Sharing, not searching: The Atlantic’s new strategy for being found

A week ago this popped up on my Twitter feed:

Having collaborated with people who were happy to sacrifice anything – clarity, accuracy, grammar – just to please their Google overlords, I took notice. If you haven’t already followed Erin‘s (well, Stringbot’s) link, here are the abridged guts of the Mashable story “Why the Atlantic No Longer Cares About SEO”:

The Atlantic is adapting its editorial strategy to the growing importance of social networks, rather than search engines, as sources of traffic.

“Sixteen months ago we received the same number of monthly referrals from search as social. Now 40% of traffic comes from social media,” Scott Havens, senior vice president of finance and digital operations, said. “Our writers are not really thinking about SEO anymore. It’s about how we can spin a story so that it goes viral.”

Bob Cohn, editor of The Atlantic Digital, says that “assigning stories based on search returns was a cynical approach to journalism. We’re no longer writing to get the attention of Google algorithms. We’re writing to get you to share it.”

I’ll admit upfront that I don’t know a lot about The Atlantic. I doubt I’d even spent a cumulative hour on theatlantic.com before I saw the tweet that kicked this post off. But I love the way that the people who call the shots there are following data (40% of traffic coming from social) to new strategic ideas for content.

Know how you’ll be found

No matter how many pairs of eyeballs you want on your site, the important thing isn’t being searched. The important thing is being found. For a lot of us the way to get found is through search, but The Atlantic’s shift shows that there can be more to it than that.

Earlier this month I posted what you need to know before you write. I know it’s wanky to quote yourself, but in that post I asked:

Where’s your audience coming from?
[…] Could they come in from search? Is this content that we might share through social media?

These questions are about your audience’s expectations (where are people looking for the stuff you make?) as much as they’re about your content’s strengths (for example, is it fun?).

The Atlantic have spotted a trend in their traffic data, and made what sounds like a site-wide decision. You might be able to use one approach as well, or you could need to work out what works for separate sections or pages on your site.

Either way, you need to know how people will find your content (and how you want them to find it) before the writing starts. A shareable version of your content would look and feel different to a search-optimised version. So which, if either, should you make?

When the social scene isn’t for you

In my day job I work for a big bank. I’ve written about how to find an ATM, what to do when you forget your credit card PIN, and your options when you can’t afford your bills. These aren’t subjects that people are going to share. They run the Gambit of Social Silence, from “mundane” to “embarrassing”.

There’ll always be topics that your readers need to know about but don’t want their friends or followers to be in on. I’m willing to bet that you’ll never see an ATM location in someone’s Facebook updates. And if you do, I’ll go double-or-nothing on advice about what your bank calls “financial hardship”.

SEO becomes more important as social sharing becomes less likely. Knowing when your audience will be indifferent or shy is knowing when Google is more likely to be their first point of call.

Going social and getting shared

So when will social trump search? Not until you’ve earned it.

Before social took the strategic place of SEO for The Atlantic, a buttload of time and effort went into it. Facebook timeline tells me that The Atlantic joined that network on 6 August, 2008. Twbirthday and How long have you been tweeting are a small time zone disagreement away from agreeing when @TheAtlantic started tweeting, but it was some time in late April 2009.

So it took around two-and-a-half years of Facebooking and 19 months of tweeting to get to the point 16 months ago when equal traffic came from search and social. That was one hell of a milestone: I hope there was a decent office party. To get regular people sharing as many click-worthy links as the giant server farms of Google (yes, ok, and Bing) was a massive piece of work. But it still wasn’t enough.

Since then it’s taken another 16 months – five quarters, in business-speak – to build a robust enough social standing (and social community) that it’s earned the job of “main route to findability”. That’s not a couple of Tweet buttons and one or two stories going viral every few months. It’s been carefully built and steadily earned, and it would certainly have needed a lot of likeable content.

This social strategy depends on:

  • people and trust, both of which are a hell of a lot harder to find and hold onto than keyword research
  • content that people want to share, which is only a subset of content that people want to read.

Switching from SEO to social – how does the strategy change the content?

Like any new strategy this thing still has to survive and thrive in the real world, which means making the jump from “business strategy” to “content strategy” to “ways to make content” without turning off the audience.

The first changes to the content should free writers up. Keywords become less important, for example, which makes a web writing gig feel less like you’re working as some sort of weird engineer of reverse-Google software.

Above the page level, though, things aren’t necessarily positive for keyboard tappers. One of the Atlantic suits says that “it’s about how we can spin a story so that it goes viral.” This could be a badly-worded version of a good intention or a threat to good journalism. That embarrassing or mundane, but nonetheless important, content that people sometimes need but don’t want to talk about becomes less important. In a journalism context this could revalue deep-thinking political analysis relative to, say, something about a horse that paints.

Ideally The Atlantic will aim to publish stuff that’s so good – rather than so cute or unique – that people want to share it. But it will be tempting to just make stuff that sounds like something people on Twitter want to read about. This would be the first banana peel at the top of a slippery slope to becoming the social media version of a content farm.

As I write this the most prominent article on The Atlantic home page looks encouragingly like real journalism:

Why Barack Obama Needs to Keep Joe Biden

But then it rolls over to something which reads suspiciously like a story built for Twitter:

Should you worry about 'Smartphone face'?
So congratulations to The Atlantic for your big new idea, and for having the sort of social media reach that lets you seriously prefer people-based sharing over search rankings. I like it. As for your execution, the jury’s still out.

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This post is 1,239 words long with an average reading grade of 8.7.

One thought on “Sharing, not searching: The Atlantic’s new strategy for being found

  1. With a home page PR of 8 (implying backlinks from reputable places), The Atlantic shows signs of great trust from Google and has several SEO elements in place in its code, so it will do well in organic searches unless it does something silly. I can see where they are coming from and there’s nothing wrong in putting readers above search engines. That in itself gains more readers, who will recommend articles to others. However, after the initial flood of recommendations, old articles will need to be search friendly to attract visits from people actively looking for that content.

    Both Bing and Google analyse the social graph while evaluating the ranking of a page for a given query, so the magazine will be “doing SEO” anyway.

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