Monday, September 27, 2010

Open File, Demand Media, and how news can take advantage of SEO technology

A former colleague from my days as a reporter at the Montreal Gazette asked me this morning what I thought of Open File, which invites story ideas from the community, gets feedback from the community on whether folks want to hear more about it, and then assigns stories to a reporter.

It seems to be a reasonably good way of vetting ideas for stories that will engage a community. It's not nearly agile enough to compete with the Demand Media business model, though, which uses search algorithms to try to get ahead of the content or "news" curve (defining "news" very loosely to include celeb shenanigans, among other things). Portals such as Yahoo, AOL and Sympatico use real-time stats to find out how well any one story is clicking. That impacts how long it will remain on their home page and whether they accept pitches on that topic again from channel editors for home page use (the equivalent of section editors pitching to A1) any time soon. But that's still following the news and sought-after-information curve rather than trying to get ahead of it.

My sources inside several Canadian news organizations say that they're not even taking advantage of real-time data to give what they're showing on their home pages a leg up, though, and if they want to become destinations (rather than followers in the SEO game) I firmly believe they need to refine the Demand Media model to get ahead of the curve.

That will result in their stories landing on the top of search results, which gives an opportunity to use the traffic sent their way to let people know about the stuff they aren't yet looking for -- because they don't yet know they need to know about it. And that positions the news organization as a knowledgeable source, so it becomes a reliable destination in the user's mind.

That kind of judgment is what news organizations are good at and it's the the Achilles heel of the Demand Media business model - no one considers sites that use Demand Media content as "destinations" for repeat visits. Demand Media content is poorly written, poorly researched and doesn't engage an audience sufficiently for them to remember where they read the content. News organizations can do a much better job, engage the reader and give 'me a reason to stick around and read more. But many news organizations are not doing a good job at SEO so readers can find them and become engaged.

This is a hard sell to news organizations who don't trust SEO and look at Google as a thief. Google may very well be a thief but it's a well-heeled thief and we're not gonna win the copyright battle; that horse has left the barn. We can, however, win the SEO battle if we get smarter about it.

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