Like many news organizations, the St. Petersburg Times knows that surviving in an industry facing economic struggle, shrinking news staffs, and dwindling readership is tough. It also knows that today many readers who once purchased a newspaper every morning now depend on websites to get their news. As a result of this behavior shift, the Times' website, Tampabay.com, started experimenting with SEO to better understand visitor needs and boost site traffic, but after dipping its toe in the SEO pool, it soon found itself in over its head. "It is easy when you are just getting started, and you're just starting to track searches, but especially on a news site as big as ours, you really need to do something," says John Schlander, senior editor of online operations at Tampabay.com.
Even though Schlander was focused on writing SEO friendly headlines and getting the news room staff to incorporate keywords into articles, Tampabay.com was still running into trouble. "The main challenge was having a focused holistic approach to SEO. There are so many individual articles moving through the site every day. You have all the channel level pages that need to be optimized, and you've got all these blogs, so there is a lot of very dynamic material that is constantly updating. It was becoming increasingly difficult to really keep things organized," explains Schlander.
To revamp its SEO approach, Schlander set his sights on finding a product that was not only easy enough for everyone in the news room to understand, but would answer specific questions regarding the relationships between different pages, which articles were moving through individual channels, and how the biggest keyword terms, or head terms, were relating to particular articles. Most importantly though, Schlander needed a product that would keep all of this information organized. While walking through the Search Marketing Expo in Seattle, Washington, he found an answer.
Tampabay.com first began using Optify in June of 2010, and not too long after that, it started seeing exactly where it wasn't performing in terms of SEO. As Schlander explains, "You're looking at keywords, you're looking at links, you're looking at on-page page SEO opportunities, and you're seeing where your shortcomings are." According to Brian Goffman, co-founder and CEO of Optify, Tampabay.com was lacking a presence in "the evergreen content, the content around local attractions, around sports names, things like that, that they really should rank the highest on because they are the authority."
To get back on top, Tampabay.com turned to Optify's suite of 3 primary SEO related applications, which "all work together around workflow, so that writers and editors can work together," says Goffman. The keywords application allows users to create keyword lists and track their keyword position across multiple search engines and about 35 different countries, but in Tampabay.com's case, local keywords were most important. "Ultimately the goal here is traffic growth, and especially local traffic growth. We saw local traffic as our most important piece of the audience," explains Schlander.
Schlander was able to make a list of prime keywords to track--a list that grew to about 1200-1400 terms with new terms being added every week--and organize those keywords into groups, which Optify then took and lined up against the pages of Tampabay.com. As Goffman notes, "You want a page to be around a particular keyword. Our software lets you take a keyword, say this is what this page is about, or our software says, this is what we think this page is about, and then it runs a series of tests."
Linking to external sites is also a major factor in boosting traffic. Optify's linked application "recommends critical links that you need to have in order to really rank on the keyword. It just tells you that if you really want to be serious about a competitive keyword or a lower level keyword, we have an advanced system that runs in the background that recommends other sites that you should be trying to get to link to you, using the keywords you are describing," explains Goffman. "You go back and forth between those three applications, you look into reporting and how it is going over time, and then you get a content centric view of your SEO performance."
After seeing the process in action, Schlander agrees. "You're learning a lot by looking at your own statistics, and you're learning a lot by seeing where your opportunities are in the tool. You're constantly learning and adjusting by being in the tool and working with it. That's allowing that constant cycle of improvement."
Between 2009 and 2010, Tampabay.com saw a 20.4% increase in searches hitting its site. More recently, when comparing January through July 2010 with January through July 2011, Tampabay.com found it is up 16.5% in search hits. In addition, between January and July 2011, its average total monthly unique visitors for Tampabay.com and Politifact.com is 4.211 million, up from 3.517 million in 2010, and 3.093 million in 2009.
Both Schlander and Goffman note that before Tampabay.com saw those results, it had some struggles to overcome. Goffman narrows those struggles into three categoriess: "Getting editorial aligned with search and social media, organizing for success, and finally measuring results. You can't, by yourself, in an editorial function, make these changes. Some of the changes have to be on the structure of the website, the way the URL's are done, and that requires an investment. Our software works across teams and creates workflow so that also allowed IT and editorial to work together and make the organizational challenges a little bit easier."
Schlander attributes Tampabay.com restructuring success to Optify's ease of use. "The people who work at Optify are great at easing you into things, and fully explaining how to use the tool. One of the great things about the tool, is it is so easy to explain it to other people. It is very intuitive. So you have very simple to look at dashboards and it's pretty easy then to go in and adjust your own dashboard and understand what it is you're looking at," says Schlander.
Despite recent successes, there are always new problems to contend with. As Schlander explains, "SEO, as scientific as we like to think it is, there is still an art related to it. Sometimes keywords look very promising, like you are going to be able to get some decent traffic on them, and sometimes they just don't perform." With Optify's help, Tampabay.com is now able to monitor these performance issues much more efficiently and focus, instead, on producing dynamic content. "I just think that with a tool like this, it really enables you to leverage good journalism," says Schlander. "To actually step forward and take advantage of this world of search and links and making sure we're recognized for it. Getting the traffic that we deserve, that we put in the hard work on, and doing it well."