Sun, sand, sea, and SEO

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I spent two days last week in the paradise island of Camotes in Cebu for a talk on optimizing news websites for search engines and a training on using WordPress for the staff of Sunnex, the department that runs the Sun.Star website.

I’m the online editor of Sun.Star Cebu, a member of Sun.Star Network Online, and my role on the website is limited to overseeing updating of content for our paper’s website. I am not involved in the technical side of the website operations albeit I send suggestions once in a while. It might not be evident to outsiders but Sun.Star has different departments with different work cultures.

Camotes Island IT IS a testament to Camotes’ beauty that no matter how tiring and energy-sapping it was in the days leading to the seminar, we left the island wanting to come back immediately. Click on photo to enlarge.

For a long time, I’ve had a nagging suspicion that Sun.Star suffers from a Google penalty over something that is a result of a server configuration. I warned the staff about this before but did not have the evidence to back it up. I’d see it to be the case once in while when doing searches but I’ve never before had the chance to raise it to Sunnex.

Last week, I was able to confirm this while doing a search, for my presentation, to show the effect of a particular ‘negative crawling/ranking attribute.’ I don’t think I’m at a liberty to tell what this is but the solution is dead simple and the website should see substantial improvements in rankings and earnings if it’s able to fix this.

Last year, I suggested (and pissed off people who didn’t want “outsiders” to raise suggestions) a particular ad optimization tweak and made a bold prediction—that the Sun.Star website’s earnings will double if they follow my suggestion. I actually encountered resistance on that very simple ad optimization and was verbally abused. The earnings more than doubled since then. For my troubles, I’m now richer—but only in karma points in some online journalism heaven. They didn’t even have to spend for a lousy certificate or consume saliva to thank me for it.

Today I’m confident that if done right, the tweaks I raised will make the website increase its earnings by more than 50 percent. If they implement another suggestion I raised informally to their head, I am confident the website will double its earnings again. I can’t wait for more karma points (insert snigger here).

There’s actually one more tweak that will almost assure the site of doubling its earnings but I think I’m already full on karma points, thank you.

Lake Danao, Camotes Island. LAKE DANAO. I can’t actually sit cross-legged for more than a few minutes. Click on photo to enlarge.

I also told the group that one of the reasons why bloggers and independent online publishers managed to take away part of the online audience—apart from readers’ thirst for new voices—was that they used content management systems that display stories in a way that makes it easier for search engines to index their content. Couple this with the social nature of their publication formats and the ubiquity of links, many smaller sites often rank higher than mainstream media companies.

Successful bloggers and independent online publishers have been able to leverage this good ranking in search engines to build a community of loyal readers.

Look at mainstream media sites, some of them have ghastly dynamic URLs for individual articles, table-based layouts, and non-semantic markup. Sun.Star’s pages are table-based and the markup is not semantic but since it relies on a content management system that dynamically outputs laid out pages that are then cached in HTML, it should be very easy to convert the layout into a table-less, CSS/XHTML semantic markup. I know as it was designed that way by an IBM team led by Dominique Cimafranca.

I said that many mainstream news media sites do well even with horrible search engine rankings because they can live off the offline brand. But these sites lose the opportunity of increasing their readership beyond what had been the traditional audience of their brand. Poor rankings also diminish what had been mainstream media’s perceived authority on information.

I went over the Google ranking factors released by SEOMOZ and raised suggestions on how Sun.Star can fix the negative crawling attributes and highlight the positive ranking factors. Most mainstream media sites have a lot of content and if you tweak their presentation, you stand to gain a lot of traffic from search engines.

Of course the easy way is to hire a competent search engine marketer and I gave the group Marc Macalua‘s name although I do not know if he accepts local clients. I know of a search engine marketing company in Cebu that doesn’t accept local clients.

I also gave an outsider’s perspective on what I think is the rising star of Philippine mainstream news media, GMANews.TV. I really love the way GMANews.TV is doing things. I think that in a few months, it will be one of the biggest mainstream news media sites in the country. It must be an exciting time for its team.

My wife and some co-workers had to leave the discussion early because a technical snafu meant they had to travel to a distant Internet cafe (a blog post on this is coming soon). I feared for her life and this fear made me forget some points, which I had made a mental note earlier to discuss in the seminar. It’s curious how miserable failure always crops up in search engine optimization talks. In this case, we didn’t discuss it but an actual miserable (technical) failure cut our discussion short. This failure is also the reason why I do not have a print column for tomorrow.

But now that my wife made it safe, we continued our discussions at home. I told her that GMANews.TV can solidify its dominance by going to the major communities of the country. Filipinos are Cebuanos, Ilonggos, Mindanaoans, Davaoenos first. Ethnicity is a strong bond and local communities are very rich areas for coverage (and monetization of web content, if I might add).

Of course, GMANews.TV can go into partnerships and share content but then it will have to deal with duplicate content.

GMA already has radio and TV stations in major parts of the country, they can just get one web reporter for these communities. This web reporter can re-purpose materials submitted by its radio and TV reporters and write English-language articles for their website. Of course this can be done in Manila but there’s a lot of advantages in having a local web-only reporter in the major city centers than having the materials processed by a Manila-centric desk. This web reporter can even write web-only specials or cover local events from a web journalist’s point of view, using various multi-media reporting tools.

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4 Comments

  1. Max, Sun.Star is indeed very lucky to have a tech guy like you. They must be amazed on the fast pace growth online and its revenue contribution too for the online paper.

  2. Thanks Janette. I know they’re pleased with the increased earnings 🙂

    Dominique,
    I really like that CMS because it fits Sun.Star needs. Sunnex just added a caching module (to write HTML files) because the server couldn’t handle dynamically serving pages with the traffic load.

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