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Search Engine Optimisation in BBC News

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Martin Asser | 11:41 UK time, Thursday, 6 September 2012

Newspaper poster board

Poster for the London Evening Standard newspaper. The storm was in the United States. Pic by Darren Shrubsole

This is the third and final in a series of posts about Search Engine Optimisation, following Duncan Bloor and Oliver Bartlett writing about optimising Knowledge and Learning websites.

Headline-writing is a journalistic skill that provokes strong feelings – and of course it is meant to.

A sub-editor writes a headline to grab attention, to compel readers.

It’s also considered something of an art form, which will often see clusters of journalists poring over headlines at length, in the knowledge that the eventual choice could spell the difference between people reading the article or not.

Good headlines are passed around newsrooms in admiration, bad ones are held up to ridicule, and the best ones go down in history – think of the Sun headlines “Gotcha” and “Freddy Starr ate my hamster”.

Given that we are talking about such a cherished institution, it’s no surprise that when I as an SEO (search engine optimiser) come along and rewrite the headline rulebook there might be a certain amount of, let’s say, polite demurral among your colleagues.

But that’s often exactly what is needed at news websites which have previously paid no attention to search traffic when composing their sacred texts.

I moved from my role as BBC web journalist specialising in the Middle East to become the BBC’s first specialist SEO journalist in late 2009.

The headline system that I took over had not even been optimised for the web originally, let alone search engines.

Back in the mid-2000s, BBC News had merged the Online and Ceefax teams to write multi-platform stories whose headline length was designed to fit neatly on the old analogue teletext pages. These 31-33 character headlines didn’t allow much room to include search keywords; they barely had enough space to tell the story. But the format has been skilfully incorporated into our web journalism and to this day we should be grateful for how it has given the News website its clean, impactful appearance and pithy, easy-to-read headlines.

Not wanting to throw the baby out with the bathwater, we devised a dual-headline system, which would keep the index headlines unchanged while introducing a longer, search-optimised text that would sit at the top of articles and supply the page title meta-tags, which are what search engines take most account of.

All we had to do then was to make sure that the hundreds upon hundreds of different story headlines written every day by teams scattered across the country and the globe were optimised for search!

It's been a long, hard slog, with few resources, to educate all the News staff and monitor all their output.

Fortunately, other branches of BBC Online have been actively optimising their output and I have learnt much from Duncan Bloor and colleagues over at the Vision user building team - people with an SEO, rather than editorial background such as myself. And it has been worth the effort: between the second half of 2009, pre-SEO, and the first half of 2011 visits to News from search increased by 57%, and overall visits were up by 34%.

I like to think that a lot of that extra non-search traffic came as a result of converting search visitors into our regular users and there is some justification for that, although it's difficult to be sure.

The evidence is that before SEO the traffic trends were absolutely flat, if not actually in decline, and as soon as we began optimisation the graphs started to climb and have continued to climb ever since.

My main SEO pitch to journalists has been to explain that it's not just about increasing traffic to a story by a few percentage points: it's about meeting the essential needs of web users to find the information they are looking for; it's about bringing new users to the site, possibly for the first time in their lives; it's about securing long-term promotion for your journalism that is not contingent on the few short hours of exposure it'll get on a web index.

I have given colleagues a four-point checklist for their headlines as the most effective way of making that happen. (As long as they follow the basic principles of journalistic storytelling, the rest should take care of itself.)

The points are:

  1. use words that people would use in search in order to find the information being provided

  2. avoid words that people would never use in search to find that content

  3. put the most searchable elements at the front

  4. proper names are often used in search, so - following rules 1 and 3 - names should be included in the headline and if appropriate at the front.


It is when I outline these concepts to new inductees that sometimes eyes become fixed, brows start to furrow and hands go up.

Proper names?! Local journalists in particular have learned from cubdom that if you have a headline that proclaims "Burglary in Little Snodbury post office", inhabitants of every other village in the county will barely give the story a second glance. If you say "Village post office burgled" everybody starts reading to find out where.

