Ken Lerer, chairman and co-founder of The Huffington Post, came for a second session on media entrepreneurship at Columbia Journalism School yesterday. This time he brought with him Jonah Peretti, also co-founder of HuffPo and BuzzFeed. This session focused on SEO and how content becomes viral.

One of the most interesting tidbits that Peretti and Lerer revealed was how they use real-time analytics to determine the performance of stories, and today Nieman Lab’s Zach Seward has more on how HuffPo uses A/B headlines to see how each performs. This allows the editors to react to performance of a story and edit a headline to make it more effective for its readers and the search engines too.

Peretti wouldn’t say what the secret is with virality and it’s difficult to gauge how readers will respond. But SEO is a combination of a well written headline (this includes multiple factors and is a post on its own), well tagged for search engines, writing with SEO in mind, and easily shareable for readers (social tools, etc.).

I know that journalists often cringe at the thought of SEO and it’s implications on manipulating, and taking away from, the creativity of writing. One student during the session asked Lerer and Peretti, “Shouldn’t we be concerned about the story getting read, rather than linked to?” Though the question wasn’t really answered, I would respond by saying that the two go hand-in-hand. Getting a story linked means that more people will read it. The more viral a story is, the more readers get to see it. I think of the concept behind SEO as having existed for some time. Editors of newspapers and magazines would craft headlines and photos that would get readers to pick up the papers.

He also took on the inverted pyramid, which he said takes a different shape online. “You move some of the pieces of the pyramid around,” Lerer said.

Traditional news organizations that have made the shift to online seem to focus much less on the content’s virality. Peretti pointed out that many traditional publishers are still focusing on content, which is king, but there needs to be some great effort going into what works on the Web and how content becomes viral. Right now, it seems many news orgs are ignoring it and thinking that readers will come to them.

Tech media companies have focused on how to make their companies grow and spread quickly. For example, some companies give incentive to invite their friends. Paypal gave its users some spending money for getting friends to join. The idea is for news organizations to figure out ways in which their content will spread on its own.

There are three main models that Peretti points to: community model (like Digg), editorial model (nytimes.com), and algorithm model (aggregators like Google News). Each of these play off each other and help drive traffic to one another, he said. I think the key is that new media models out there should incorporate these aspects into their sites, especially a community model. Giving people control of certain aspects of the site, where they can engage, will drive a lot of traffic and keep users coming back.


10 thoughts on “Virality, SEO and its place in online journalism”

  1. Great recap of the session, Vadim! Some of the comments by audience members were indeed a bit ridiculous – the more you get read means the more you get linked to. I think sessions like these are important to start helping journalists understand how the web actually works. Better to ask the bonehead questions at school than to make bonehead decisions when you're out in the professional world.

  2. I think there is plenty of room at the table for creativity and SEO you just have to know how to include both and make them mesh together. What good is all that creative writing if nobody can find it. I think the sooner writers introduce elements of SEO into the big picture the sooner their exposure will grow.

  3. As an avid fan of Journalism (as opposed to actual journalist), I love living vicariously through your blog and hearing what the people I tweet about are saying about the industry. I am also a digital PR/SEO intern so I understand the need to find a way for content to get noticed…but I also know the best ways to do so. And to be honest, SEO practices do not align with traditional, well-respected journalism. Eventually the good articles will rise to the top, but those that include SEO tricks and shortcuts might get there faster, and that's not a good thing.

  4. As an avid fan of Journalism (as opposed to actual journalist), I love living vicariously through your blog and hearing what the people I tweet about are saying about the industry. I am also a digital PR/SEO intern so I understand the need to find a way for content to get noticed…but I also know the best ways to do so. And to be honest, SEO practices do not align with traditional, well-respected journalism. Eventually the good articles will rise to the top, but those that include SEO tricks and shortcuts might get there faster, and that's not a good thing.

  5. Hi your post is amazing, It’s incredible, I learned a lot about SEO and Man, this thing’s getting better and better as I learn more about internet marketing. Also as part of my ongoing mission to find the absolute best tools to make money, this is without a doubt at the top of my list. Everything happened so fast!

  6. Hi there! I’m at work browsing your blog from my new iphone!
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