What Is SEO for Publishers and Why Is It Important?
Search engine optimization (SEO) for publishers is the process of optimizing online publications for search engines.
SEO helps make content more visible on search engine results pages (SERPs). So publishers can grow organic traffic and work to generate more revenue.
News and industry media sites rely heavily on ad revenue. So driving more impressions and clicks with SEO helps them stay profitable.
Here’s an example:
Advertisers typically pay publishers using a cost-per-mille (CPM) model. That means the publisher receives a set fee for every 1,000 views the ad on their site receives.
It’s up to the publisher to attract those views. And it’s in their financial interest to do it as effectively as possible.
Say 500,000 people see this Paramount+ ad on Independent’s Culture page every 24 hours:
At a hypothetical CPM of $15, the Independent would earn $7,500 per day from this ad space.
But if the Independent’s new SEO strategy increases traffic by 20%, 100,000 more people will view the ad daily.
The Independent now earns $9,000 per day from the same ad space. In a 30-day month, that’s an extra $45,000 in revenue.
5 Publishing SEO Challenges and How to Beat Them
SEO is essential to online publishers’ revenue, but the industry faces unique ranking challenges.
Here are five of the toughest obstacles to ranking as a publisher. And tips to overcome them.
1. Getting Google to Map a Website that Evolves Constantly
Google uses web crawlers to understand pages and discover new content (what Google calls “indexing”). But it’s hard for these bots to keep up with sites that publish scores of new content daily.
Direct Google toward the pages you want searchers to find (e.g., up-to-date content with ads and affiliate links). And steer it away from less important pages, such as older articles, sitemaps, and privacy policies.
These tactics will help:
- Create a search-friendly site structure. Organize menus and articles hierarchically for easy navigation. Categorize your content by topic and subtopic to create a website architecture that both humans and Google can understand.
- Optimize your meta tags. These are part of your website’s HTML code and include your meta descriptions and title tags. Optimizing meta tags signals page relevance.
- Plan sitemap optimization. Update your sitemap routinely to index your most important landing pages and articles. Check out the Independent’s XML sitemap for an example.
- Use Robots.txt. Guide search engines by using “disallow” commands in your robots.txt (a text file with instructions for search engine robots) to exclude less important pages.
Not sure if your site passes the crawl test?
Semrush’s web crawlers can help you determine whether Google bots can navigate your site and access your content.
Head to Site Audit and enter your domain name. We’ll use BuzzFeed for this example:
Select “Start Audit,” choose your settings, and soon you’ll see an overview containing a “Crawlability” score.
Click “View details” in the crawlability widget to see issues that could prevent Google from accessing your site.
2. Making Paywalled Content Discoverable
For your pages to rank, they need to be discoverable and rendered by Google crawlers.
That process is more challenging for subscription-based, paywalled content.
Google renders content by:
- Retrieving your pages
- Running the code
- Assessing site layout
- Judging its quality
If it’s too difficult for Google to process your content, it may even suspect you of cloaking.
That’s when publishers show users and search engines different content to bypass ranking guidelines. It’s a violation of Google’s spam policies.
To ensure your content gets indexed (and thereby seen in the SERPs), help Google access your gated pages.
There are two common ways to do this: offer free content samples or add code to each page.
Flexible sampling is where subscribers (and bots) can explore your content in small doses. There are a couple of recommended models:
- Metering: Offer an article quota (e.g., give readers access to a few articles per month)
- Lead-in: Offer part of the content (e.g., the first third) and require a subscription for the rest
That’s what the New York Times’s sports website The Athletic does:
You can also enclose paywalled content with structured data (code that you add to your site’s HTML) to allow Google to differentiate paywalled content.
First, add class names around the paywalled sections of your page. Google offers this example:
<p>This content is outside a paywall and is visible to all.</p>
<div class=”paywall”>This content is inside a paywall, and requires a subscription or registration.</div>
Then, add the structured data to denote the format.
The following example uses “NewsArticle.”
You can also use this code for other creative items:
So, how do you know if your existing content is indexable?
