as in the example here. 

Your title tag is an opportunity to also provide additional keywords and information you might have not used in your headline, giving you more opportunity to rank in Google news surfaces. 

Optimising the URL

The third element publishers SEO should pay special attention to is the URL of your piece. 

Obviously, if you have thought about your headline and your HTML tag, then presumingly your URL will be optimised as well. 

The best practice here is the same as for any industry. Make sure your URLs are:

  • Descriptive
  • Unique - this one is something we’ve seen publishers stumble on. We’ve seen examples where a news story has even been copy/pasted in the backend and just edited. And, the URL was left unchanged. Announcements of roles are a good example here: 

https://www.EXAMPLE.co.uk/community/appointment-of-new-chair-of-trustees-at-example

becomes 

https://www.EXAMPLE.co.uk/community/appointment-of-new-chair-of-trustees-at-example-2

  • Include relevant keywords
  • Preferably below 50 characters (Google will typically only show the first 50 characters) and if they are longer, try and add the keywords at the start of the URL.

Links are another interesting one when it comes to ranking publishers’ sites. 

Likely some links are already there by default, e.g. related content links and tag links that are baked into your news page template. The ones that usually need to be added are inline links (hyperlinking text from within your news piece). 

We’ve seen pieces with no links rank well on news surfaces and then we’ve seen pieces with links fail to rank. However, the relevance of links can be found by looking at how Google works in terms of the Google Knowledge Graph. 

An interesting example of why they are important are publisher topic pages and a brilliant way to understand the Knowledge Graph is Barry Adam’s article on the subject of internal linking

We’ve seen this in action with our client, Retail Bulletin. Their reporting is often tied to retail companies. For example, they report a lot on major retailers such as Matalan, Lidl, Morrisons… And, many of those companies come with searches in the news space that have good monthly volumes. For example, Sainsbury’s news has a search volume of 27,100 per month (according to Semush). 

We want our client to be associated with those retailers so that our chances of appearing in both traditional results and news surfaces are increased. 

We worked with the client to develop retailer news profiles, which provide readers with the latest news and give additional information on the retailer themselves. See, for example, Matalan's profile.

We then used Tags and inline linking from the news articles to link those profiles and give them a better chance of ranking for those main ‘[retailer] news’ terms. 

One challenge is ensuring that all individual articles are tagged and linked inline by editors. We tried testing an automated solution using an internal linking plugin called LinkWhisper with mixed results and all editors have been educated on the importance of this strategy. Of course, editors are sometimes too busy or simply forget. So we also do some internal linking ourselves with a weekly task in our calendar. Not an ideal solution and still a work in progress. 

The other challenge is the amount of news for each retailer and the frequency of the reporting. Our client is a small publisher and they don't publish hundreds of articles per day. While we have worked with the client to only choose retailers where coverage is frequent, there is still a bit of a gap there. 

Nevertheless, the initial results are positive, There was an immediate impact on rankings. And, overall visibility has improved and we starting to hold some positions on page 1. See below. 

Additionally, whenever there is a piece on a particular retailer that is fresh, our rankings jump to page 1 for the retailer page as well. This ensures that even if we do not feature in the news surfaces for that query, we get organic traffic from anyone looking at traditional search results. 

Optimise your images

Google loves a good image and that’s even more pronounced when it comes to ranking in Top Stories and Discover: 

“Include compelling, high-quality images in your content, especially large images that are more likely to generate visits from Discover. Large images need to be at least 1200 px wide and enabled by the max-image-preview:large setting.”

Google Discover Guidelines

News appearing on Google news surfaces is likely to have an image thumbnail accompanying it. Particularly when it comes to Top Stories and Discover where the image is quite prominent - see examples below. 

Top Stories - example

Discover - example

Google discovers an image in various ways. One of those is by looking at the structured data of your news article. Specifically, the image attributes:

Source: Google

Another way Google finds and uses images is via the thumbnail in cases where the article uses a video. This is the case with the below article by the Independent that is featured in Top Stories: 

You can find the featured image within the thumbnail markup

Another consideration for images is Open Graph metadata. While this data is usually used by social media platforms to display your article, it can be used by Google as well. 

We found that Google will sometimes use the images specified in the og:image property of the article and feature this in the news surfaces. This usually happens if the article is missing structured data, the image is missing in the content in the first place, or the article features a video. 

