When Stylebook Conflicts with SEO

The Associated Press rattled newsrooms April 23 when it announced that U.S. state names would no longer be abbreviated in the body of news stories.

The stylebook change, effected with little warning, was intended to aid localization by making U.S. news content consistent with international stories, in which state names are spelled out.

But some newsrooms rebelled, citing:

  • decades of habit among editors and proofreaders
  • inconsistency within stories, as AP preserved many exceptions to the new rule
  • inconsistency with wire services that still abbreviate
  • increased story length in print editions, where space is very tight
  • human editorial effort required each day to resolve those inconsistencies

One major news service, McClatchy-Tribune, announced it would not follow AP’s lead. Other newspapers such as the Arizona Republic criticized the change.

Response to MCT’s announcement was favorable among journalists commenting at jimromenesko.com, a news-media blog: For many editors, AP’s “localization” reflected excessive internationalization of local content.

grammarBut the impact of abbreviation style extends beyond local or global readability. Abbreviated state or provincial names, when divorced from specific cities, don’t behave well in search engines. Nor do they perform consistently — even with a city name — in the keyword-based database searches of content archives such as NewsLibrary.

MCT SmartContent compensates for this problem by geotagging content. But if you don’t subscribe to MCT or another geotagging service, then abbreviations may inhibit readers — domestic and foreign — from finding relevant stories.

If increased relevance in searches and resulting growth in ad traffic are key objectives, then one should not simply do what’s easiest for newsroom editors or grammar-nazis, or what fits best on the printed page. Given that different client audiences may each use a different mix of abbreviations, slang, industry jargon, and elementary and advanced vocabulary, content producers should emphasize language that — while concise, consistent and easy to follow — also exploits their readership’s language mix through the use of synonyms.

For clarity, for legacy archival search engines, and for international markets, it’s a good practice to spell out abbreviations in metadata if not in the text. It’s also helpful — within the confines of cultural sensitivity and accuracy — to use multiple descriptors for the same idea: for example, “black” and “African American,” “LGBT” and “sexual minority,” or “mobile phone” and “cell phone.”

What compromises do you make between style and searchability? Please let us know your thoughts.

About Michael Airhart

Senior editor with 20 years of experience in content syndication and the business of journalism.

Posted on May 2, 2014, in The Science and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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