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Why News SEO Is Crucial to Publishers Covering the Coronavirus Pandemic

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Why News SEO Is Crucial to Publishers Covering the Coronavirus Pandemic

If you’re a publisher, you already know that news SEO is absolutely crucial.

You might have also learned that optimizing stories for Google News and Google universal search results is fairly difficult to do on the fly.

However, if you’re an SEO or PR professional, then you may not even realize just how useful press release SEO can be for your company or clients.

Well, I’ve just spent the last two weeks testing a news SEO tool called NewzDash that can help thousands of publishers – especially the ones that are covering a rapidly evolving news story like the Coronavirus pandemic.

NewzDash can also help hundreds of SEOs as well as scores of PR agencies and departments – if they can learn how to collaborate more closely at a time when most marketing professionals are trying to increase their social distance or work remotely.

So, first I’ll show you what NewzDash can do for 25,000 publishers in 15 countries to:

  • Discover the latest news trends.
  • Optimize their news stories.
  • Track their keyword rankings in near real-time.

Then, I’ll explain how SEO and PR professionals can use a news SEO tool, too.

Just How Crucial Is News Optimization to Publishers?

As I mentioned, publishers understand why optimizing stories for Google and Google News is crucial.

In September 2018, Megan Radogna wrote The ultimate referral guide to your audience, which reported that Google and Google News were sending 51.5% of the external referral traffic publishers in Parse.ly’s network, while Facebook was sending just 29%.

Referrer traffic to publishers

Also in 2018, a Searchmetrics whitepaper on universal search revealed that Top Stories (the News Carousel formerly known as the News box) were blended into Google’s SERPs for 11% of keywords on desktops and 9% of keywords on mobile devices.

And, according to a study of the impact of search features conducted by Perficient Digital and AuthorityLabs Data Services, which was updated on March 3, 2020, News Carousels have a 20% click-through rate.

popularity of search features

In other words, organic search traffic has become as essential to online publishers today as single-copy sales by “newsies” were to Joseph Pulitzer back in 1899.

This is why news SEO is as crucial to journalism in the early 21st century as banner headlines were in the late 19th century.

Which Publishers Are Benefitting the Most From News Search SEO?

Now, during the early days of news search SEO, the only tool available to help publishers and SEO professionals to track their rankings in Google News was called Newsknife.

It was a project of Industry Standard Computing Ltd (ISC), a software development organization based in New Zealand.

And, back in December 2010, I wrote in a post in Search Engine Watch entitled, “Newsknife Ranks Top News Sites and Journalists of Google News for 2010,” which reported that Newsknife had analyzed more than 161,000 listings by 5,859 news sites in the U.S. edition of Google News and created a list of Top News Sites for 2010. They were:

  • New York Times
  • Los Angeles Times
  • Wall Street Journal
  • Reuters
  • Washington Post
  • The Associated Press
  • USA Today
  • CNN
  • ABC News
  • BBC News, U.K.

Although Newsknife disappeared from the market a few years later, it’s worth comparing their list of the Top News Sites in the U.S. a decade ago with one compiled by NewzDash last week.

NewzDash was created by John Shehata, who is now the vice president of audience development and SEO at Condé Nast, home to some of the world’s most iconic brands, including Vogue, The New Yorker, GQ, Vanity Fair, and Wired.

I met him in 2009, when he was Director of SEO & Social Media at Advance Internet, which included 13 local online news sites like NJ.com.

We were both speakers at a session on “News Search SEO” at Search Engine Strategies (SES) New York.

Later, Shehata became the Executive Director of Search and Social Media at Walt Disney Television, which included ABC News, ABC Entertainment, and Oscars.

That’s around the time that I met other panelists at similar sessions at SES London, SES Chicago, and SES San Francisco. This included:

  • Topher Kohan of CNN.
  • Matthew Brown of The New York Times.
  • Brent Payne of The Chicago Tribune.
  • Allison Fabella of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
  • Brad Balfour of the Huffington Post.
  • Paul Roach of The Guardiana.
  • Julian Sambles of The Telegraph.
  • David Radicke, a consultant for Welt Online.

