If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: I have a love/hate relationship with The New York Times. Its aloof, elitist tone dings my psyche like a supermarket shopping cart and renders my self-esteem a pockmarked jalopy. That’s the hate part, by the way.
Now here’s the love part. Last week, The Times published two articles that should give independent hyperlocalists new hope in competing with the local Patch outlet, soon to be governed by the Google-savvy Arianna Huffington.
Both articles discuss search engine optimization (SEO), the internet voodoo that boosts a website’s prominence in search results. It’s the bread and butter of The Huffington Post, why AOL coughed up $315 million — most of it cash money — to buy the current-events blog, and why Huffington is getting paid $4 million annually to run Patch and AOL’s other content-generating properties.
SEO is often associated with what I call the bieberfication of journalism: the monetization of current events, though not necessarily of news. For example, The Huffington Post monitors the web for popular search-engine queries — tween heartthrob Justin Bieber is hot shit these days — and then generates content around that subject. A tell-tale headline, copy chock full of key words, and a fine-tuned URL bump The Post’s article to the top of search results, thus increasing its page views and advertising revenue.
Patch sites are likely to follow Huffington’s modus operandi, loading their sites with juicy content for the search engine spiders. That means articles with “accident,” “shooting,” “fire” and other sensational topics as key words. After all, how many hits can “local zoning laws” squeeze out of a Google search?
But just as Patch can score high with those words, so can independent hyperlocalists. Loading key words into an article’s headline, lede and URL (if possible) can improve its standing against Patch in search engine results. After that, it’s up to the hyperlocalist’s writing, reporting skills and rapport with the audience to cash in on that search result and convert the incidental visitor into a regular reader.
Another SEO trick — this one pulled by retailer JC Penney — is to link and be linked to other websites, even unrelated or abandoned sites, The Times reported. More than 2,000 websites linked to the JC Penney home page, thus boosting its standing in search results for dresses, bedding, area rugs and other assorted stuff. Google considers this practice verboten and can knock a website off its spiders’ radar as punishment, but it’s still done. (Reps for the JC Penney Co. deny any chicanery.)
Hyperlocalists can work this angle by linking to area blogs and regional news sites, and hope that these sites will reciprocate. They can also leave comments on other sites and include a link back to their own. Ideally, these comments will add to the online conversation and not just serve as obvious (and obnoxious) self-promotion. A thoughtful and intelligent comment can attract more readers to a hyperlocalist’s site, whether or not the link optimizes search-engine standing.
While SEO draws readers to a website, quality content ultimately keeps readers (and advertisers) coming back for more. And it’s that quality that keeps an anxious Arianna Huffington awake at night.
Photo of Arianna Huffington courtesy of The New York Times.