Many websites publish content on a regular basis, but for some, it’s their entire business model. We’re talking about publishers, and SEOs who work for them face a unique set of challenges.
Before we dive into those challenges though, it’s worth taking a closer look at what publisher SEOs do.
Publisher SEO is the process of optimizing a publisher website for search engines.
There are many different types of publications, such as:
…and many sub-types and overlap among them. One thing they all have in common though is regularly publishing and monetizing content.
We talk a lot about the SEO funnel, and how success (conversions) from search is contingent on the preceding steps: crawl, render, index, and rank. This applies to all websites, but the specifics of each step will look different for every unique type of website, including publishers.
For publishers, the SEO funnel looks something like this:
It’s in the name — publishers publish content, and often, lots of it. Not only do publisher websites have a ton of historical content. They also add new content all the time.
According to an article in The Atlantic, The Washington Post publishes 1,200 stories, graphics, and videos per day (500 of which their editorial staff produces themselves). Other notable publications like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and BuzzFeed publish around 200 per day.
So, crawl budget issues? You betcha.
For publishers, especially news publications, it’s critical to get new content and breaking stories indexed quickly — before competitors and at the peak of public interest about a topic — and in appropriate formats, including AMP.
Publishers may also want to develop a category archive strategy so that they can build topical hierarchy on their site, requiring that their topic, author, etc. category pages make it into the index as well.
Publishers will typically strive for ranking in Top Stories if they’re publishing news and current events. All publishers (not just news-based publishers) will likely be aiming for showing up in Google Discover as well.
When it comes to more traditional SERPs, they’ll likely strive to rank for informational queries with their evergreen content, and in rich results wherever possible — recipe carousels, How-to, videos, and more.
Unlike retailers who make their money from on-site purchases or service-based businesses where purchases happen offline, a publisher’s revenue stream is usually some combination of subscriptions, sponsored articles, and ads.
Now that we’re familiar with what publisher SEO looks like, let’s dive into what makes publisher SEO difficult. While every site is different, publisher SEOs typically have these challenges in common.
Like we mentioned earlier, many of a publisher SEO’s woes stem from having a ton of content to manage.
When content goes stale and hasn’t been updated in some time (which is often the case with older articles on publisher sites), search engines may stop crawling it as frequently — we’ve also seen content freshness correlate with better rankings on publisher sites.
Older posts are also much more likely to contain errors like bad status codes.
If you remember from the “convert” pillar of the publisher SEO funnel, one of the main ways digital publications make their money is ads.
But ads and tracking pixels are notorious for slowing down the site, which can be horrible for user experience as well as performance in organic search.
Many publisher SEOs echoed this sentiment, saying that things like full-screen takeovers, interstitials, autoplay video, and lots of images that are designed to keep people scrolling and viewing ads are some of the biggest SEO & UX concerns on publisher sites.
1. Over aggressive category tagging if it’s something like WordPress— Jackie Chu (@jackiecchu) April 15, 2020
2. Coupling site speed with ability to monetize. Most of the stuff cos do like takeovers, interstitials, autoplay video are horrific for the user
How about a bazillion tracking pixels that seriously drag down load time. Or my latest which slammed virtually zero text with 20 ads + 20 images/gifs/videos per post to keep people scrolling & generating more ad impressions— Tad Miller (@jstatad) April 13, 2020
On Google, speed is a ranking factor on both desktop and mobile. Aside from being a potential detriment to your performance in SERPs though, slow page speeds caused by excessive ads can hurt a publication’s reputation with readers as well. This, in turn, can lead to fewer people clicking on your result in the SERPs even if it’s ranking well.
Many digital publications live on proprietary and/or rigid content management systems (CMSs) as well, making many SEO fixes difficult or impossible.
yes – either totally custom but maybe more often a CMS like wordpress but super customized so much that you have to think of it as a custom platform in that the usual fixes are super tricky.— Dan Shure (@dan_shure) April 13, 2020
This can force many publisher SEOs to develop less-than-ideal workaround solutions — like SEOs who had to use the nofollow link attribute to control crawling and indexing because they didn’t have access to their robots.txt files or to add noindex tags.
What’s wrong with these workaround solutions? They may not last forever. As of March 1, 2020, Google started using the nofollow attribute as a hint for crawling and indexing, meaning they’re no longer a reliable way to control crawling and indexing on your site.
Why not just update the CMS to allow for necessary SEO changes? According to many SEOs, getting developer resources is notoriously difficult.
The content and being SEO/editorially focused moves the needle the most – but secondarily getting technical/design/ux improvements into their often busy dev queue and working with often big/old/limited site platforms – can take **many months** so calm persistence is key— Dan Shure (@dan_shure) April 13, 2020
Some publications pre-date the internet. Others were built by it. That distinction often makes the difference between having a mature search content strategy and having to rely purely on chasing social media trends or subscribers.
One of the biggest hurdles publisher SEOs often need to cross is getting publications to understand that SEO isn’t something that needs to (or should) be “sprinkled on” to articles, ruining their editorial excellence for the sake of a few extra visitors. Search deserves its own content strategy that works in tandem with your editorial content.
