Gannett, USA Today share 4 pillars of a successful Google Search strategy

By Paula Felps


Nashville, Tennessee, United States


Search is an instrumental tool for all newsrooms in the digital world, but using it and mastering it are two different things.

During Wednesday’s Webinar, INMA members heard expert tips and encouraging case studies from Tim Gardner and Sandy Schlosser. The Webinar was presented by the INMA Newsroom Initiative and provided a companion to the report, How Newsrooms Succeed in Google Search, released in December.

Gardner,  senior editor, search and optimisation for USA Today, and Schlosser, network search strategist for Gannett, began by explaining why the company has focused so heavily on search.

With more than 200 local newspapers across 45 states in addition to USA Today, as well as owning Newsquest, which operates more than 100 local news brands in the U.K., Gardner said search across all of its properties is a priority.

During this week's Webinar, INMA members heard some of the secrets of search success from USA Today's Tim Gardner and Gannett's Sandy Schlosser.
During this week's Webinar, INMA members heard some of the secrets of search success from USA Today's Tim Gardner and Gannett's Sandy Schlosser.

“Ranking at the top of search confirms that not only USA Today, but our network is an expert, is authoritative, and is trustworthy when it comes to news [and] answering questions that the users have,” he said. “And search is a top traffic and subscription driver for our news sites. It is not just about top-of-the-funnel traffic and getting people into search. It can drive users down the funnel to become loyal subscribers to your content.”

With this in mind, Gannett developed its four pillars for a successful search programme, which are:   

  1. Ownership: “Every journalist needs to own search,” Schlosser explained. “It’s for every role that we have out there. It doesn’t matter if you are a reporter or an editor, a director, an SEO expert that’s on the staff, or somebody who’s a producer. You all have a piece of search that, really, without your participation, we can’t succeed.”
  2. Audience: Beyond being subject matter experts, newsrooms must become experts on their audiences. Because only then will they understand what kind of questions their audiences will ask and what kind of content they need to create to keep users engaged.
  3. Strategy: Understanding search and optimisation is a big part of the strategy and is the basis of the company’s Write to Win approach: “If you’re an expert out there, you’re writing with authority, and you’re doing it consistently, you are going to start building that trustworthiness that puts you at the top of Google and keeps you there keeps you there because you’re meeting the needs of your audience,” Schlosser said.
  4. Feedback: The last piece is critical in ensuring you know what your audience wants. Feedback can come from many sources — metrics, tools, surveys, etc. — and it’s critical for newsrooms to listen.
Gannet has identified the four pillars that create a successful search strategy.
Gannet has identified the four pillars that create a successful search strategy.

Learning how to Write to Win

Gannett’s Write to Win strategy revolves around topics in core areas of coverage where individual or cumulative newsroom experience will allow that publication to outrank its competitors in search, Gardner explained. The idea is to increase search ranking, domain authority, and click-through rates for those topics.

It’s done, he explained, by first choosing the topics that meet the Write to Win criteria, then choosing keywords to track each Write to Win topic and monitor them in Google Trends and Google Search Console. Of course, it’s important to continually review data and create a process for responding to both positive and negative results.

“[This means] being in there every day and be looking at the past week, the past 30 days to see where is the audience around this topic, what are the main focuses, and how can we be in that space?” Gardner said.

Write to Win has two distinct branches: news and evergreen topics. While news topics can drive traffic on events and big stories, evergreen topics cover basic questions, provide historical context, and have an extended shelf life.

“These pieces of content in tandem help build out your authority in search and your expertise to hopefully help provide consistent Google ranking and then consistent ranking thereafter as you build your site’s authority,” Gardner said.

They shared success stories from Write to Win coverage provided by USA Today publications, such as how they have earned millions of pageviews on live coverage of events ranging from elections to the war in Ukraine to the Olympics. The key to winning at live coverage, Gardner said, was to start well in advance of an event and build out SEO-rich content and then, when providing live coverage, “being aggressive in linking to other related content.”

One of the big victories scored by Write to Win was Kentucky Derby, which was covered both by USA Today and the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, Schlosser said. Over the years, the team had become “search champions” and was experienced in knowing what the audience was looking for. Initial meetings were about search recommendations and keywords, and the Courier-Journal created a guide for reporters who were covering the event.

“This is an event that is very popular and has many moving pieces,” Schlosser said. “It’s not just the horse race there, it’s almost a lifestyle for several weeks for people. And so they tap into that excitement. They have a plan in place, and the plan allows them to every day, every week, cover the types of activities and things that get everybody excited … So they’re building excitement, and the audience is following them consistently.”

Thanks to that ongoing coverage, by the day of the race, Google had prioritised coverage from the Courier-Journal, and it landed at the top of the search rankings, besting The New York Times and even USA Today.

“Google had seen that they were connecting with the audience on a regular basis,” Schlosser explained. “They were being very consistent, writing the types of answers to the queries that people were making. So they had that expertise, that authority, and they’d earned the trust — and that earned them the top spot.”

Creating your search toolkit

Stocking your toolkit with the right tools — and learning how to use them — will make a significant difference in the success of your search strategy. The first thing Schlosser recommended was Google Trends, which she said many people aren’t using to its full potential.

“This is an amazing audience connection tool for you,” she said, adding they have become “audience experts” by studying it and not simply using it for picking a headline or a keyword for your headline. “Over time, if you start looking at Google Trends every single day for your core keywords, you’re going to begin to understand the way that your audience responds to your topic areas.”

Google Search Console is a must for an effective search toolkit.
Google Search Console is a must for an effective search toolkit.

Another valuable tool is the Google Search Console, which is free. Once your domain is entered, you can optimise content, and then see which keywords were most effective in driving traffic, what the click-through rate is for those keywords, and where you ranked on the page.

“I keep telling folks, Google Search Console tells me what work I need to do with my reporters and editors to bring them to the next level of search,” she said. That means deciding if they need to work on a different angle or write a better headline, for example.

The content management system plays a role in the search toolkit as well, as algorithms have changed and Google now pulls the headline it perceives as being closest to the searcher’s intent, Gardner said: “So if you want to be differentiated from your competition, do a Google search for the story you’re writing and see what’s ranking,” he suggested. “Gauge those headlines and how can yours be more impactful, more engaging than what’s out there.” That will yield a higher click-through rate.

Don't overlook the role your content management system plays in your search strategy.
Don't overlook the role your content management system plays in your search strategy.

Writing keyword-driven URL endings and making sure your meta descriptions are keyword rich as well will further increase search success.

In addition to all these tools, it comes down to defining your end goal:

“When you hit the publish button, encourage your reporters to have that [goal] in mind,” Gardner advised. “So they can do a really quick check, maybe in the morning, maybe a quick check in the afternoon, they can look through and see whether or not something is reaching the Google audience.”

That allows them to adjust headlines, add links, or make sure the keywords are matching searches for that story.

“If the searcher is typing in a certain set of keywords, they’re kind of looking for a certain answer. And if you’re that answer, your story’s going to really hit. And if you’re not, they’re going to pass you by.”

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About Paula Felps

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