That’s how I know that their news organizations have been optimizing their stories for Google News for at least a decade.

Today, there are more than 50,000 publishers in 127 countries with local editions of Google News and NewzDash is working to collect data on 25,000 of these publishers in 15 key countries.

However, for my two-week test, the data that I was able to analyze was limited to the top publishers in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Belgium, France and Germany going back to October 1, 2019.

The complete data set is available for subscribers and not available to trial accounts, which is what I used.

Nevertheless, here are the top news publishers in the U.S. edition of Google News from October 1, 2019, to March 6, 2020:

Top news publishers in the US

As you can see, CNN, The New York Times, Washington Post, and USA Today, are still in the top 10 – just as they were a decade ago.

But, missing from the old top 10 list are the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and the Associated Press, ABC News, and BBC News U.K.

Things have shifted significantly since I last looked at a similar list of top news publishers in Google News a decade ago.

What happened to some of the news publishers that were optimizing their stories a decade ago?

Well, NewzDash provides a partial answer in its list of the top video news publishers in the U.S. edition of Google News from October 1, 2019, to March 6, 2020:

Top video news publishers in the US

As you can see, ABC News is #1, followed by CBS News at #2, Fox News at #3, and CNN at #4.

So, ABC News seems to have mastered video news SEO on YouTube.

In fact, YouTube would be the #1 domain in Google News by far, but NewzDash chooses not to show YouTube as a publisher, opting to show individual YouTube channels for a long list of publishers instead.

And NewzDash provides another part of the answer to my rhetorical question about the BBC News U.K. in its list of the top news publishers in the U.K. version of Google News from October 1, 2019, to March 6, 2020:

Top news publishers in the UK

And, as you can see, BBC News is #2, behind The Guardian, which has also been optimizing its stories for more than a decade. And the other familiar name on this list is The Telegraph, which ranks #9.

And NewzDash provides the final part of the answer to my rhetorical question in its list of the top video publishers in Google News UK from October 1, 2019, to March 6, 2020:

top video news publishers in the UK

Check out the list above. The Telegraph ranks #1, Guardian News ranks #3, and BBC News ranks #6.

British national newspapers on the other side of the pond have not only mastered news SEO but have also become proficient at video news optimization for YouTube.

That’s a success story that their American cousins on this side of the pond should examine.

NewsDash also lets you drill down to see the top publishers in Google News sections, including:

  • Entertainment.
  • Sports.
  • National.
  • Business.
  • Technology.
  • Health.
  • Elections.

For example, here’s the list of the top publishers in the Sports section of the U.S. edition of Google News from October 1, 2019, to March 9, 2020:

Sports publishers share of voice in the US

NewzDash not only reports that ESPN ranks #1 in the Sports section, but that it had a 9.6% share of voice in that category over that period of time.

  • CBSSports, which ranked #2, had a 7.5% share of voice.
  • The New York Post ranked #3 with 3.3% share of voice.
  • Yahoo Sports was #4 with a 3.2% share of voice.
  • USA Today was #5 with a 2.5% share of voice.

And here’s the list of the top publishers in the Technology section of the U.S. edition of Google News from October 1, 2019, to March 9, 2020:

Technology publishers share of voice in the US

The Verge not only ranked #1 in the Technology section, it also had a 5.4% share of voice in that category.

  • CNET ranked #2 and had a 4.9% share of voice.
  • Engadget ranked #3 with a 4.7% share of voice.
  • Forbes ranked #4 with a 4.2% share.
  • GameSpot ranked #5 with a 4% share of voice.

In the trial account, NewzDash provides examples of local news reports for Michigan, New Jersey, New York City, and Los Angeles.

More locations are added on-demand per client requests.

