It’s Not About Critical Mass
Search engine optimization has become a critical component in publishers’ online toolkits, and smaller publishers with limited staff, budgets and resources are fine-tuning their SEO efforts to leverage only their most critical content features. They’re also taking a learn-as-they go approach, outsourcing services where needed and, crucially, upgrading their legacy content management systems, which can do serious damage to any formal search optimization project.
Going Beyond the Basics
The Time Out franchise is about to roll out redesigns of its New York, Chicago and Time Out New York Kids Web sites. Amanda Meffert, online director for Time Out New York, and Mike Rucker, marketing director, both felt they had maxed out the more fundamental SEO strategies and chose the relaunch as an opportune time to bring in a vendor to take their SEO efforts to the next level. "I think we hit on a lot of the major tactics and what we were finding was they weren’t getting us any more traffic because they’re the same tactics everyone else is using," says Meffert, who says the site is averaging about 200,000 monthly uniques. "Using keywords throughout the site is something that’s used by a lot of publishers so we just knew that if we wanted to increase traffic we were going to have somebody putting all their attention on it."
To fit within their SEO budget;"Our budget is definitely on the smaller end of the budgets the vendor typically works with," says Rucker;the firm followed up a full site evaluation by isolating key content areas that had the most potential to draw traffic.
"[SEO] has played to our strengths as far as we know that people are coming to our site for restaurants, theater information and museums and film," says Meffert. "We’re trying to focus on our strengths and where we have depth of content because we have a limited budget and resources. For a section like dance we might not go so deep into breaking that content out."
A Legacy CMS
David Newcorn, vice president of new media at b-to-b publisher Summit Publishing, may be happy with the CMS he has now, but it’s been a rocky road to this point;he’s on his third version. The old systems prevented any meaningful SEO efforts. "SEO was always one thing that we didn’t do well," says Newcorn. "It’s a function I think a lot of publishers struggle with. It’s a function of the content management system that you use. So most of us were struggling with legacy systems that just frankly sucked, when it came to making our content visible on the Internet."
After updating his CMS, Newcorn says his flagship site, Packworld.com, immediately registered a 30 percent increase in traffic. Outdated systems have at least three problem areas that could easily be addressed by upgrading to a more robust and modern system. And each of these areas forms the bedrock of any SEO program.
Search engines like simple URLs but old content management systems don’t. "A URL with a lot of different parameters or variables is less likely to be indexed," says Newcorn. "You’re basically risking unnecessarily making your content invisible by having a content management system spit out URLs with a lot of different parameters."
Title tags should accurately describe the content of an associated page. Title bars that are too general will not help yield effective search results. "You’ll still find some publishers’ Web sites where the title bar is ‘XYZ Magazine,’ on every single page. That’s a no-no," says Newcorn. "Two [CMS] versions ago for us, every single page in our site was like that. That is a function of the content management system because it generates those titles."
A cross-linking feature;related articles, most popular articles, etc.;is not just a helpful reader function, it helps the search engines crawl through more of your site. Without this, search engines may not be indexing as much of your content as you’d like. "This is a very common function in any modern content management system," says Newcorn. "But again, it has to be built in and the old ones we all had didn’t have that."
SEO in Moderation
Updating his CMS brought Newcorn to a plateau he felt comfortable with. "We actually retained a search engine firm, which I think is a good thing, but our traffic started going up just by taking care of some of the fundamentals and it didn’t seem necessary to invest any further time in it," he says. Similarly to Time Out, Newcorn advises that for publishers that produce thousands of pages of content under multiple category headings, optimizing every page can become maddening. "You’re not going to optimize for every page and you’re not going to optimize for every category. You might optimize for your just your key categories."
Kent Anderson, executive director of international business and product development at the New England Journal of Medicine, is making sure his SEO efforts are moderated to a point where the content doesn’t get diluted among the mass media health outlets. Anderson says his SEO strategy falls under the purview of the online marketing group as well as a third-party consultancy, for which he says he dedicates a budget in the very low six figures.
Anderson says traffic to Nejm.org averages about 1.2 million monthly uniques, with about 600,000 coming from search. After first implementing SEO, the site increased its traffic by a third. Now, however, Anderson says that he’s careful not to turn the SEO dial to 11. "We’re very careful with our content, and there were choices where we could have optimized for search like crazy, but it wouldn’t be true to our content."
Because of this, Anderson is careful not to tag content too generally. "We publish for professionals. So a term like ‘women’s health';we’re dealing, for example, with a genetic disposition to very specific types of ovarian cancer in a registry in Norway. So we’re not going to tag that as ‘women’s health.’ It’s genetics, it’s oncology. We’re not painting a broad brush for it. So there’s a balancing act between the integrity of our content and optimizing for search engines."
SEO on a Budget
Smaller publishers may not have the resources to optimize for a mass market, nor should they need to. Here are some considerations for dialing in the right SEO frequency.
- The basics; title tags, headings, keywords;may be enough. Summit Publishing’s David Newcorn bumped unique visits up by 30 percent simply by upgrading his CMS, which had basic optimization protocols built in.
- Time your SEO with a redesign. When you redesign your Web site, it’s a perfect opportunity to review your optimization priorities and make necessary adjustments.
- Selectively optimize. Not every content category needs to be optimized. And pay attention to how customers in your market search. "If they’re searching for super-specific things, you don’t need to drive yourself nuts with keywords," says Newcorn