I’ve never been in a room of more nervous marketers than when I sat down to listen to Mike Grehan of SearchEngineWatch  interview Maile Ohye of Google Webmaster Tools at SES Toronto’s day 2 keynote panel. On the heels of several algorithm changes to Google search, many in the crowd needed to hear reassuring words from the world’s most popular search engine for themselves. Thankfully, Maile wasn’t dodging hot topics like Google’s Mayday algorithm update or Google’s Caffeine infrastructure changes, two hot topics at SES Toronto this year  that promises to have significant effects on optimizing websites and news articles for search.
Obviously, Google wouldn’t refer to an algorithm change to something as alarming as “Mayday,” but they had no choice. They had to adopt it as vernacular after search marketers noticed their rankings were dropping. As an aside, it was quite amusing to hear them use it in public forum. Maile admitted, “Google now holds the results for long-term search queries in the same esteem as shorter, generic keywords.” This change will have significant impact on SEO in general, but also on news articles written specifically targeted to generate organic search traffic.
The disparity between writing for search engines and writing for visitors has gone the way of the dinosaur. Google relies on several signals when determining suitable matches for search queries, but maintains that their mission is “positive user experience” above all else. Maile went so far as to say they even look to “visitor conversions” as a signal. Ecommerce webmasters: Your work is cut out for you, but what about media websites or news sites?
There are several signals Google uses for sites that rely on content consumption, with looser definitions of visitor conversion. Monitoring web analytics can give you clues about visitor behavior and help you understand the importance of SEO metrics  including bounce rate, time on site, and repeat visits for organic search traffic. This is some of the same information Google gathers directly from users via their own analytics and information fed back to them anonymously from browser toolbars.
This shift in Google’s philosophy as it applies to long tail search results pages can have positive and negative impact on a website owner’s organic traffic, including:
- Increased quality and quantity of traffic for well-written, user-focused content that may have been outranked by pages with keyword stuffing,
- Decreased visibility for content that historically ranked well for long-tail keywords may drop off considerably and
- Better conversion of visitors from organic search traffic.
In addition, Maile also explained that changes to the algorithm and Google Webmaster Tools should help many news sites because there will be a renewed focus on:
- Filtering scraper sites, spam blogs (splogs) and other websites that game the system
- Increasing communications between teams at Google and webmasters through the Message Center and
- Establishing correct citations using a feature called “Citation Rank.”
Unlike the Google Mayday algorithm change, Google “Caffeine” is indeed a company project name. It refers to infrastructure changes that will turbo-charge the way Google crawls, evaluates and indexes content including but not limited to pages, documents, images and video for inclusion in results pages. Maile explained it as a procedural change, from batch updates of multiple pages to a more flexible ability to modify rankings of individual pieces of content. This kind of flexibility has direct impact on breaking news, social media, real-time search results and updates to existing content.
So what are Maile’s top tips for ranking high in search engines as it relates to news?
- Write for visitors, not for search engines. (i.e., Don’t worry about stuffing keywords in content. User experience is the most important over-arching ranking factor.)
- Use semantic markup that is consistent throughout the site. (i.e., Specify header tags (h1, h2, h3), paragraphs (p), numbered lists (ol) and bulleted lists (ul).)
- Optimize all types of content for search engines including articles, images and video.
- Ensure you have an up-to-date sitemap for web pages and for news articles submitted to Google using Webmaster Tools (preferably).
- Give users the option to share your content, thereby creating valuable back links.
- Keep an eye on website speed, use a content distribution network (if necessary).
- Use the rel=”canonical” tag for articles to avoid content duplication problems, even across domains.
If the Toronto show is any indication, San Francisco in August should not be missed. Who’s going?