Test it using the URL Inspection tool in Google Search Console.
Type your URL in the inspection search bar at the top of the screen and press enter.
Learn more about structured data in our schema markup guide.
3. Indexing Various Content Types Effectively
Schema markup (a code vocabulary that search engines read) helps Google understand and index 32 types of content. Which makes it handy for publishers with diverse outputs.
Alongside subscription and paywalled content, some of the most valuable types of structured data for publishers are:
- Learning videos
- Review snippets
- Speakables (which allow search engines to identify news stories to read aloud on Google Assistant devices)
Google is more likely to index pages it understands fully. This way, it can present the content in the most relevant, user-friendly way on its results pages.
For example, the BBC publishes recipes through its Good Food brand. It uses structured data to help Google understand the format and intent.
It ranks well for recipe searches:
The BBC does the same for news content on its site:
And videos on its YouTube channel:
The BBC shows up at the top of the SERPs for so many types of searches because it uses technical SEO to drive organic traffic to its sites.
Google’s Structured Data Markup Helper makes it easy to generate structured data code. Here’s how to create schema markup for SEO.
Step 1: Select the Data Type
Choose a data type from the list. We went with “Articles.”
Step 2: Enter Your URL
Enter the URL of the page where you want to apply the markup. Alternatively, you can paste the HTML code. Then select “Start Tagging.”
The tool will load your page so you can start marking it up.
Your webpage will appear on the left side and the data items will appear on the right:
Step 3: Mark Up Your Page
To begin, highlight the selection on the left you’d like to mark up. For an article, you can highlight the author and choose the “Author” data item from the pop-up menu.
The tool will take the author’s name and place it next to “Author” section on the right side.
You can also tag items on your page manually. On the right side, scroll down until you see the “Add missing tags” button.
Click on it to open a pop-up menu where you can add tags manually. For example, we added data manually to the URL tag.
Continue adding markup items until you’re ready to generate your HTML.
Step 4: Generate HTML
When you’re done, click the “Create HTML” button on the top right of the screen.
You’ll receive the code to add to your site. Click the drop-down at the top to choose between JSON-LD (recommended) and microdata.
Step 5: Add the Markup to Your Site
Now, add your updated code to your content management system (CMS).
You can copy and paste or download the entire HTML file and insert it into the head section of your webpage.
When you’re done, update the page you’re working on. Click “Finish” to see instructions for adding the code to your webpage.
Then, make sure your markup was implemented correctly. Go to your Site Audit overview. Click “Markup.”
From here, you can see counts of pages organized by markup type as well as details on pages with incorrect markup setup with instructions for addressing the issue.
4. Keeping Page Speeds High with Tracking Pixels
Tracking pixels are code snippets that communicate information about web users’ on-site behavior. Like what someone does after clicking on an ad.
They’re typically a single pixel in size and transparent, so you won’t see them on-page.
These pixels help advertisers and publishers see which ads contribute to visits, sales, sign-ups, and other conversions. They’re essential for measuring the effectiveness of pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns.
For example, Facebook uses a tracking pixel to track ad conversions on its platforms:
Pixels are a good thing for publishing websites, and you should use them. But poor tracking pixel practices can cause slow loading.
Which hinders your organic search performance, as page speed is a confirmed Google ranking factor.
Keep these tips in mind when using tracking pixels:
- Limit the number of pixels you use. The more code you add to a page, the higher the risk you’ll reduce load speed. Prioritize essential pixels (e.g., conversion pixels) over those that are less valuable to your digital marketing campaign.
- Place the pixels at the bottom of your page. That allows the primary content and elements (i.e., what Google and users are looking for) to load first.
- Use asynchronous code. That means coding in a way that allows both the page and tracking pixel to load simultaneously rather than in order.
- Track the impact of any changes. After adding or updating tracking pixels, check the impact by entering your URL into Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool.
It’s important to respect visitors’ privacy when using tracking pixels. Be open about what you’re doing and offer the chance to opt out of tracking.