For example, here’s the list of the top publishers for New Jersey in the U.S. edition of Google News from October 1, 2019, to March 9, 2020:

New Jersey publishers share of voice

  • NJ.com ranks #1 with a 20.9% share of voice.
  • Fox News ranks #2 with a 9.7% share of voice.
  • All About The Jersey ranks #3 with an 8.5% share of voice.
  • Summit, NJ, Patch ranks #4 with an 8.4% share of voice.
  • The New York Post ranks #5 with a 7% share of voice.

And here’s the list of the top publishers for Michigan in the U.S. edition of Google News from October 1, 2019, to March 6, 2020:

Michigan publishers share of voice

  • The Detroit Free Press (Freep.com) ranks #1 with a 22.4% share of voice.
  • MLive.com ranks #2 with a 14.3% share.
  • The Detroit News ranks #3 with an 8.6% share of voice.
  • WDIV ClickOnDetroit ranks #4 with a 5.4% share of voice.
  • Fox News ranks #5 with a 4.6% share of voice.

And you can imagine how useful this will be to local news sites in other locations.

Cities and other states can be added in a matter of minutes to customer reports.

There are also NewzDash reports that track news site stats for a single publisher as well as competitive weaknesses and strengths of a group of publishers.

These are all crucial because “you can’t manage what you can’t measure,” as Peter Drucker is often quoted as saying.

And the old Newsknife tool didn’t enable publishers to track their market share by Google News section, location, or direct competitors.

Who Needs Near Real-Time Keyword Tracking & News Rankings?

Now, back before the internet was invented, I was the news editor at an evening newspaper who had to compete for newsstand readers with another evening daily in the same region.

And before that, I was a radio reporter who had to update breaking news stories every hour.

I understand why today’s online news editors will want to use the next couple of NewzDash reports every 15 minutes to win today’s round-the-clock battle for Google News traffic.

Optimizing breaking news stories is difficult because the rapid flow of new developments quickly makes almost any SEO strategy outdated.

But, NewzDash enables publishers to track keyword rankings every 15, 30, or 60 minutes in Google News SERPs as well as Top Stories – the News Carousel, formerly known as the “In The News” box – in Google universal search results.

This enables news publishers to track competitors’ headlines and see which stories are getting better rankings.

For example, NewzDash did a study on Black Friday and Cyber Monday for 25 days, from Nov. 15 to Dec. 10, 2019. They tracked 25 keywords, including:

  • Black Friday.
  • Black Friday deals.
  • Black Friday sales.
  • Best Black Friday deals.
  • Walmart Black Friday deals.
  • Cyber Monday.
  • Cyber Monday deals.
  • Cyber Monday sales.
  • Best Cyber Monday sales.
  • Cyber Monday tech deals.
  • Best Cyber Monday tech deals.
  • Cyber Monday deals Walmart.

Top publishers for Black Friday and Cyber Monday

And you can see above, Forbes ranked #1 and USA Today ranked #2.

But look at the middle of the image above and you will note that Forbes published 243 unique stories over that 25-day period, and USA Today published 194.

Both publishers flooded the zone on these topics.

However, the top stories on Black Friday and Cyber Monday during this period were:

Top stories for Black Friday and Cyber Monday

So, different publishers can have different strategies for covering planned event like these ones – or other tent-pole events like the Super Bowl, the Oscars, back to school, Halloween, or Christmas.

What NewzDash enables publishers to do is see which competitors and stories dominated these events.

It also lets publishers understand the tactics that competitors are using like updating the same content every day and switching their URLs, which explains why they won.

So, this is why tracking keywords in near real-time is so crucial.

But, I also wanted to see how NewzDash could be used for a rapidly evolving news story – like Coronavirus, which is also known as COVID-19.

It was first reported in Wuhan, China, on December 31, 2019, and the World Health Organization announced last week that the pandemic had swept into at least 114 countries and killed more than 4,000 people.

According to Google Trends, it has prompted a number of questions, including:

  • What is the coronavirus?
  • How many people have died from coronavirus?
  • How to prepare for the coronavirus
  • How did the coronavirus get started?
  • How is coronavirus spread?

