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With search engines ranking as a top traffic driver for many blogs and content sites, optimizing a site for search engine exposure is an increasingly critical component of any online marketing effort. Search engine optimization, or “SEO,” means using technical and not-so-technical techniques to make sure that people searching for topics you write about will find your site.

Over the next few months, I’ll be redesigning MediaShift in conjunction with adding new video and audio features. One of my goals for the redesign is, not surprisingly, to increase traffic; and with nearly 50% of MediaShift traffic coming from Google, getting more traffic means doing more SEO.

So I did some online research and contacted Aaron Wall, a young SEO expert who wrote SEO Book and consults for websites that want to improve their search optimization. Plus, I queried Poynter’s Online News email discussion list, and received some great tips from other site managers.

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Aaron Wall

Wall agreed to give me advice on how I could improve the SEO for MediaShift, and I’ve distilled those tips into some basics that are relevant to any content site that wants more search engine traffic. There are a few caveats, however. As Wall told me, MediaShift is not typical of new sites or blogs because it already has a strong PageRank (authority) with Google, and has built up “social trust” by getting so many links from other sites. Many sites just starting up would have to focus more than I do on getting incoming links, which is how Google ranks sites (more inbound links = more authority).

Another caveat: I noticed that SEO experts often recommend certain writing styles including particular ways of writing headlines and captions. I’d personally caution against writing for search engines at the expense of writing for people, since people are the real reason you are doing what you do, and they are more apt to return and become loyal readers if the writing suits them. Of course, different publishers have different goals for running their site, so they should consider balancing business and advertising needs with keeping readers happy.

Finally, it’s important that in seeking increased traffic, you don’t go overboard with SEO-motivated site changes: For example, if you create dummy pages and links just to increase your site’s exposure for a particular keyword, Google will catch on and lower your ranking.

With these caveats in mind, here are nine SEO tips to consider:

Tips on Improving SEO

1. Get inbound links and link out as well.
As I mentioned above, Google ranks your site according to the amount of inbound links it has from other sites — and gives more weight to links from other authoritative sites. I don’t have as much of a problem with this at MediaShift, but it is important for new blogs or news sites.

“One of the things that drives Google rank is links, both internal and external,” said Kevin Anderson, blogs editor at the Guardian. “Blogging is all about linking, although any good web journalism should be. When I’m being honest, as a journalist and blogger, I’ll admit that blogs have higher Google rank than sites with similar traffic based on the high level of linking…It’s one of those slightly counter-intuitive things that traditional journalists and media managers don’t seem to understand. Linking is not only good web journalism, it’s also good for SEO, hence site visibility.”

Terry Heaton, senior vice president of AR&D, notes that internally linking is also important, and is something the top newspaper sites do well.

“The main reason Wikipedia links always appear near the top in Google is because their Google Juice is rich with links from and to themselves,” Heaton said. “The ‘weight’ of a link is measured, in part, by the source. Wikipedia gets a ton of traffic, so a link from them is ‘worth’ far more than a link from, say, any TV station in the country. Hence, Google ‘sees’ the links and values them accordingly, which raises Wikipedia’s search results…Internal linking, therefore, always reaps SEO rewards. Moreover, the reason we link out, is to encourage linking in. Again, we want and need links. It’s job one.”

2. Headlines and title tags should have key words up front.
As you consider SEO for your site, think about the important “key words” that people might search for in Google that would bring up your site. For MediaShift, those key words might include: blogs, podcasts, wikis, online advertising, newspapers, TV, and online video. And each blog post has its own key words that describe the content to people.

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Faulty MediaShift headline

But I often fail to put the key words up front. For instance, in a recent post about The Smoking Gun, my headline was: “Public Documents + Shoe Leather Reporting = The Smoking Gun’s Staying Power.” I noticed that when CyberJournalist.net linked to my blog post, they headlined their post, “Smoking Gun: Still hot after 11 years.” That headline gets the key words “Smoking Gun” up front much better than mine. The same goes for “title tags,” the code in web pages that brings up titles at the top of your web browser.

“Search engines tend to put more weight on key words earlier in the page title,” Wall said. Wall also recommended having headlines in MediaShift link to the “permalink” of the post, something I had eliminated when I had trouble getting indexed on Google News. One fallout of having these key word-filled headlines is that you can’t be as creative as tabloid newspapers can be. The Guardian recently lamented the loss of tabloid headlines in the move to an online environment heavy on SEO.

3. Web addresses for your blog posts or articles should include key words.
Similarly, it’s important that the URL for each story contains the key words from your headline and even the category for the story. So if you have a sports story titled “Giants Beat Rockies on Good Pitching” your URL should likely look something like this:

http://www.[site name].com/sports/giants_beat_rockies_on_good_pitching324.html

Dutch SEO expert Joost de Valk wrote up a great overview of SEO for newspaper sites, and he noted that Google News requires that article URLs include at least three digits. As for putting key words into URLs, de Valk says, “Seriously, it helps too much.”

