Headline Hoedowns and How The Texas Tribune Integrated SEO into Its Newsroom
In our first SEO-related blog post, we looked at how single-subject news sites can optimize search engine tactics to raise their search profiles and maximize audience growth. We introduced SEO tasks that can be grouped into two main buckets: the retroactive piece, which mainly involves technical fixes on previously published pages, and the forward-looking workflow component for future publishing. In this post, we’ll tease out more of what it means to incorporate SEO best practices into a newsroom’s culture by focusing on one stellar site’s practices — The Texas Tribune (commonly referred to as “the Trib”).
While SEO is a crucial audience engagement and growth tactic for any newsroom, for the cohort of single-subject, digital-only outlets in our study at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, it is essential to build search authority around one central topic — whether that’s criminal justice reform, education policy in a particular community, or, in this case, Texas policy and politics.
Thankfully, the tasks required are consistent and can be streamlined into a newsroom’s workflow with enough dedicated staff time and resources. For this post, we interviewed Amanda Zamora, chief audience officer at the Trib, to understand how SEO can seed itself in a newsroom and grow into workflows over time.
How it all started — The ‘Headline Hoedown’
The Texas Tribune began to optimize stories in the summer of 2016.
When Amanda first joined the Trib, she met with the engineering team to “test the waters” — meaning she wanted to figure out if the Trib site had the ability and proper tools in place to produce multiple headlines for stories (the SEO headline and the editorial). As Amanda describes it, “The SEO headline is what populates the page title and appears in search results; the default display headline is what a user sees on the top of a story page [on the Trib’s site].”
The engineering team said there was capacity to produce both. Amanda knew her next hurdle was proving to the entire newsroom why SEO matters and figuring out how it could be absorbed into staff workflows. She would start by focusing on this one major SEO battleground: story headlines.
Launching a daily meeting that she called the “Headline Hoedown,” Amanda invited anyone who had a story coming out the next day to gather around a table with her and the rest of the audience team at 3 p.m. With a whiteboard and marker on hand to take down ideas, the group brainstormed search versus social headlines, thinking through the best keywords for the search version. This daily habit trained editors and reporters to think strategically about their stories’ headlines and the opportunity SEO brings to their pieces.
Using SEO as an audience engagement tool
Back in June 2016, when Aman Batheja (the Trib’s political editor) noticed several people tweeting about Brexit, he wanted to think of a Texas angle for the story — leading him to ask: could Texas ever secede from the United States?
Aman assigned the story to a reporter and then came up with a strong search headline.
The resulting explainer piece on why Texas could not secede from the rest of the country did quite well for search traffic, drawing over 53 percent of total page views for this story.* Its editorial headline read: “Texplainer: If Brexit Can Happen, Can Texit?” Meanwhile, the story used the SEO headline/URL: https://www.texastribune.org/2016/06/24/can-texas-legally-secede-united-states/
Getting buy-in through signs of success
But the major turning point for SEO validation across the newsroom happened in the 2018 primary season back in March.
Leading up to the election, Amanda set a goal for the Trib to dominate search authority during Texas’s primary election coverage. This involved rigorously searching and tracking the competitive keywords and keyword search rank associated with each candidate and updating a collection of keywords to optimize in certain stories. Amanda also worked with the news team and politics editor to ensure that the evergreen, election resource pages (where they explained the candidates’ positions and policies) were well optimized.
Before the night of the elections, the Trib team drafted headlines for all possible election outcomes, preparing SEO-optimized ones for varying scenarios (i.e., if candidate A or candidate B won).
The strategy worked. During the lead-up to the primaries, the Trib was beating out even larger, national outlets around engagement for their competing search terms. Amanda later determined that during the week of the primaries, this process generated about 60 percent of the traffic to runoff-related pages coming via search.
The Headline Hoedown goes digital
Now, the daily 3 p.m. team meeting happens in a Slack channel, and “Headline Hoedowns” take place any time of day. In fact, they happen quite often — the headline-hoedown channel is the most frequently used thread across the entire newsroom, with 56 channel members and more than 650 messages from users posted in the last month.
I asked Amanda to detail what a typical SEO discussion via Slack looks like. She explained, “One reporter asked about a headline for a story they were writing about the Texas juvenile justice department reducing state runs sales. The social media manager jumped in and helped the reporter craft both an editorial and SEO headline for the piece. The SEO headline, unlike editorial, included [Texas Governor] Greg Abbott’s name.”
Integrating SEO into weekly workflow
In addition to the Slack channel, SEO is now a focal discussion point during the all-team Monday morning news meetings. Before a room of 30 individuals, Jonathan Solano on the audience team reviews the top stories from the previous week and draws attention to both the stories that drove the most traffic, and the ones with a missed SEO opportunity.
Incorporating SEO into new staff workflows
As the Trib audience team grew, the newsroom was able to hire Social Media Editor Bobby Blanchard, who now handles the majority of daily headline optimization. Jonathan Solano, assistant director for audience, runs the SEO recap portion of the Monday news meetings.
The next post in this series will include a few additional examples for how our single-subject news cohort is using Moz software to further incorporate SEO into newsroom workflows. In the meantime, check out the tools the Trib uses for all SEO-related work:
The Trib’s SEO Tools:
- Google Search Console (for inbound search terms)
- Amazon Alexa’s Web Analytics (for the competitive insights tool, which tracks search rank and helps with prospecting for competitive keywords)
- MozBar (to get a quick look at basic SEO page titles, meta descriptions, and inbound links)
- Here’s the slide deck the Trib uses to explain the difference between SEO and editorial headlines
*CORRECTION — An earlier version of this story mistakenly did not specify that the 53% of traffic refers to the particular story in discussion.