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What Search Strategists Overlooked in the New York Times Leaked Innovation Report

Jack Allen
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An Innovation Report leaked from the New York Times recently. In it, the authors chronicle the changing landscape of offline and online publishing, benchmark fierce competition, detail shortcomings and solutions, and also offer case studies, innovative strategies working mission statements to reclaim their throne at the top of printed news.

Most importantly, the authors were ruthlessly introspective, revealing a number of search marketing obstacles the team has faced over the years. Check out the highlights below.

'Content is King' Mythology

"Because we are journalists, we tend to look at our competition in terms of content. But... the Huffington Post is not succeeding simply because of lists, quizzes, sports coverage ... They are succeeding because of their sophisticated search ... tools and strategies, and often in spite of their content." (24)

New York Times Unique Visitors vs BuzzFeed Huffington Post Yahoo News

Image Credit: Digiday

One gut-reaction to the changes in search marketing as been to reel towards content, and champion its importance to rankings. While Google's Matt Cutts also sings praise about quality content, many search marketers simply aren't built to be award-winning writers, or awe-inducing illustrators. A favorite article is Justin Brigg's Technical Hacks for Content Marketing, which offers tech-oriented marketers a how-to for creating interactive content.

And yet, potentially more than Cutts would have you believe, kingly content is more often a distraction than a solution. In fact, the New York Times' quality content is regularly overshadowed and swept off by sophisticated search and social strategies, whereby competitors even go so far to repackage the Times' content and blow their page views out of the water.

Content is king only if and when you own the space in which to distribute and monopolize on it. Without this real estate, a developed audience, or dumb luck?

When a tree falls in a forest...

In this era, it's mission critical to know how to gain the attention, the views and the links, in a way that outshines competition. With most brands pioneering content stronger than conventionally understood media outlets, distribution becomes the real hurdle.

Foundational SEO

"We could form a team of experts in the newsroom to focus on building and executing strategies for extending the reach of our most important work. The team includes an expert to focus on ways to boost a story on search through headlines, links and other tactics."(46)

The New York Times is but one of many legacy organizations who have slowly adopted digital best practices. While many search marketers may smirk at another giant struggling to deploy foundational SEO at scale, the reality is that too often these foundations are overlooked for quicker wins – for line-of-site ROI improvements, or for SEO strategies that do not require involvement from IT or legal departments.

Frequently, when search marketers work with Fortune 100 companies, the low-hanging fruits are aplenty. And yet, the organizational changes required to re-educate in-house Creative departments and charm developers in IT often are a bigger obstacle than the features that prevent the website from succeeding in search.

Functional Divisional

Image Credit: Clay Parker Jones

"Our website editors do not use some strategies for maximizing traffic that are standard practices elsewhere, even though these approaches would not conflict with our editorial values. A number of valuable tools like repackaging, personalization, optimization and direct outreach are not being used strategically." (94)

Businesses who outperform competition in search openly embrace optimization: while developers design for "mobile first," creatives are producing content with search being front-of-mind. They understand the value not only in content creation, but also in its repurposing, personalization and online promotion. This responsive, visionary way of work is set to dethrone legacy corporations like the New York Times if they continue to move slow and overshadow hard work with hard politics.

The Importance of Meta Data

"The lack of structured data also helps explain why... we continually struggle to attain higher rankings on search engines." (41)

Structured data is still a very new thing for most websites—studies have shown less than 0.5 percent of all domains use Schema integration. While search-savvy ecommerce shops have set-up rich snippets to display pricing, in-stock/out-of-stock, or product listings in the SERPs, many of these websites are smaller, more agile shops looking to disrupt slower-moving ecommerce shops.

Websites such as Upworthy, whose core product is content, re-write headlines (and so title tags) up to 25 times in order to test the success across organic search and social.

We Kill People Based on Metadata

Image Credit: NY Books

Another way meta data can devastate the organic traffic of a print-publication-gone-digital is by lacking indexation by Google News. Since many of these organizations were first to web, on a custom or outdated content management system (CMS), updating databases is more resource consuming than those built on new-fangled WordPress. With these prehistoric CMS builds, even simple rich snippets such as "Published on" can be a headache to prioritize and integrate.

"We need to focus on growing our audience and keeping our existing readers on our site longer. This comes through optimization of our website and off-site distribution, especially in social media." (94)

Only now are major players considering things like organic traffic and higher rankings, whereas they were previously occupied with how to effectively monetize their publication on the web. Only now, once traffic has begun to leave their websites and onto more agile competitors, are they concerned about audience reach and development.

While The Times is far from finished, the future seems uncertain. Many other major players, across verticals, are set to experience identical challenges – the challenge to respond to digital in a way not led by revenue, but by audience. We can see traces of this methodology in forward-thinking businesses:

"Why would you want to replicate the dealer experience? ... I don't know anyone who's had a good experience going to car dealers. I didn't have a good experience. I had a terrible experience. It always seemed like they were trying to rip me off — and they did rip me off. Why would we do that to our customers?" – Elon Tusk, Tesla

Without this shift, we may be in store for a wide variety of Innovation reports from multinational, multi-billion dollar organizations across the world. And, more often than not, I expect we'll see mention of search visibility, ranking and on-/off-site optimization stealing a part of the show.


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