Optimizing News for Search with Topher Kohan of CNN

CNN is arguably an online marketing success story like no other.  CNN.com, a division of Turner broadcasting and a Time Warner company, had what it took to succeed when many other “traditional” news outlets struggled to find a foothold in the digital media space.  My guest today is a guy that “get’s it”: Topher Kohan, in-house SEO coordinator at CNN, who was responsible for a 17% increase in search traffic year over year for various websites under the CNN umbrella.  He stops by to discuss optimizing news for search, and his guest panelist appearance at SES San Francisco and Connected Marketing Week.

Garry:  Topher, thank you for joining me today.  It must be exciting times for you, because from the outside looking in, it appears as though CNN has come a long way in a very short amount of time.  Did your team face any specific challenges implementing an SEO strategy for such high profile websites such as CNN, CNN Money, CNN International or iReport?

Topher: I think we have come a long way in the time I have been at CNN.

One of the biggest challenges we ran into was explaining SEO to the editorial staff and showing them why it was important.  The people who work on the site at CNN are all incredible people and work hard at their jobs. Like most people in the online news world, they are way overworked, and I did not want them to think all I was doing was adding work onto their plates with “the SEO thing.”

The other challenge we overcame was fitting SEO into the ever-moving and changing work-flow that is 24-hour breaking news. It is not like we can just shut down the site for a while and do SEO fixes, but once I got involved in that flow, it was much easier to get the SEO things that I needed into the queue.

Garry: I think those two challenges resonate for many of us involved in optimizing content and definitely the news.  Obviously, original content development goes a long way in any SEO effort, but it also has an impact on limited resources, especially in busy newsrooms.  So when CNN dropped AP in favor of developing content in-house, it came as a bit of a shock to me.  Was there any measurable impact on visitor engagement or any other surprises when you cut the cord?

Topher: I did not know what to expect when we dropped them at the end of 2009.

I knew we had good people creating good content for us but was not sure how much they were creating.

From a search point of view, I believe this is a win for our visitors. We are not serving the same news as the rest of the sites, so we can really tweak the SEO and show searchers that we have original content to offer.

Garry: Totally agree. It certainly does echo the message Google is trying to send about relevant content creation being paramount, especially in news.  Switching gears a bit, CNN was probably one of the first media companies to become a significant player in social media, most notably as a result of the partnership with Facebook for the Barack Obama inauguration ceremony and other events.  How does social media fit into your overall SEO strategy, if at all?  Is it one in the same?

Topher: SEO plays a role in that we want people to see our content. All SEO really is is audience acquisition, and by using SEO best practices in the social world, you can help grow that number, I believe.

I help the folks working on the social media stuff with keyword ideas and trending information.

Garry: Collaboration is definitely a necessary first step, but I think it might go beyond that, we’ll have to see. With many other media websites subscribing to the Rupert Murdoch online news model, it’s refreshing to see CNN breakaway in some respects.  Off the record (but kinda still on the record), do you believe that Rupert Murdoch’s pay walls are the future of online media?

Topher: I hope not.

Garry: We’ll have to connect during a Networking Cocktail Reception or something, so you can elaborate on that.  😉

You join a panel of impressive media insiders for a session entitled, “News search optimization.” Can you give us a sneak peek at what you will be covering in the session?

Topher: I do not want to give too much away, but it is along the lines of what’s next for the news world and SEO.

Garry: Should be interesting.  Topher, it’s been a great pleasure to have you here to discuss all the great work you’ve been doing at CNN.  Keep up the good work, and I hope to see you at SES.

SES San Francisco 2010About Search Engine Strategies

Search Engine Strategies is the definitive digital event for marketers, corporate decision makers, webmasters and search engine marketers (SEMs), including pay per click (PPC) advertisers and search engine optimization (SEO) professionals. Attend SES San Francisco, network with your peers, and learn the tips, tactics and strategies that will grow your business online.

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