Like with the headline, the images should also be engaging and worthy of a click. So, avoid using your logo as an image! Colourful images also work well from our experience. After all, the aim is to gain the click. 

One other consideration is the desired resolution - Google points to 1200px. But many publishers do not upload images of such high quality and they still feature in news surfaces. One example is our client, the Retail Bulletin, which features in Discover and has lower-resolution images. 

Obviously, the proof there is anecdotal and points to the complexity of featuring in Discover. Just because you have high res images doesn’t mean you will rank! 

But there is a logical connection between better-resolution images and Discover. Discover is a mobile feature and just like AMP, it specifies high resolution in its guidelines. If possible, publishers should certainly take note and provide a high-resolution image to improve their chances of ranking. In fact, now I’m writing this, maybe testing including higher res images should be added to our own roadmap! 

I’ll let you know how it goes. 

Show Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (EEAT)

Part of how Google ranks any website and makes changes to its ranking ecosystem involves the work of quality raters. Quality raters are people employed by Google to do just what the name suggests: evaluate the quality of search results and feedback to Google. To guide them, Google has written what’s called Quality Raters Guidelines

Within this essential 168-page document, publishers will find an emphasis on EEAT (Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness). EEAT is not a Google ranking factor. However, it's an important concept to understand when working in SEO for publishers. 

Building EEAT for any website, including news outlets, is complex and there are debates within the SEO industry around the validity of some of the methods employed. Nevertheless, while there is no straight answer, there are a few best practices publishers should be aware of. 

Two main EEAT-building tips for publishers include:

  • Build news topic authority 
  • Make sure your technical set-up is sound

Build news topic authority 

One of the most important elements to remember for ranking is topical authority. In a nutshell, topical authority for publishers, as the name suggests, is a way for Google to understand the degree of expertise a publication has in particular areas (topics!). 

As with anything Google-related, the signals for this system are complex but three are listed in the official Google guidance:

  1. How notable a source is for a topic or location: For example, our client Retail Bulletin is building authority in retail news and as a source it is highly relevant for that topic area. 
  2. Influence and original reporting: This comes back to “the need for speed”. Original reporting that first breaks a story has an advantage to the point where now Google even uses the Highly Cited label to give people an easier way to identify stories that have been frequently cited by other news organisations.
  3. Source reputation: This is where the history of your publication comes in. Citations in other authority news publishers, recommendations from professional societies and journalistic awards are just a few examples of what could help you rank.

On a practical, news writing level, EEAT is all about writing helpful content with expertise. Ask yourself:

  • What is the intent behind this story? 
  • What search queries am I responding to? 
  • What are the keywords that can help Google surface this story better?
  • Am I the expert on this topic? And if not how can I bring experts in? 

Ultimately though, it all comes back to what Shelby Blackley so eloquently said: putting journalism (and your readers!) first. Chasing SEO rankings will not build your EEAT and will not help you rank. A testament to this is the recent March core update designed to combat the proliferation of AI spam content. 

For anyone looking to dive deeper into EEAT and why it’s important, a must-read is the excellent website by the expert on the topic, Marie Haynes. 

Make sure your technical set-up is sound

One of the elements that’s not always talked about in terms of EEAT is the technical side of things. I wrote about this in my last article for Sitebulb, but a sound technical foundation for news publishers is also a way to build EEAT and, in fact, error messages are part of the Raters guides. 

It’s also interesting that the example used for a Low PQ Rating is a news publisher. It seems that a page for a Michigan local paper “can be viewed as lacking in effort (an error that was not caught before the page went live)." Harsh but demonstrates the point that EEAT is not simply about your content, it’s about the whole UX. 

Source: Quality Raters Guideline

From basic elements, such as ensuring your website is on a secure connection (is encrypted with HTTPS) to providing a news sitemap and making sure your Publishers Centre is optimised - it all builds trust in the eyes of search engines and users. 

A note on creating editor/journalist/author profiles

According to Google, creating author bylines doesn't help you rank better as Google doesn't check credentials. 

Without going into the depths of entity SEO, Google assesses expertise by evaluating document entities in a topical vector of the knowledge graph against each other. 

This doesn't mean you should not have bylines! You definitely should, but the motivation should be the reader. Showing your users who is behind the news articles they are reading is a sign of transparency and it builds trust. Readers want to know who is behind the byline. 