As the breakout has spread, there has been a surge in searches in the U.S. for:

  • What to stock up on for coronavirus.
  • What to know about coronavirus.
  • What to do if you think you have coronavirus.
  • What to do to prepare for coronavirus.
  • What to do to prevent coronavirus.

So, I used NewzDash to track “coronavirus” and “COVID-19” every 60 minutes from March 3-5.

My test revealed that the top ranking sites are The New York Times, Washington Post, NBC News, USA Today, and CNBC.

Top news publishers for Coronavirus

In addition, the top stories during that timeframe were:

Top news stories for Coronavirus

A quick analysis of this limited sample shows:

  • The New York Times has the highest visibility in Top Stories while CDC.gov has the highest visibility in Organic Results.
  • Washington Post Live updates have helped greatly secure top rankings in both Top Stories and Organic Results.

Now, if you’re an online news editor, then you might use more than a couple of keywords and check rankings more frequently than every 60 minutes for longer than a few days as I did a week ago.

That would enable you to keep up with this rapidly evolving news story in near real-time.

How SEO & PR Professionals Can Use a News SEO Tool

Now, I’ve been mucking around in this field since the beta version of Google News was released in September 2002.

And I pioneered what Tad Clarke, the Editorial Director of MarketingSherpa, once called “the tactic known as SEO PR” to generate measurable results for a wide variety of organizations, including newspaper and magazine publishers.

For example, early press release SEO efforts produced:

  • 21% of the revenues from initial SEMPO members, supporters, and sponsors in 2003.
  • $2.5 million in airline ticket sales for Southwest Airlines in 2004.
  • 3 million site-searches for “florists” on SuperPages.com in 2005.
  • 450,000 unique visitors to The Christian Science Monitor’s site in 2006.
  • A record 1,100 attendees to the Wharton Economic Summit in 2007.
  • A 36% increase in brand searches for Better Homes and Gardens in 2008.
  • 859 backlinks to Parents magazine’s Toy and Product Recall Finder in 2009.
  • A 3X return on marketing investment for the Rutgers Mini-MBA program in 2010.
  • A 5X return on marketing investment for the Rutgers Mini-MBA program in 2011.

But, interest in this tactic dropped like a hot brick in 2013 when Google updated its examples of link schemes to explicitly include: “Links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites.”

Shortly thereafter, conferences like Search Engine Strategies (SES) stopped having sessions on “News Search SEO.” Training organizations like Market Motive stopped offering courses on “Online PR.”

And articles like “Google News Optimization: How to Boost Your Site’s Visibility & Traffic” suddenly became as rare as black swans.

But, if you go back and review the list of early results above, then you’ll see that only one of them involved building backlinks.

The other eight involve boosting brand awareness, driving website traffic, generating leads, increasing sales, or producing a return on marketing investment.

So, maybe it’s time to take a second look at news SEO, news optimization, or whatever you want to call it these days.

And it’s worth noting that NewzDash tracks:

  • BusinessWire.com, which ranked #550 globally and #310 in the U.S.
  • PRNewswire.com, which ranked #725 globally and #421 in the U.S.
  • GlobeNewswire.com, which ranked #1,975 globally and #1,238 in the U.S.

So, your biggest challenge won’t be finding a press release distribution service that’s in Google News or a news SEO tool to track your results.

Based on my experience training SEOs as well as PR agencies and departments since 2002, your biggest challenge will be getting SEO and PR professionals out of their organizational silos and using the best practices from both marketing disciplines.

Now, you may not want to sit around the same table during the coronavirus pandemic. But, you can use a video-conference service to begin tackling this opportunity.

More Resources:


Image Credits

All screenshots taken by author, March 2020

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Greg Jarboe

President and co-founder at SEO-PR

Greg Jarboe is president of SEO-PR, which he co-founded with Jamie O’Donnell in 2003. Their digital marketing agency has won ... [Read full bio]

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