That will improve user experience and help you comply with privacy laws such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Explain the highlights and offer further reading on the policies in your cookie consent bar:
5. Dealing with Keyword Cannibalization
When multiple pages on the same site compete with each other for the same search engine rankings, it causes an SEO issue called keyword cannibalization.
It happens when the pages share keywords and purpose. It can be hard to avoid for industry and news publishers that create content on similar topics and at scale.
If you’re an established online publisher thinking about SEO for the first time, there’s a good chance you have existing content that clashes.
Duplicate content hinders your search performance because Google won’t know which version to show its users.
Semrush’s Position Tracking tool monitors your Google rankings to identify potential cases of keyword cannibalization. It provides key insights in its Cannibalization Report.
If you haven’t already, set up your project.
Go to the “Cannibalization” tab to see the number of:
- Affected keywords: Keywords that have more than one page ranking in the top 100
- Cannibal pages: URLs that share a keyword ranking with one or more other URLs
Scroll down to the “Cannibalization” section.
Toggle to the “Keywords” breakdown.
Use the arrow to expand any result. You’ll see ranking URLs and associated data like:
- Pos. (Position): The URL’s ranking for the keyword (on the latest date in view)
- Volume: The average number of monthly searches for the keyword (in your chosen location)
Remember: pages only compete when they target the same keyword and satisfy the same search intent. Or if Google interprets them as doing so.
That means you can target a keyword in multiple pieces of content if they have different purposes.
For example, a travel guide to the best restaurants in Venice wouldn’t compete with a news site’s story on Venice’s restaurant scene. They serve different purposes.
If you identify conflicting content using the position tracking tool, pick one of the following solutions:
- Set up a redirect. A technique that sends website visitors from one URL to another automatically. Best for similar or duplicate pages you don’t need to keep.
- Use canonical tags. HTMLcode that tells search engines which is the preferred version of a webpage. Best for duplicate pages you need to keep.
- Optimize links and content. Differentiate the pieces by optimizing one for another relevant keyword. Best for similar pages you intend to keep.
- Add noindex tags. HTML code that tells crawlers not to index or rank a page in the SERPs. Best for similar pages you need to keep when the other solutions won’t work.
Further reading: Overcome the challenges of conflicting and duplicate content with help from our detailed keyword cannibalization guide.
8 SEO Tips for Publishers
Publishers have unique challenges when it comes to ranking. But some SEO activities are just good practice.
Here are eight broader SEO best practices to increase visibility and conversions.
1. Put Readers Before Algorithms
Focus on delivering content that resonates with your readers and encourages them to share, link, and return to your website.
Because Google says so:
Google’s automated ranking systems are designed to present helpful, reliable information that’s primarily created to benefit people, not to gain search enginerankings, in the top Search results.
Write naturally, avoiding excessive keyword stuffing or other tactics that may compromise readability and user experience.
Semrush’s AI-powered SEO Writing Assistant can check for originality, readability, and SEO potential.
Paste or write your draft into the box or provide the URL of an existing page.
Then, enter your target keywords and click “Get recommendations” in the bottom right of the window.
The tool will deliver recommendations and assessments in the panel on the right:
The SEO Writing Assistant works natively in Google Docs, Microsoft Word, and WordPress through the relevant add-ons. A convenient option for publishers creating lots of content every day.
2. Upgrade Your Content Strategy with Keyword Research
Keyword research allows you to find and analyze phrases your target readers type into search engines. So you can focus on the most relevant content for your niche.
Your keyword research strategy depends on the type of publication.
For example, outlets that rely on breaking news need to focus on the latest trending topics.
Here’s the spike in searches when a storm ripped through the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Independence:
Before June 24, search volume was understandably nil. Checking this keyword the day before would indicate that search volume is rising and might make a worthy story.
But checking it a week later would show the story is past its prime.
Google Trends is a useful tool for these types of searches.
When you head to the landing page, the free tool will scroll through some top trending search terms automatically.
Here’s one about competitive eater Joey Chestnut. It also includes some relevant articles underneath:
If you click “Explore” and scroll down, you’ll find more related topics and queries.
