Black, White, and Blue all Over

SEO rarely comes up in the same breath as newspapers, unless perhaps it stands for a Sadly Executed Online product.

This is why my ears perked up during The Kelsey Group’s Drilling Down on Local conference when SEO was mentioned by Rob Barrett of the Los Angeles Times not once, but nine times. As VP of Interactive at the company, he’s in the midst of an aggressive online product rollout.

Barrett characterized as a “dump” of the content that appears in the print edition, which fails to take to heart the way online users consume content. This is more a decentralized hunt for specific items than a continuous browsing experience with one product (as it is in print).

“Engagement was not growing,” Barrett said. “Search engine traffic comes in, reads one article then leaves. This cedes traffic to those with better online models.”

The site also has a geographic scope that isn’t differentiated, he said. The L.A. Times, like most major metro papers, has a national and international focus, but an online strategy has to focus on the uniquely local stuff that can’t be replicated by the Google News’s of the world.

This means topics that are germane to L.A., such as car culture, immigration, and of course entertainment, which represents a $25 million print and online ad market.

“A local [online” visitor generates 17 monthly page views on average versus six for national readers, and has twice the display revenue per page as a national reader,” Barrett said.

Getting There

So how will Barrett do this? His multi-pronged approach will tap a combination of paid editorial resources, non-paid community experts, and user-generated content. These are hoped to boost content with keyword-rich copy that is locally relevant.

He’s also hoping for a certain amount of link juice throughout a network of blogs and topic pages associated with The goal is to have about 500 blogs on locally relevant topics, and city guides for L.A. readers.

So far it has about 30 blogs including a Lakers blog by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and a politics blog from prolific L.A. Times political reporter Andrew Malcolm (sub-500 Technorati ranking). This will also play off a network of A-Z topic pages, with multimedia rich content on everything from movie projects to the latest glitterati nonprofit cause.

Barrett meanwhile hopes to seed local mashups created from existing L.A. Times content with link bait potential. He showed a map that plots all of the geo-tagged homicides in L.A. as one example of what can be done when you empower young editorial manpower with free reign to get creative with newsroom content.

“It’s kind of morbid, but you get the idea of some of the things that can be created that will have viral potential,” Barrett said.

Setting the Bar

Barrett’s goal for this new product is for online to drive half of total cash flow by 2011, when compared with print (amounting to 20 percent of total revenues). The higher engagement of locally and topically specific content, he predicts, will also make total page views from in-market readers surpass that of national readers by 2009.

He’s already seeing results from launched blogs and local mashups, to the tune of 3.5 million incremental page views in March. This is about a 25 percent year-over-year increase, while total unique users are up 31 percent; photo gallery page views are up 57 percent; and blog page views are up 90 percent.

The site also saw session lengths increase 24 minutes per unique user in March (year over year). Display ad revenue is projected to be $25 million this year compared to $6 million in 2005 — a steady increase that Barrett hopes will spike during the content-centric overhaul that will pick up considerably in the next six months.

Baby Steps for Media Giants

While much of this isn’t really advanced SEO (some isn’t SEO at all), it’s still a big step for newspapers. Luckily the content generation and community interaction at the heart of these efforts require editorial resources and local branding that newspapers already have.

These things aren’t easy to build from scratch — just ask Yelp, Topix, Angie’s List, or Citysearch. So if anyone should be able to build solid local content sites, it’s newspapers.

It’s their game to lose, with a sizeable but quickly closing head start, as publishers across the country sit on their hands. We’ll see if the hometown paper in the trendiest spot in the nation can buck the trend. Barrett seems to think it will.

“By the end of the year, is going to be barely recognizable from what it is today,” he said.

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