It's like the newsstand which trumpets "Film star dies": you can be sure that when you buy the paper it's someone you've only vaguely heard of, otherwise they would have said exactly who had died.

How many people are going to search for Little Snodbury anyway?

And as for only using words that people will search for! How can you sell your story properly without the rhetorical flourishes and punchy vocabulary of headline language? What about wit and word play? Truly the era of the creative and memorable headline is over.

My reply to these objections is always that headlines do not obey immutable laws written in tablets of stone; they follow different linguistic rules depending on the context that they occur.

An SEO headline at the top of an article may look like a newspaper headline, but the context is different.

In a paper, it's there to make a reader stop and read as they leaf through the paper. On the web they have already landed on that story, so the headline's job is to make sure they can arrive there via a search engine.

I'm not saying you need to cook up a keyword soup. The text still needs to compel a search engine user enough to click on the story, but if it never appears in a search result then it is wasted effort.

And contrary to what people might think, the inhabitants of Little Snodbury and its surroundings are in fact extremely likely to use that name in search queries, just as schoolmates of a missing teenager will use their actual name in search, or shareholders of a bankrupt Christmas club.

So is it ever possible to write a headline that can turn an eye or raise a smile despite my SEO strictures? I like to think so. The journalists are given 55 characters (including spaces) to express their creativity, a length chosen because it equates to the space allocated for the page title on a Google search results page. A favourite recent example of mine manages to get the best keywords at the front of headline, includes a proper name, and gets a groan-worthy joke in there. Hats off to our Norfolk team for "Bald hedgehog faces pointless existence in Yarmouth".

Martin Asser is Senior Product Manager, News & Knowledge, BBC Future Media


  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    Great post Martin - I did a similar job at the BBC back in the early 2000s. One of the first meetings I had at BBC News was discussing whether to let search engines even index news stories at all, the article pages were locked up behind robots.txt instructions at the time, to direct people to come in “through the front door” as it were. I blogged a bit about what it was like, with one of the presentations about search engines I used to give inside the BBC as training in 2003 - https://www.currybet.net/cbet_blog/2011/03/seo-at-the-bbc.php

  • Comment number 3.


    I am doing a lot of work educating and rewriting content on our website in order to do exactly what you mention in points 1 & 2. I appreciate the comment you make in point 1, but how do you educate on what customers are searching for? I do a lot of internal search analysis. About 33% of our customer use our internal search engine to find information. I take this information and then measure it against the pages being returned in our search engine. I can then educate the service area on how to correctly write optimised content. I work in local government - so an example is Household Waste Recycling Centres - the posh phrase for the "tip". I explained that no-one ever looks for Household Waste Recycling Centres - they look for Tidy Tips. So we change our content accordingly. I'd be really interested to know if you take a similar approach? It's reaping the rewards for us. Here is my blog on the subject - don't worry, it isn't spam - it's on the government's Knowledge Hub - https://goo.gl/be4EO. Thanks - Alan (@alanfergs)

  • Comment number 4.

    Martin, it's great to see a journalist optimising for search as so many other news sites are very poorly structured for this, not to mention local government sites where i've witnessed some of the biggest mistakes one could make.

    The duel headline method is a very effective way to not over do the main headline that's indexed which could put searchers off from click through to the BBC.

    Upon further research into this i found this post https://www.pressat.co.uk/optimising-press-release-headlines/ which recommends using techniques such as alliteration and rhyme bounty to provide a catchy yet informative headline.

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  • Comment number 7.

    Thanks for this post Martin, really insightful.

    Having worked in and around SEO for many years I've always found the BBC's approach and attitude towards search to be very positive. In particular

    A few years ago I heard Russell Smith from the beeb talk at an SEO conference in London (https://www.seomoz.org/blog/a-sneak-preview-of-the-london-pro-seo-seminar-2010%29 about the BBC's approach to data journalism. 2 years can be a long time in the world of search marketing but the sort of stuff Russell was talking about back then most SEO practitioners in the UK still haven't bought up with now.

