Writing news for search engines and blogs

One of the reasons I love blogging is that it gives me the opportunity to see things at a micro level. I can see patterns and analyze data in a way that I couldn’t in a typical work role.

When I was writing the follow on post to the 35W bridge collapse the other day, I initially wrote this:

MN-DOT has finally released the video from last week’s bridge collapse.

That’s how I would have written it based on my journalism experience. As I tapped out the period, I realized that the sentence is meaningless to search engines. And thus unfindable by the many users who rely on search engines to find news. I rewrote it as:

MN-DOT has finally released the video from the August 1 collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River.

That sounded too stilted to me. Based on having looked at my traffic data, I knew people weren’t searching on “August 1”. They were searching heavily on “Mississippi” and “35W”. The final version I used is this:

MN-DOT has finally released the video from last week’s collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River.

Writing headlines for blogs is even trickier. Blog headlines have two audiences: search engines and readers who view blog posts in RSS feeds. The clever headline that might get a reader to click on a link is often lacking in the keywords that search engines need.

This headline from Tuesday is meaningless to search engines: “Mmmm… McCarrots and McMilk.” It seems to be working from an RSS feed clickthrough perspective.

I strive for a mix of people friendly and search engine friendly headlines. When I use headlines like the McCarrots and McMilk one, I do an extra pass to make sure that the body of the post contains the keywords searchers are looking for.

Speaking of search engines and news, this week drove home a pet peeve: news sites like CNN defaulting their search engines to search the Web. If I wanted to search the Web, I would have gone to Google, used the Google search box in Firefox or used the search box in the Google Toolbar. If I’m searching on your news site, I want your news content.

CNN Search box

I got some traffic to this blog from people searching CNN for “35W bridge traffic camera video”. That search led them to this post on the video being released. Which led them back to the video on CNN’s site.

As much as I welcome the traffic, it’s a terrible user experience. A hybrid model, where CNN content comes before Web results, would be more effective and still serve the revenue goals of offering Web search.

See also: Taking newspapers beyond tonight’s fishwrap

More on: newspapers, journalism


About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is Senior Director of product at Amazon (Audible). Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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