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Ask the Expert: Julie Wildhaber of Yahoo! gives journalists some tips on search engine visibility

yahoo-style-guideAs journalists continue to do more in the online space, some may not be aware of certain tactics that apply to how they should write for it. Now, even the media need to know a thing or two about SEO in order to bring more visibility to their work. Yahoo!’s Julie Wildhaber shares her thoughts and insights on how journalists can maximize online tools to stay competitive in a shape-shifting industry.

In terms of online visibility, what tactics do you think journalists should be doing more or less of?

I’m always happy to see journalists being strategic and doing the math on their online work. Take a look at your metrics and see where you’re getting value for effort. Journalists had so much to do in the print-only days–researching, writing, fact-checking, editing, doing follow-ups–and now there’s a whole other layer of things to think about: search engine optimization, social networking, blogging, responding to comments, creating slideshows and videos and podcasts, and so on. So I think it’s important for journalists to look at where you’re succeeding, whether you’re defining success by page views or reader feedback or Twitter followers, and decide what’s worth your while and what you can forgo. And keep reevaluating, because your readers’ wants will change, and so will the tools you can address them with.

Should journalists learn how to code? What, if any, are some technical skills journalists should possess?

Well, I’ve been working online for 14 years, and my knowledge of code is minimal, so I think it’s safe to say no, you don’t need to be a programmer. However, you should know a little HTML for links and bolding, for example, and you should know how your page will look in a variety of places, like mobile browsers, news feeds, and search results. Make sure your stories travel well, because they’re probably not going to appear only on your site. Your headline especially must be able to stand alone, and if it contains special characters like smart quotes or em dashes or accents, not all software will render those characters correctly. Generally, simple text formatting and page layout will yield better reader experiences.

Also, I recommend befriending your programmers and whoever’s making decisions about your content management system (CMS). The better you can communicate your requirements and show examples of what you want, the more likely you are to get a good user interface, functionality, and support, and the less likely you are to need grubby workarounds. Your friendly neighborhood techies often have great ideas for widgets and other tech solutions, too, so you may be able to collaborate with them on new ways to tell a story or to communicate with readers.

How can journalists use social media for their benefit?

First, figure out which applications your readers are using and how they’re using them. As I mentioned earlier, you don’t want to waste effort on, say, creating a Facebook page if readers really want Twitter updates, or vice versa. You also need to find the right frequency: too few contacts, and followers might think you’re not timely and engaging; too many messages, and you risk annoying people–Nielsen Norman Group found that “users listed too-frequent postings as their top annoyance with following companies and organizations on social networks.”

Second, know the basics of using the applications, like keeping tweets shorter than 140 characters to allow for retweets and hashtags. Poynter’s News University has helpful–and cheap!–classes on social media for journalists.

Finally, don’t forget that social media is social–if you’re using the forums simply for self-promotion and not for conversation and getting to know your readers, you probably won’t be the most popular guest at the party. Get stuck in, as the Brits say.

Tell us about your background and current position at Yahoo!.

My title is Professional Development Program Manager, which is to say that I cook up classes for writers and editors at Yahoo!. I also manage the copy desk and helped develop “The Yahoo! Style Guide“. We’ve held classes on copyright, headlines, writing for a global audience, SEO, getting rid of jargon–a lot of the same topics that appear in the style guide, so much of what you read in the book has been tested on actual Yahoos.

Before coming to Yahoo!, I was employee No. 122 at Cnet, as managing editor for most of my 11 years there. When I started in 1996, the site was only nine months old, and our grand ambition was to publish five product reviews per week. Less than a decade later, we had a constellation of sites, and mine was posting at least 100 stories per week. It was thrilling to watch our site, like the Web itself, grow from an audience of early adopters to something that millions of people use every day.

And before I became an online editor, I worked for a college textbook company, where I learned a lot about publishing but grew frustrated that the business was so laggardly. We had no email, for example, despite working with universities that were already wired. On the Web, change is the name of the game–I love that I’m constantly improvising and learning new things.

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