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“SEOs Will Be the Death of the Artistic Headline”

How Football Journalists are dealing with SEO.

For football fans the summer is always a painstaking time, with transfer rumours and gossip dominating every paper, news story and social media channel. The endless search for the latest bit of information on which top player is joining our club means that we’re constantly looking for news. For me, this need for gossip has meant I’ve followed more football journalists than ever this summer. As of yet though, my club has frustratingly not signed a player despite hundereds of articles suggesting otherwise. Instead I’ve been led on and teased by every related story on twitter. So in amongst the usual updates on Rooney/Fabregas/Bale/Ronaldo etc. one tweet caught my eye the other day.

Football writer Miguel Delaney bemoaned the role of “SEOS” within online news media, claiming it was killing off the traditional use of pun’s in headlines. Now, I’m a big football fan, I work in SEO, and I bloody love puns! So here I am, looking in depth at what might be irking him.

Miguel kicked us off by giving an example of just what his issue was, elaborating “I just saw a beautiful pun, with the team names then shoe-horned in after it. I cried” whilst also joking about the Daily Mail’s “loooooooooooooooonnnnnggggg” headlines.

To investigate his claims I’ve picked out a story about a player I have less interest in than those previously mentioned, with a broad search for “liverpool arsenal suarez.” Whilst this may not represent the average user’s search when looking for news on Luiz Suarez, it gives us a good opportunity to see how each of the top news sites are targeting and optimising for this story.

How are football journalists tackling SEO?

With constant news updates on this particular transfer story, it’s unsurprising to see variations of articles from the same news sites within the search results, notably the Daily Mail. Now the Daily Mail are well documented for their knack of attracting thousands of hits for their picture heavy, content light, contentious spin on things, so it was unsurprising to see them ranking twice within the top 4 results for our broad search term.

The Mail, who often have the most stand out front page headlines, may be testament to Delaney’s statement as they have opted to go for a quote as the headline over a cleverer pun. Whilst this ensures that they can get their top keywords in, it hasn’t been done in a way which is clearly over optimised (or “shoe-horned” in). In fact, they have gone about their optimisation both naturally and effectively with the title, H1, and meta description tags all unique and targeting our three key terms.

<title>Luis Suarez is too good for Liverpool and Arsenal – Jamie Carragher | Mail Online</title>

<h1>Why Suarez is too good for Liverpool (and Arsenal) & and check out my retirement gift from Magic Messi</h1>

<meta name=”description” content=”Luis Suarez is too good for Liverpool. He is one of the top players in the world, whereas Liverpool were only the seventh best team in England last season.” />

The page URL is also optimised for these terms with a few words removed to keep it short.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-2388263/Luis-Suarez-good-Liverpool-Arsenal–Jamie-Carragher.html

The Daily Mail have got their basic SEO techniques right without having to stuff keywords in, which can appear both unnatural to Google’s algorithms and to the actual user. Arguably the URL could be better in order to summarise the page content to the user (as it’s hard to gather the actual article detail from those 7 words) but this is something the Mail have done better in their other top result for “liverpool arsenal suarez” with the following URL:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-2388175/Arsenal-hope-sign-Luis-Suarez-Liverpool-says-Arsene-Wenger.html

Before we look at how the other top newspaper sites, it is worth going over a few bits of best practice. The highest ranking factors on pages such as these are the title and URL, with the H1 and meta description of some value, perhaps simply for user experience. We know that titles are restricted to around 70 characters, which can leave little room to fit a keyword rich headline in naturally; but what’s the rule on URLs?

A few years ago Google’s Matt Cutts said, “If you have got a three, four or five words in your URL, that can be perfectly normal. As it gets a little longer, then it starts to look a little worse” adding that squeezing further words in a URL will simply give them less weight.

The Daily Mail got their headline and keywords in the URL naturally, if not slightly longer than Cutts suggested; but what did the other news sites do?

Two of the next best ranked articles were from the more respectable Guardian and Independent, however both took totally different approaches. The Guardian simply summarised their article titled “Luis Suárez: Arsenal are lacking class, says Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers” with 5 keywords that don’t really tell us the actual story.

http://www.theguardian.com/football/2013/aug/04/luis-suarez-arsenal-liverpool-rodgers

Although the accompanying title sits above the URL within the search results, from a user experience point of view the content is hard to extract from that URL. The Guardian look like they’re close to over optimising by simply stuffing their top 4-5 keywords in, however this seems to be standard practice for a lot of news sites.

The Telegraph on the other hand executed it pretty poorly. With their stupidly long URL also an exact match of both the title and H1 tag, could this negatively impact on the Independent’s search ranking?

http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/transfers/luis-suarez-moving-to-arsenal-is-ludicrous-liverpool-owner-john-w-henry-insists-striker-must-stay-and-they-will-not-sell-to-rival-for-topfour-place-8753017.html

News sites are obviously putting some thought into SEO, some more effectively than others, but what does all mean to our sacred headlines?

A quick search for the impact of SEO on headlines found plenty of articles from the last 2-3 years. The same fears were voiced back then, but various updates from Google in the last 18 months have put a focus on quality, meaning those creative headlines haven’t completely disappeared. So what has changed? Well for a start there are a few enhanced features within the SERP’s that some of the news sites are making the most of.

A number of the sites made up for their questionable optimisation by embracing some of the newer and comparatively advanced SEO techniques, by formatting breadcumbs into their sites, which Google then display in the results. These help to clearly break down a URL and categorise it based on the sections of the site.

Meanwhile, the Guardian were alone in further optimising their site and result to feature their video content, and therefore increase their visibility and potential click through rate. The Mirror however, went back to basics, using their meta description to promote further content not made obvious by the title or URL, with a read more style “PLUS…” with details of other transfer stories, rather than a description of the Suarez article. I get a lot of my news from twitter so I’m not sure if this is a regular technique, but it’s an interesting one anyway, especially to see what affect it has on CTR.

One notable exception within the top results in general for our broard search (not appearing until page 5 on Google) was The Times, whose decision to launch a paywall in 2009 has massively impacted on their organic search traffic. But that’s for a different study.

Traditionally newspaper headlines have been their main selling point, with a few choice and attention grabbing words or pun being enough to attract a reader. In the online search world there are more factors at play, with keyword optimisation important for the initial ranking within the search results. However, the right combination is needed within the main areas of title, URL and description, in order to catch a reader’s eye like a regular newspaper headline would.

But are the same papers doing it totally different in their print articles? Well, not really is the answer. Though the headlines are not stuffed with all three of the keywords from our broad search in, they are still to the point, with no apparent room for any puns.

Suarez Headlines

And we’re round again to the original statement; Miguel Delaney’s frustrated vent about SEO.

“What’s that stand for mate?” one of his followers asked in response to his tweet, to which he replied;

“I don’t know but it’s something to do with words in search engines.”

In a broad sense, yes. No pun intended.

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