What is Publisher SEO? 7 Common Struggles of Optimizing Publisher Websites

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.

What is publisher SEO?

Publisher SEO is the process of optimizing a publisher website for search engines. 

There are many different types of publications, such as:

  • News (e.g. The New York Times)
  • Trade (e.g. Search Engine Journal for the SEO industry)
  • Magazines (e.g. Popular Science)

…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: 

1. Crawling a site that gets bigger every day

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 Not only do publisher websites have a ton of historical content.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. 

2. Rendering with paywalls, ads, and more

JavaScript is pervasive in the modern web, but how Javascript is utilized depends on the unique website. For publishers, JavaScript typically comes in the form of:

  • “Read more” buttons 
  • Paywalls
  • Recommended articles widgets 
  • Ads
  • UGC such as article comments

Publishers will need to make sure that any JavaScript-loaded content they want indexed isn’t blocked from search engines. 

3. Indexing critical news articles, AMP, and evergreen content

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. 

4. Ranking in Top Stories, Discover, & traditional SERPs

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. 

5. Monetizing search traffic through subscriptions, ads, and sponsored content

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.

What struggles do publisher SEOs face? 

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.

1. Content volume and frequency 

Like we mentioned earlier, many of a publisher SEO’s woes stem from having a ton of content to manage. 

Older posts may become orphaned or live really deep on the site, which can lead to poor rankings and little-to-no organic search traffic. 

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.  

2. Slow page speeds from ads and tracking pixels 

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.

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.

3. Custom, inflexible CMSs

Many digital publications live on proprietary and/or rigid content management systems (CMSs) as well, making many SEO fixes difficult or impossible.

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.

4. Low search content maturity

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.

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.

Publisher SEOs who work with subscription-focused publications can show how search traffic can drive subscriptions.

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.

5. Implementing structured data for rich results at scale

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.

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 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!

6. Site architecture and internal linking

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:

  • Articles
    • Sponsored
    • Evergreen
  • News
  • Rich content
    • Videos
    • Quizzes
    • Galleries
  • Topic categories
  • Forums

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.

7. Canonicalization issues

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 non-indexable

For more information on canonicalization, visit The Top 10 Questions About Canonical Tags Answered.

Every site is unique. Optimize accordingly.

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.

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