Google recently released a video explaining how it ranks news stories. Brent Payne, director of search engine optimization for Tribune Interactive, was paying attention. His job is to ensure that a Tribune article lands on the front page of Google’s search results. Will Google lead newspapers to cover stories they wouldn’t have in the past? Payne says yes, but he insists that the Search Engine Optimizer hasn't affected the company's journalistic integrity.
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BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield. ‘Was a time when copy editors were prized for their ability to write punchy headlines that fit snug as a bug into the space allotted. Punchiness, alas, is less and less in demand because wordplay does not impress search engines, hence, a new figure in the modern day newsroom, the search engine optimizer or SEO. Brent Payne is the Director of Search Engine Optimization for Tribune Interactive, part of the Tribune Company. He advises headline writers to check their punch at the door.
BRENT PAYNE: If you’re writing a story about Michael Jackson dying, make sure you put “Michael Jackson Dead” somewhere in your headline. Don't go with “Wacko Jacko” or “King of Pop.” And that helps Google to figure out that, oh, that’s what this story’s about.
BOB GARFIELD: The point of all of this is to generate the greatest possible traffic, even if it means diverting traffic from say, The Chicago Tribune to The L.A. Times at the expense of [LAUGHS], let's say, the Tribune reporter’s labors.
BRENT PAYNE: We struggle with this a lot, actually. We had to make a decision: who should be the destination for this if we have any chance of getting to the front page of Google because 70 percent of people don't go past that first page when they do a query inside of Google. And thus, it’s better to be on the front page with one of the Tribune properties than to be on the second, third or fourth page with several Tribune properties.
BOB GARFIELD: So how does this go over in the newsroom where you’re essentially funneling traffic away from one property to another or kibitzing the headline writers? Can the newsroom stand this?
BRENT PAYNE: I'm not saying that 100 percent of the people are onboard all the time. Usually if it’s an L.A. fire story it’s not that difficult to get people to link to The Los Angeles Times. If there’s a hurricane hitting Florida, it’s pretty clear that it’s either going to be The Sun Sentinel or The Orlando Sentinel that’s going to be the ultimate destination for the story. But when you have situations like, you know, Michael Jackson dead, well, that’s where we do have some struggles. And keep in mind that the breaking news only lasts for three or four hours. There’s a huge spike in traffic, and there’s a lot of competition that we try and focus it to one destination.
BOB GARFIELD: Apart from affecting the way headlines read, do you have any other influence in the newsroom in terms of how to maximize traffic online - what kind of stories to cover, what stories do the best in Google News?
BRENT PAYNE: So, what I mention to the editorial staff is that Google Trends is a huge tool to figure out what people are searching for right now. It tells anybody who uses the tool, the top 40 searches that are going on this hour. And if there are stories or angles that we have that we could help to cover some of those, I absolutely encourage the editorial staff to take a look at that. Now, some people ask, who’s running the show here. Is it the searchers that influence what the media’s going to cover, or is it the media writing the stories that the searchers will be interested in? And I'd say both. I'd say that in some scenarios, such as great feature articles, it starts with the press, but in other situations, where a huge event occurs and people are looking for a certain search phrase well, then perhaps we would have more coverage than we would have normally had had we not noticed on Google Trends or other places that a lot of people were interested in it.
BOB GARFIELD: But isn't that just an invitation to pander to the most populistic tastes? I mean, Michael Jackson’s death, which we've discussed quite a bit, may have been the biggest story in the news for days, but not because it has a whole lot of significance in the overall scheme of things.
BRENT PAYNE: I would say that who are we to say what is or isn't important? Gmail being down was a huge thing a few days ago. Is that important to the human race? Well, I think that you could argue both ways. Why is it our call to determine what is or isn't important to the audience?
BOB GARFIELD: Because that’s our call, to determine what is and isn't important to the audience. I mean, isn't that what journalism is, substantially, not just the ability to root out information but the judgment to know what is more important than other things?
BRENT PAYNE: Right, and now we have a bunch of information to tell us what people think is interesting or significant. It’s not a one-way communication anymore. It’s not like it was a hundred years ago, where you can just stand up on a soapbox somewhere and deliver the news, and that’s it.
BOB GARFIELD: That said, journalism is still about professional judgment. And when so many advertising dollars are riding on where traffic goes, how do you avoid sliding unrestrained down the slippery slope of pandering to popular tastes as opposed to being true to your professional judgment?
BRENT PAYNE: You have ingrained in every journalist a certain mindset. You have the editors that are in charge of not only online but print, as well, that have had years of experience in journalism. And all I'm doing is helping them find opportunities to drive additional traffic, if there’s reasonable content for it. So I think that balance is pretty significant when you have hundreds of journalists versus a small team of SEO people.
BOB GARFIELD: Brent, I very much appreciate your stopping by.
BRENT PAYNE: Thank you. I appreciate you having me.
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BOB GARFIELD: Brent Payne is director of Search Engine Optimization for Tribune Interactive.