4. Page descriptions should be unique or eliminated.
Each web page has a “meta-description” tag in its code, and search engines sometimes use that description as the blurb that runs under the link to your site in search results. So when I do a search for “smoking gun mediashift” on Google, I get the following result at the top:

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The problem is that all my meta-descriptions are the same for all my site pages, a generic explanation: “MediaShift is a weblog that tracks the way the Internet and technology are reshaping the mediasphere, with a focus on how blogs, podcasts, wikis, and citizen media are changing culture and society.” That description often comes up in Google searches, but that means there’s less content that’s relevant to the search. In other words, the blurb below the link is more about my blog in general than about Smoking Gun.

“If you grab the first sentence [of your story] or use the same meta-description on every page, it’s nowhere near as relevant as the description that Google can pull itself from your site,” Wall said. “So if your description is the same on all the pages, you are better off removing it and letting Google auto-generate snippets. They will anyway, but anytime they don’t, your listing would look less relevant than your competitor’s.”

The High Rankings blog offers a helpful rundown of the various ways in which search engine results will display blurbs for your site.

5. Highlight your best content on every page.
One feature that is common on major news sites is a list of “Most Popular Stories” or “Most Emailed Stories.” On MediaShift, I have a set of “Buzzworthy Posts & Comments” that highlight the best of the blog over recent weeks. I also have a Top 5 that links out to stories and happenings on outside sites.

Wall believes that I should offer up a “Best of MediaShift” with a list of the Top 10 best blog posts of all time. Having that list in a prominent place on my site — on all pages — would bring more traffic (and inbound links) to MediaShift’s best content, and serve as an entree into the site for people who just came to read one post.

“Many readers bounce [leave the site] after reading only one post,” Wall said. “If you make it easy for them to find some of your best work then they may stick around and read more. Some will subscribe to your blog feed if they find your content compelling enough.”

6. Create theme or category pages, and run more special series.
SEO experts say that it’s a good idea to have special topic pages that aggregate all your posts on one page. That might explain the thinking behind the move to have Times Topics at the New York Times, aggregating all the newspaper stories, blog posts, multimedia and more on each topic.

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Times Topic on Miley Cyrus

While I do have pages on MediaShift by category of posts, those pages could do a better job of capturing search engine traffic, according to Wall. He told me that I should include explanatory text on those pages; this would help both search engines and human readers more easily navigate MediaShift’s offerings.

Wall also suggested more “theme weeks” during which I post various reports on one topic. That’s something I’ve done in coverage of conferences; I’ve also had a Wikipedia Week and Twitter Week. While it’s not something I should do every week, doing it on important topics could build my authority on that subject and improve my ranking in search results related to those key words. Wall also recommends sending out notices to bloggers that specialize in those subjects to get more inbound links from them.

7. Limit tags and categories to the most important ones.
Another issue I have on MediaShift is a plethora of categories for blog posts. The list on the lower left navigation bar is very long. Wall suggests highlighting only the most important categories and putting the rest on another page, with a link to “See More Categories.” The same goes for tags, which I don’t use on MediaShift but do use on Idea Lab. Too many tags causes there to be links that aren’t very useful. It’s better to limit tags to the most important key words on the subject.

Plus, Wall believes I should use the “rel=nofollow” code to tell search engines not to count links to pages without improtant content for search engines, such as the MediaShift Feedback page or the PBS Privacy Policy. This strategy would put more “link equity” in my links to content pages, in turn strengthening MediaShift’s association in search engines with the topics those pages cover

8. Create a Google News sitemap and optimize images.
Google recommends that publishers submit special “sitemaps” to help the search engine to index your pages. Damon Kiesow, online managing editor for the Nashua Telegraph, explains:

“Sitemaps are dynamic XML files (more or less a custom RSS feed) that you submit to Google and are used by their spider to index your content,” he told me via email. “The XML files are set to a Google specification — and they usually poll ours once or twice daily. They have web, news and mobile sitemaps — all of which are meant to help their spiders find your most recent and relevant content.”

Along with sitemaps, it also helps to get your images onto Google News. Lisa Barone, a consultant at Bruce Clay, explains how to optimize your images. Among her tips: Use a descriptive filename for your photos; keep the file name path to the photo simple; and provide a distinct URL for each photo (like this).

9. Get into offline conversations as well as online ones.
Sometimes we get tunnel-vision when trying to promote our blogs and sites online, and believe the only way to get attention is via emails, Twitter, Facebook and other online hangouts. But Wall notes that networking in real life can help bring attention to your content online.

“Mingle offline. Many of the link-based relationships that occur online are built through offline networking,” he said. “One of the most effective ways to build online authority is to integrate yourself into the conversation wherever it occurs offline.”

As I begin work on revamping MediaShift, I will try to address some of these tips; I’ll be sure to report back on what works and what doesn’t — right here on the blog.

What advice do you have for boosting search engine optimization? What tricks have worked for you? Or do you believe that optimization isn’t worth the hassle? Share your thoughts in the comments below.