    Transparency, like we see in this post about the internal processes at the BBC, is all to rare in this business as well. As I understand it BBC journalists are trained to link to relevant websites from each of their news stories? You very rarely see media sites doing this these days, they either avoid linking out at all costs or place "nofollow" tags on their links so they don't help the publishers they're linking to. Although I understand why publishers might think this will help them, this killing off of the link graph really doesn't benefit anyone. Lonely planet is the example I always use - https://www.johnmcelborough.com/lonelyplanet-nofollow they nofollow their links to other sites, despite personally vetting each site before including it in their guides. Thats crazy and I'm really glad the BBC have never gone down their route, even though maintaining as many external links as they have must be a job in itself.

    The only part of this post I wasn't sure on was this;

    "An SEO headline at the top of an article may look like a newspaper headline, but the context is different.

    In a paper, it's there to make a reader stop and read as they leaf through the paper. On the web they have already landed on that story, so the headline's job is to make sure they can arrive there via a search engine."

    I think its a little more complicated than this. I don't think you can safely assume that everyone who's ready a headline online has already arrived at the article and therefore only use it for SEO. That same headline might appear on a homepage or as a related story link. It could be syndicated via RSS and appear out of context or be sen in search engine results pages so I think it will always have a dual purpose, firstly provide context and intrigue which encourages readers to click on it and secondly to include keywords to help it to be found via search. As you infer though - thats probably not the easiest task, even for a skilled journalist.

  • Comment number 8.


    That's a really nice post. There's no doubt that headline writing for SEO is a valuable skill. Writing great headlines is difficult enough, without the need to include keywords.

    At Wordtracker we provide free keyword research advice and have written extensively about headline writing for social media.

    In short, our advice would be to:

    -> Write a great headline, then try and add a target keyword

    A great headline is likely to attract links from other sites (which will mean your chances of getting traffic are much greater).

    As you say, the 'Gotcha!' headline, published in the Sun newspaper when the British Navy controversially sunk the General Belgrano, an Argentinean cruiser, during the Falklands war, is a great (infamous) headline.

    "Gotcha!" isn't likely to be anyone's choice of keyword when they're searching for that story. But, the headline is so dramatic that it will attract traffic, and just as importantly, links from other sites.

    These links are a key factor in determining how much traffic you get from search engines. So, if you can write a headline that people will want to link to, that's often just as important as including keywords.

    Online, the Sun might have published its infamous headline as:
    Gotcha! Navy sinks the Belgrano

    The headline isn't as striking, but it does contain some relevant keywords (and it comes in under your 55-word limit). It's written for humans, as well as search engines.

  • Comment number 9.

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  • Comment number 10.

    There are a lot of small things you can do when designing or re-designing a site to get better rankings in the search engines — and every little bit helps in the end result. There is no one magic thing you can do to get top placement at a search engine for your website. But you can do a bunch of small things that will add up to excellent placement in the search engines for the key words you select that are relevant to your web pages.

    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 11.

    Thanks for all the kind comments and sorry for the week's silence before getting round to answering questions. Particularly grateful for the perspective provided by Martin Balen - I wish I could say things have completely changed at the BBC since the early 2000s, but if you want an update, Martin, please drop a line.

    Comment 2 Fergiestalkingfootie
    Hi Alan – what you’re doing seems like a sound approach. I also spend a lot of time looking at keyword traffic to our pages, although with a News site it’s more about understanding the language of search so we can second-guess probable keyword choices on stories that haven’t happened yet, rather than monitoring traffic for pages which already exist. If you’re looking for other free tools I’d recommend Google Insights and Google Adwords, where you can compare the popularity of different terms in Google search. And then there’s the Google Webmaster Tools service, which can show your click-through rate on keywords used on Google. At the BBC we also use a (relatively expensive) paid-for web analytics service that shows UK keyword traffic to different websites and industries, very useful for spotting trends that we could be taking advantage of. Data is very much king nowadays, so the more you can gather and use to inform your choices the better.

