< How Search Engines are Changing Journalism


Friday, February 25, 2011

BOB GARFIELD: Practically everyone creating content online, whether they're a content farm or The New York Times, is at least trying to monetize that content with ads. But just as JCPenney is fighting with innumerable other stores to be your first hit for “dresses,” The Times is fighting with millions of other sites to be your first stop for “Libyan revolution.” If The Times wins, it gets to sell your eyeballs to advertisers, which means that journalists are learning to write stories that will appeal to Google’s bots. At its best, SEO forces media organizations to stay in touch with the Zeitgeist. At its worst, it is the automation of pandering. Either way, one of the canniest practitioners is Huffington Post. HuffPo has done so well, in fact, that this month it was bought lock, stock and Arianna, for 315 million dollars. Slate writer Farhad Manjoo says the new owner, AOL, was particularly impressed with the HuffPo’s skills at search engine optimization.

FARHAD MANJOO: The day of the Super Bowl they published an article which carried the headline “What Time Will the Super Bowl Start?” and the only purpose of that article was to answer the question what time the Super Bowl will start. And the lead of that article was written in such a way that it was obviously meant to perform well in search engines. The lead was something like, lots of people are asking, what time will the Super Bowl start? It’s a common search query.

[BOB LAUGHS] And, and I'll tell you what. It did well. If you were searching for what time will the Super Bowl start on the day of the Super Bowl, you would have found that story right at the top.

BOB GARFIELD: If you go to the right rail of The Huffington Post, you'll see a column that says “Most Popular” and, lo and behold, there’s nothing there about democracy in the Middle East, there’s nothing there about the showdown in Wisconsin. There’s a story about Khloe Kardashian, whichever Kardashian that might be, Ed Schultz, the talk show host, telling Rush Limbaugh, quote, “Wrap your fat ass in the flag” and one of the classic SEO tricks, a top 10 list, “The 10 Funniest Presidential Impressions, which I'm going to click on 'cause I want to see them, and isn't that [LAUGHS] entirely the point?

FARHAD MANJOO: Yeah. One of the brilliant things about what Huffington Post does is it really understands this sort of mix of tabloid news and straight news and politically sensational news better than almost any publication on the Internet. And it has this mix down really well, so that it publishes stories about politics, about legitimate news stories and then it also publishes the kinds you just cited.

BOB GARFIELD: Content farms that create all of their content at very low cost, based entirely on what is trending high in Google search and in other social media mechanisms. They do crummy reporting about subjects that aren't necessarily important, just they're trending high somewhere. So what redeems HuffPo? Is it that they're using the search engine optimized stories to lure you into the real journalism, or is it not redeemed at all?

FARHAD MANJOO: They're not a content farm. I mean, what the search engines define as content farms are sites like eHow, which every time you type in a query like, “How do I do X” you will see eHow ranked very highly, and that kind of site exists only to capture those search results. Huffington Post is not that. Huffington Post is a news site. Google considers it a news site and adds it into the Google News index. But this is something that the entire Web news industry does.

BOB GARFIELD: Slate included, I gather.

FARHAD MANJOO: Yeah, Slate included. You know, everyone who sort of works online, we all know that there are certain tricks that you can use to get a lot of traffic. You can run lots of slide shows, you can be titillating, you can put certain keywords in headlines. I think this is a standard practice in journalism on the Web. And, you know, at one point I think it was seen as something of a dirty practice or somewhat ethically suspect, but it - it no longer is. I mean, I think that it’s sort of seen as part of the way you, you write online, the way you produce journalism online. It’s just part of the business.

BOB GARFIELD: Obviously, no news organization wants to pay no attention to the stated interests of its audience and its potential audience. On the other hand, no news organization operating properly is responding only to predetermined tastes but is giving the audience the benefit of its own discovery, its own insight, its own judgment, you know, the sort of physician/patient relationship that has been so much a part of the American journalism model. At Slate, how much do you think about veering away from physician/patient and more towards Doctor Feelgood?

FARHAD MANJOO: I think one of the things you learn on the Web is that you have to be part of this really up-to-the-minute conversation that’s going on, in order to get lots of traffic but also to be part of the discussions that are going on on social networks. But it’s sort of a constant battle to fight against the impulse of - you know, you can just write a news story, rewrite a blog item, just in order to get your item right up at the top of the search engine, even if it might not contribute anything important. Guarding against that kind of mundane news story is - is part of the battle of working on the Web these days.

BOB GARFIELD: Farhad, thanks so much.

FARHAD MANJOO: Great, thank you.

BOB GARFIELD: Farhad Manjoo writes for Slate.com.