News outlets want to look for these breakout search terms.
These are phrases with volume that grew by more than 5000% in the requested time.
On the other hand, magazines such as The Atlantic and Wired write longer features on more evergreen topics.
For example, here’s the number one result for the keywords “ripples in space”:
To find relevant search terms for feature-length stories, use Semrush’s Keyword Magic tool.
Say you’re a pet magazine looking to cover a “dog food” subtopic that’s gaining traction. Start by entering your content’s topic into the search bar.
Choose your target location and click “Search.”
Here, you’ll see keyword suggestions based on your initial phrase.
Scroll through the keywords and see what’s trending upward.
Or click the topics on the left to filter by sub-topic:
From there, choose the topic that best fits your magazine’s brand and content strategy.
Keyword research is a massive topic and doing it well can lead to huge growth. To learn more, check out our in-depth guide to keyword research.
3. Optimize for Google News (and Submit Your Content)
Google News is Google’s news aggregation service. It compiles and organizes articles from various news websites and provides users with personalized feeds based on their preferred topics.
Here’s the Google News homepage:
Focus on producing relevant, high-quality content that aligns with your target audience’s interests. Purposeful keyword research will help.
Optimize your articles with relevant keywords, descriptive headlines, and concise summaries. And use structured data markup to provide additional context to search engines.
Then, submit your content to Google through its Publisher Center. You can share using RSS feeds, website URLs, or videos.
You can also analyze your Google News performance in the Publisher tool to gain insights into user engagement and refine your content strategy.
4. Add Alt Text to Images
Adding alt text to your website’s images helps search engines understand their content and context. Which makes you more likely to rank.
It also improves accessibility for visually impaired users, increasing engagement. And it’s what shows when an image can’t load, so all users can still understand the intent.
Here’s an image from a tech review on the Insider website:
Its alt attribute is accessible by right-clicking the page and selecting “Inspect” if you’re using Google Chrome as your browser.
Alt text is typically added via the alt attribute in an image’s HTML code.
Like this: <img src=“image-file-example.jpg” alt=“Alt text goes here”>
Most content management systems have dedicated fields for alt text. So you don’t need to edit the HTML directly. Here’s what it looks like in WebFlow:
For optimal search impact when adding alt text:
- Use descriptive, concise language that reflects the image accurately
- Include relevant keywords, but only where they have a purpose
- Add alt text to images, though it’s not necessary for purely decorative images
For example, Insider’s alt text in the image above (“Samsung QN90B 4K TV hanging on a wall with a beach sunset on its screen”) would be much less effective as “TV on a wall.”
Semrush’s Site Audit tool can help you detect missing alt text on your publication pages.
Enter your domain and click “Start Audit.”
After you configure the tool and the audit is ready, click on the “Issues” tab.
That will show you how many issues you have with images.
Clicking on the warning will tell you which pages are missing text. You can filter your results and add them to a CMS or other project planning tool.
5. Implement HTTPS for Prioritization
Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) encrypts the communication between a user’s browser and your website, and works to ensure data privacy and protection.
It’s not a declared ranking factor, but Google prioritizes secure websites. Using it could give you a boost in the SERPs.
Additional benefits to using HTTPS include:
- Opportunity for AMP pages: HTTPS sites can use the accelerated mobile page (AMP) framework. AMPs are mobile-only pages or websites that load quickly on mobile devices.
- Users trust HTTPS: Extra security encourages users to trust your brand. They’ll feel more comfortable sharing data with you or purchasing on your website.
It’s simple to switch to HTTPS if your publication site isn’t already using it.
- Purchase a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificate. Many web hosting companies (like GoDaddy or Namecheap) sell these. Or find a third-party vendor.
- Install your SSL certificate. Most web hosting services offer instructions
- Update internal links from HTTP to HTTPS. Not all links will transfer over neatly. If you notice any that still point to the HTTP version of your webpage, update them in the code.
- Set redirects from HTTP to HTTPS. You can also set up manual redirects to ensure browsers point to the secure versions of your webpages
Semrush’s Site Audit tool provides an HTTPS report for your site. From Site Audit overview, click “HTTPS.”