Create bios by listing their experience in news publishing, and any awards or speaking opportunities they have done. Make sure you list the author on your news articles and link to their profile from the article. Then implement Author schema to help crawling. Recently Google has been testing showing Author bylines within Top Stories and News which could signal its importance in evaluating EEAT. 

UGC for publishers SEO

One area that has been gaining steady momentum in recent years is user-generated content (UGC) for SEO. In a nutshell, UGC is exactly what the name suggests: content that has been created for your publisher by users. 

The use of UGC in journalism is not a new thing. For years, news publications have been using even the basic idea of sources in journalism as part of the defining user-generated content. 

How newsrooms define UGC widely differs as well. Back in 2010, Claire Wardle researched the BBC use of UGC and even proposed a new way of naming it: “audience material”. She argued that UGC as a term fails to encompass the multifaceted contributions of the news audience that spans breaking news, comments, individual experiences, community reporting, citizens journalism, networked journalism and more. 

These days, accessing sources using social media accounts, monitoring the social pulse and using quotes and other UGC content is part of the everyday for journalists. Citizens play a key role in supporting news through eyewitness accounts and access to real-time events of global significance, for example, the recent coverage of the downfall of popular cryptocurrency exchange FTX

In terms of publishers' SEO, UGC also provides an increasingly fruitful strategy, simply because of how search has changed. In the era of emphasis on EEAT and the prevalence of AI-generated content, UGC can benefit publishers and brands in general more than ever. It has the power to build all the elements and in particular the first E -for Experience. This is something that to a large extent separates great content with human experience pieces from artificially generated AI content. 

Another signal that UGC is starting to play a big role in search is the recent appearance of the SERPS. Websites that are driven by UGC such as Reddit and Quora are gaining visibility. See below Reddit Semrush ranking trend. 

The fact that Reddit recently struck a $60 Million deal with Google to use its content for training AI models, needs to be mentioned here. But I’m not going to get into that can of worms!

Google has also rolled out a new search feature called Perspectives.

This comes on the back of AI content exploding and Google’s push towards diversifying the range of perspectives to enhance understanding of news stories. 

All this comes as no surprise. Microsoft and other rivals have threatened Google’s market share, some reports claim that search itself is moving towards platforms that more clearly show first-hand experience (see rise of TikTok in search) and are UGC driven with users looking for smaller social media platforms that provide fewer ads and more genuine experience. And, while this needs to be taken with a pinch of salt (we are not subscribing to the view that Google is dead just yet here at Vixen!), it does point to the importance for news publishers and any company to pay close attention to UGC. 

The challenge (and/or opportunity!) ahead

UGC itself comes with a number of opportunities in SEO but also some challenges. The opportunities are clear: enriching news stories with UGC. This has been the job of journalists for ages, long before it became important for building EEAT with Google. 

Today, this age old practice of bringing in personal experiences is increasingly important for SEO as well. It is abundantly clear that in order to rank in a sea of AI-heavy search results, UGC will become a strong differentiator. 

It’s also interesting that news publishers are seasoned pros in some of the challenges presented to other companies with UGC, such as control management and the possibility of negative or even harmful content. With fake news being a reality, journalists more than ever are paying attention to the possible pitfalls of UGC. This puts them in a perfect position to strategically use user-generated content in their SEO strategy. 

Tips on using UGC for publishers SEO

There are many ways publishers can and do use UGC which helps their SEO. If you are someone who includes citing sources in journalism as part of the UGC universe, most news publishers are already doing what needs to be done to rank better with the help of UGC. 

Alongside this, there are other specific practices and tips we would recommend: 

Ranking in Perspectives

Whether Perspectives will be the battlefield of choice is yet to be seen. It is hard to say at this point what publishers can do to benefit from Perspectives but there are already a few things we can see from early testing. 

For example, below you can see Perspectives appearing for the search ‘Real Madrid’ with features from real users in Perspectives. Strategies such as partnering with influencers on platforms like TikTok, or building your brand with insights from experts on the topic within your news publication, seem to be obvious tactics publishers can employ to rank. 

An interesting test would be aligning this to Google Trends. Being proactive in following Google Trends and responding using UGC content on platforms such as these could be a great opportunity to rank in Perspectives. 

