Ironically, before its 2020, SEO was not the most important part of The New York Times’ strategy to attract audiences and increase revenue, Claudio Cabrera, vice president of newsroom strategy and audience at The Athletic and former strategist at The New York Times, told INMA members during a recent Webinar.
Cabrera developed SEO as a tool to bring more money and subscribers in, until he changed his role, earlier in 2022. Cabrera was joined in the Webinar by Álvaro Mazariegos, previous head of SEO for Spanish media outlet La Vanguardia.
What The New York Times and La Vanguardia have in common is that they decided to grow their SEO teams, train them, and change the way of doing things. For example, The New York Times had to change its schedules and form of coverage during the Trump presidency because he would start twitting at 5 a.m. and end close to midnight. This forced newsrooms at The New York Times and other outlets to create 24-hour teams to cover whatever former President Trump would come up with.
SEO strategies differ at The New York Times, The Athletic
“I started at The New York Times in 2016, just a month after President Donald Trump took office,” Cabrera said. “In that time, SEO was not important for the NYT. … However, we started in 2016 with the SEO strategy and were able to increase the number of subscribers.”
SEO was the tool that let the media outlet differentiate NYT’s online and print versions: “SEO was a means for reporters and editors to understand that they were different products.”
As a source of subscriptions, in 2016, 35% came from social media. But as time, passed the trend changed — now 35% of the members come from SEO practices, whereas just 12% the subscribers come from social media.
At the NYT, the challenge consisted of explaining to reporters the importance of SEO at bringing new audiences. Reporters were told that 10%-12% of new subscribers came from Google searches instead of directly. It was then that journalists saw the importance of SEO for their journalism
“Not all of The Times’ subscribers think of us first, they first think of Google,” Cabrera said, emphasising that SEO-oriented content does not mean writing for machines but for subscribers.
Nowadays, Cabrera works full-time for The Athletic, which operates differently from The New York Times and other media outlets: 75% of its subscriber base comes from Twitter, “an unusual case among many media brands.” The Athletic, a subscription-based sports service available via web and app, is now part of The New York Times Company.
The reason for this “weird” market behaviour, according to the Cabrera, is because The Athletic has a very strong team of reporters that cover sports teams. Therefore, every time these reporters post content or comments on Twitter, their number of followers “is so large that they want to keep reading, so they buy subscriptions once they see the paywall.”
The SEO team also created the “explainer format,” a way to tell stories in a short, abridged manner, a way to engage larger audiences.
The challenges tackled by The Athletic had to do with having a flexible newsroom, capable of dedicating resources to whatever was needed to keep growing.
Also, reporters’ training is key to success, mostly because many of the highly specialised journalists came from print newsrooms. They had to learn how to be more flexible and provide a wider coverage of the news by “thinking more digital,” Cabrera said.
SEO strategy at La Vanguardia
Mazariegos, head of content for Softonic, worked for La Vanguardia between 2017 and 2022 as head of SEO. Some time ago the 140-year-old family-owned outlet from Catalunya did not have the top position it currently holds.
The first challenge was to look for ways to implement SEO practices in the whole country despite being a regional newspaper. To do this, they had to hire local people at the places they covered: “It’s impossible to do SEO in New York if you’re from Miami and vice versa. You must know the idiosyncrasy of each city, of each country,” Mazariegos said, explaining to why they had to think different and create a team of people that understood local environments.
La Vanguardia now sits among the top three media outlets in Spain with the largest monthly audiences. In just three years, La Vanguardia went from having 12 million unique users to reaching an average of 22 million, Mazariegos said.
They also hit a record 28.4 million monthly unique users in March 2020, per Comscore data, when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its worst and the need for information on the subject skyrocketed.
Mazariegos warned that trying to implement SEO and understanding how Internet use is changing is a slow process. Practices such as clickbait, superficial love stories, and how-tos to try to gain audiences may mean short-term success but are not good for the future of content production, which must find more innovative ways and balance the content to keep thriving.
One key aspect of La Vanguardia’s success was also to go for local, regional stories while larger, competing newspapers concentrated on global issues.