    Comment 7 from johnmcelborough
    Thanks for your helpful comments – you’re absolutely right about other places that headlines appear, I oversimplified. As a link text on a SERP of course, it’s keywords that match the search term (in bold) that have the most impact and research shows few people spend much time reading text on SERP before clicking. A telling phrase does work well though and we mustn’t forget the impact of the meta description. Social shares may benefit more from ‘cute’ headlines – but the fact that the story comes recommended may make it less necessary. That puts it a world away from our indexes brimming with stories competing for attention.

    Comment 7 from Justin Deaville
    Good argument, Justin – thanks for making it. Borrowing your approach, and using my analysis of traffic to BBC News in the highly competitive market we're working in, I’d sum up my policy like this: Think of the most likely way someone would try to find the content you're providing, then write a great headline, in which those targeted keywords come first.

  • Comment number 12.

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  • Comment number 13.

    I think that with more and more focus on quality of content rather than optimisation by search engines, the major search providers are tending to reward sites that do not create headlines based on cleverly placed keywords but instead headlines that look natural and more so like they would in print.

    This is now the age of Google Penguin and all the changes it has brought along with it.

  • Comment number 14.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 15.

    Great article, though doesn't stick to it's own 4 point rule system ;)
    As an SEO myself I know the power of what you are saying here but simple things such as keywords in urls and title tags plus your first paragraph do all have a high correlation with good rankings on a well aged site. Other tips i give, [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator] indclude using microformats and using social media, something the bbc does very well indeed

  • Comment number 16.

    The world of SEO is complex, but most people can easily understand the basics. Even a small amount of knowledge can make a big difference. For the most part, SEO education is free and available on the web, including guides like this. Combine this with a little practice and you are well on your way to becoming a guru.

    Depending on your time commitment, willingness to learn, and complexity of your website(s), you may decide you need an expert to handle things for you. Firms that practice SEO can vary; some have a highly specialized focus, while others take a more broad and general approach. Optimizing a web site for search engines can require looking at so many unique elements that many practitioners of SEO (SEOs) consider themselves to be in the broad field of optimization and website strategy.
    Marcin Suwara
    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

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  • Comment number 18.

    Absolutely, SEO is very important in promoting a website and making known to the world. We are working on doing SEO for [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator] a site that shows online deals on one page. Thanks for the article and the tips mentioned.

  • Comment number 19.

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  • Comment number 20.

    Great post.
    I was wondering about your headline though. You have used the British spelling of Optimisation/Optimization. That would leave out a lot of North American searches, wouldn't it? Would it serve better to write SEO instead? SEO being an acronym that is agnostic to American or British spellings. I however concede that 'Search' is indeed a prize keyword and you would want to retain it in your headline.

  • Comment number 21.

    20 Essen, actually both optimisation and optimization are valid in UK English. People tend not to use the latter though.

  • Comment number 22.

    I keep hearing that SEO is considered to be a dark art however in my many years of experience it is on the whole very much based on common sense with a dash of technical review

  • Comment number 23.

    This is a great article!

    Also, most website owners forget that it's all about content: how you write it and also as important how you format it as well.

    SEO isn't just about having keywords at the beginning of titles and text.. it's important to format your text in a way that search engines can understand it as well. For example, using headline tags h1, h2, h3 etc, h1 being more important than h2, h2 being more important than h3 and so on. Also naming images according to the subject for example: BBC-internet-seo.jpg because search engines cannot "see" images, so they rely on reading their names to work out what they are about: https://thetechstuff.com/posts/2061/how-to-improve-the-visibility-of-your-website-on-google-and-attract-more-traffic-through-text-seo

  • Comment number 24.

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  • Comment number 26.

    Good post, very helpful on all levels.


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