NewzDash data is also telling - with Twitter and Reddit topping Perspectives. Publishers now more than ever need to connect with their users and empower them to easily contribute and share their own experiences and perspectives on social media channels and UGC forums. 

Ask for contributions 

So, don't forget to simply ask for contributors! Most newsrooms already do this to a degree, particularly when it comes to global, breaking news events.

An interesting point here is also the impact asking for contributors has on bringing in new voices into the news. In terms of SEO, Google’s recent agenda has been around diversifying rankings and bringing in new and fresh perspectives. This shift also means that asking for contributors from a diverse range of audiences has an added SEO benefit. 

Publishers should level up the involvement of the public in reporting to support their news. This can be done by simply adding a call for contributors at the end of the news or by creating news articles that are specifically aimed at crowdsourcing UGC. See below example from the Guardian:

Additionally, an interesting test would be adding the AskPublicNewsArticle schema to give search engines the additional context to rank the piece. 

Empowering users to easily share their unique experiences and opinions on social media should be part of the strategy. From ensuring your news articles are equipped with Share Buttons, to connecting with influencers to provide their spin on the content, UGC and asking for contributions needs to be grounded in a multichannel approach. 

Boosting commercialisation with reviews and testimonials

One of the underutilised strategies for publishers when it comes to UGC for SEO is using reviews and testimonials. Obviously, this will not be relevant for news articles. However, for some publishers, it will be relevant when it comes to the commercial aspects of the business. 

Many publishers’ commercialisation efforts include sponsorships and advertising. Pages that cover these elements are a prime example of where you could consider utilising UGC. Testimonials and reviews of past event participants and/or sponsors or advertisers send a strong signal of trust. You could also consider adding Review Schema markup to these pages to be in the position for your rating to appear as a rich result. 

Using social listening 

These days there really shouldn’t be a newsroom around that doesn't keep their pulse on social media. Social media is a way for audiences to consume, discover, share, post and comment on news. On the news side, social media listening shapes editorial calendars, helps newsroom position content by following the sentiment, and provides a way to report and enrich their news. 

But how does it connect to UGC and SEO specifically? 

One example is the use of social listening around trending topics. Smart publishers use social listening to discover topics that are trending and the sentiment around them. These topics are then used to source UGC content that matches. 

Posting this newly found trending UGC is where a multichannel strategy and repurposing of UGC comes into play. Your trend-driven UGC content can easily become a news story or, even better, an evergreen piece of content that has been optimised for search and helps you rank in traditional SERPS as well as Google news surfaces. 

Another more obvious example is the use of UGC in crisis situations and breaking news. 

Arab Spring and the 2010 Haiti earthquake are prime examples where social listening and UGC were not just used to enrich news content. They were used as the only source to report news. Without boots on the ground, major news outlets had to rely on UGC from Twitter to report on what was happening. This of course had an impact on SEO as those newsrooms that were quick enough to spot the updates were also the ones benefiting from the traffic. 

Optimise UGC content for search 

Similar to general optimisations for publishers' content, optimising UGC for search depends on the type of content and search goal. 

Let’s say the UGC is used in a news story that falls under the ‘need for speed’ requirement. In that case, having a technical setup that facilitates this (schema markup, HTML rather than JavaScript, news sitemap etc…) and ensuring the minimal on-page elements are done (e.g. impactful headlines with keywords added) is really all the optimisations we would recommend. 

On the other hand, if the UGC is part of the editorial calendar for news that has a slower cycle (e.g. opinion pieces, reviews…) or is part of the evergreen SEO content, optimisations can be more substantial. 

TL;DR summary

  • News SEOs must strike a balance between focusing on the story (not rankings) and capitalising on the opportunity of search.
  • On-page SEO is much more complex than this article shows, but with a few tweaks, news outlets can start to optimise their news for search. 
  • Consider how your readers are searching when you craft a catchy headline.
  • Use your HTML title to give more information and more opportunity for Google to discover what your article is about. 
  • Add links to improve your chances of ranking both in traditional search and Google news surfaces
  • Think about your images! Understanding how Google discovers them will help you decide how best to optimise. 
  • More than anything, be mindful of EEAT! As with the ethics of journalism, EEAT is all about being human-centred, audience-first. 
  • Finally, explore user-generated content. It’s the best way to scale without losing sight of what matters: your readers. 

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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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