The good news is, many publisher SEOs expressed that their writers are eager to learn.
I’ve found they are very receptive if you offer broad advice (eg subheads can be reworked in N ways, etc), but the moment you start directing “say these words in this way”, it’s a gauntlets thrown battle.— Kyle Faber (@regal_kyle) April 14, 2020
And if they’re still hesitant, do a trial run with a handful of search-focused articles. If the data backs up that strategy, it’s hard to argue with.
I find a good starting point is getting them to just buy-in to the idea of *one* maybe two-three pieces of content with a search focus. Something really small, to then use as a proof of concept. Or have the SEO work with just *one* writer for a few months and then share results.— Dan Shure (@dan_shure) April 13, 2020
Publisher SEOs who work with subscription-focused publications can show how search traffic can drive subscriptions.
My 2 cents working In house SEO at a publishing group. For editorial – how search traffic can drive subscriptions.— Dan Smullen (@dansmull) April 14, 2020
Editorial care about story engagement, advertisers care about page-views. SEO can help publishers inform editors about what people are searching for.
Publisher SEOs who work with engagement-focused publications can show how search traffic is more sustainable than social traffic. Whether you work with a views-focused publication or a subscription-focused publication, having a search content strategy can help you meet your goals.
Businesses that run on content care about getting as many eyeballs on that content as possible, which is why implementing structured data is typically such a high priority for publisher SEOs.
1/2— BJ Enoch (@BJ_Enoch1) April 13, 2020
We had a client with 18 different Drupal publishing sites ranging from cardiology to construction equipment and architecture. Getting IT & leadership on board with changes was always the #1 challenge.
Biggest priorties were
-Internal link structure
structured data, page speed, and tracking have all yielded some wins in this space— Richie Lauridsen (@richiesnippets) April 13, 2020
Certain types of structured data can help your content appear in rich results on the SERP, potentially increasing the chances it’ll be clicked on by searchers.
The SERP features that are typically the most important to publisher SEOs are:
Videos: Add video information in search results, with the option to play the video, specify video segments, and live-stream content.
Top Stories Carousel: Adding article structured data to your news or blog article can help it get displayed in the Top Stories carousel and other rich results features, like headline text and larger images.
FAQ: Publishers with pages that contain a list of questions and answers can use FAQ schema in hopes of appearing with this SERP enhancement.
How-To: Publishers that create evergreen instructional content can consider using how-to markup in hopes of showing these image or video cards of each step on the SERP itself.
Recipes: Recipe publishers will definitely want to add recipe structured data so that their recipes can show up in carousels and other rich features.
Visit Google’s search gallery to view the full list of structured data that they use to display richer features in search results.
AMP and AMP stories are also critical enhancements for many publishers. According to Amp.dev, “AMP stories provides content publishers with a mobile-focused format for delivering news and information as visually rich, tap-through stories.”
While enhancements like structured data and AMP can be an important part of attracting readers to your content, it can be hard to implement at scale.
Even the publishers that do figure out scalable ways to implement structured data can struggle to maintain it over time. As we know, things often break, so having a scalable way to audit your structured data quality over time is key.
For more on structured data, download The Structured Data Guide: How to leverage structured data for greater visibility, clicks, and ROI!
Many publisher SEOs will tell you that site architecture and solid internal linking are struggles for digital publications.
Common components of a publisher’s site structure include:
The way some publishers set up their site architecture makes it easy for older articles to get buried, which can cause them to lose visibility in the SERPs even if they’re still relevant and high quality. One way to combat this by building hierarchy around category pages and being strategic about internal linking.
Beyond (A) technical and (B) on-page standards for writers – they're always bad at building out the mid-level site architecture with evergreen category/topic pages that give the site some true structure and maintain deep linking to older but important content.— Kane Jamison 🍍 (@KaneJamison) April 14, 2020
👋🏻 hey! Yes. What do we as SEOs care about? Topical congruence. Solid on page optimization. Thoughtful and well-connected internal linking. Most problems are training up, consistent execution, and understanding nuance.— Kyle Faber (@regal_kyle) April 13, 2020
Publishers tend to have a lot of parameterized URLs in the form of sorting/filtering (e.g. tag or date facets) or tracking IDs.
These URLs often canonicalize to another URL. In other words, the canonical tag is not self-referencing. That’s usually intentional, since parameters often don’t substantially change the page content.
The problem occurs when these parameterized URLs show up in the site structure due to internal links to these pages. Best practice is to link only to the preferred, canonical version of a page, but failure to do so is one of the more common reasons that pages on a publisher site are not compliant.
For more information on canonicalization, visit The Top 10 Questions About Canonical Tags Answered.
SEO is a nuance-filled discipline. Because every site is different, SEOs who work for publishers may have a much different understanding of what works than SEOs who work for retailers or SMBs. Even within the publishing industry, there are many different types of publications that are going after different audiences and up against different competitors. With that many variables, it’s important to look less at broad studies and benchmarks and more at your own site’s data to determine what’s effective.
If you’re looking for real examples of what it looks like to work as a publisher SEO, check out this story about Refinery29’s SEO team.