From here, the report will show HTTPS implementation scores for your security certificate, server and website architecture. For any issues, click “Why and how to fix it” to resolve them.
Further reading: Learn about security’s impact on SEO in our HTTP vs. HTTPS guide.
6. Add Internal Links to Share Authority
Internal links are hyperlinks that point to other pages on your website. They help readers and search engines navigate and build your authority in the process.
Internal links can look like this:
Or sit within the text like this:
The best part about internal links is they share authority.
Say you have an authoritative page. You can share that authority with lesser-known pages by linking to them.
Further reading: Learn how to find your authoritative pages and build an interlinking strategy in our guide: Internal Links: Ultimate Guide + Strategies.
7. Build Backlinks to Grow Your Readership
Link building is the process of getting other sites to link back to your site.
Fittingly, these are called backlinks.
Here’s a backlink from Forbes pointing to the Wall Street Journal:
Trusted, authoritative sites that rank highly on Google have lots of high-quality backlinks pointing to them. (High-quality means they come from other authoritative sites.)
One of the advantages publishers have is a ready-built audience of dedicated readers in their niche.
A new small business launching a blog might have to work hard to get eyes on their content. But media outlets tend to benefit from stronger journalist-to-reader relationships.
And stronger journalist-to-journalist relationships, given the power of media networking.
Plus, newsworthy stories and in-depth features are naturally shareable. So online publications build these links naturally.
This correlation confirms the golden rule: backlinks rely on quality content.
It also helps if you plan to use digital PR to earn those backlinks. Digital PR uses public relations tactics to promote your content to other relevant publications and journalists.
Essentially, you’re pushing your content out to their audience to bring awareness to your publication.
You can publish in partnership with another publication, influencer, or company. Or encourage them to link to what you’ve created.
But first, you need to find out the kinds of linkable assets your audience and other sites enjoy.
The Semrush Backlink Analytics tool can help.
Type in a competitor URL and click “Analyze.”
Head to the “Referring Domains” tab.
Here, you’ll see the websites that link to your competitor’s site.
Look at the “Root Domain / Category” column.
These are the types of websites that could link to your content.
Next, click the “Indexed Pages” tab.
Here, you’ll see which competitor pages earned the most backlinks.
This list shows the most popular types of content your audience enjoys.
Use it to inspire your own.
A canonical URL is the URL for the “main” version (also called the principal or primary version) of a duplicated page. Google determines your canonical URL when it decides which page to give ranking authority.
But it doesn’t always choose the one you want.
That’s because publishers tend to have many parameterized URLs because of filtering, tags, or archiving.
For example, here are two URLs:
Primary URL: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2023/07/antarctica-tourism-overcrowding-environmental-threat/674600/
Alternate URL: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2023/07/antarctica-tourism-overcrowding-environmental-threat/674600/?utm_source=ground.news&utm_medium=referral
They both direct to the same article on The Atlantic site. But one identifies where the reader came from when they accessed the URL (ground.news, a news aggregation platform). That extra information is called a query string.
The Atlantic wants all ranking authority to go to the primary URL, not the alternate URL. So it uses canonical tags.
The tags tell Google which page is the canonical URL.
When you put these tags in the <head> section of a website’s source code, they look like this:
<link rel=”canonical” href=” />
Here’s what that looks like on a Buffer page:
These similar URLs can become a problem when they’re linked internally. The crawlers get confused and you can end up with non-indexed pages.
To help crawlers index and attribute ranking power to the right pages, use canonical tags.
Note: Don’t use canonical tags for syndicated content. Instead, syndication partners should block indexing with meta tags.
Build a Revenue-Boosting SEO Strategy Today
SEO can be daunting for publishers that produce a lot of content. Especially for those who haven’t worked with it before.
But get into good habits, and you’ll soon find all the recommendations in this guide will become second nature.
Now that you’ve got the foundations, start planning for more visibility and conversions with our guide to creating an effective SEO strategy.