Solving the SEO Problems That Come with Content Syndication: Episode #74
Alli Berry of the Motley Fool is back on the show!
This time we’re talking syndicated content and SEO with Alli Berry who knows the dark inner-workings of syndication!
We’ll get into:
- Is content syndication right for your site? Is it even worth it?
- What happens when your syndicates outrank you with your own content?!
- Does Google do a good job handling syndication and what can you do when it doesn’t?
Plus, there’s so much to talk about as Google has officially invaded your site with text highlights! We’ll get into all the drama from Google’s expanded use of scroll-to-text + highlight from the Featured Snippet.
What Scroll-to-Text Featured Snippets Mean for SEO [00:06:47 – 00:19:43]
For the past year and a half for mobile Featured Snippets, when the URL was clicked on, it would take you to the exact spot on the page where the snippet’s content came from. Google also highlighted the content on the page used in the snippet in bright yellow. As of June 3rd, Google officially announced that this is now the case for all Featured Snippets, AMP or not, and even on desktop!
There’s a lot to digest here. Let’s start with the user. First, does this help the user? According to Sapir, this is great for the user because they’re going straight to the content they’re interested in and if it’s highlighted, then all the better as it will save them the time to look it up. Mordy, on the other hand, saw a tweet from Nino Knetemann who described the experience as disorienting to start in the middle of the page.
Look at it from the vantage point of a non-SEO. The average person doesn’t know what a Featured Snippet is and won’t expect this behavior. You have to imagine some people are going to be confused. While Sapir gets Mordy’s point, she knows that people will eventually get used to the new update. And besides, Google has been doing this regularly in the past with AMP pages since December 2018. Plus, we also had the video Carousel update a while back that if you click on the video it skips to the minute where it mentions the content that you’re looking for.
Another point, the fact that the user clicked on the Featured Snippet URL in the first place means they were not satisfied enough by the content in it! Meaning, does the user really want to read what they saw in the Featured Snippet again? You might say that Google is bringing you down the page to related content that is probably right next to where you found the Featured Snippet content, but who knows if the content you want is above or below it?
As a side point, there are a ton of Featured Snippets that this does not apply to. List Featured Snippets are not going to be highlighted because the content is pulled from the headers. What’s Google going to do, highlight the whole page?
At the end of the day, this is going to be a total game-changer. With users going right to that chunk of content, they won’t skim the page and see how awesome and authoritative you are. They won’t get distracted by something else you wrote above or see an ad which means less possible revenue. They might miss your CTA. They might not even see your logo at the top of your page! Rich Tatum suggested the smart idea of having sticky headers with your logo.
We have to start qualifying traffic coming from the Featured Snippet in new ways. Of course, overall visibility is good, but will users return to your brand the same way now when they don’t see your logo or other content?
This is a big move on Google’s part. It’s not that they’re altering the SERP here, they’re playing with a website’s page! Is that okay? If someone, without permission, changed all of your content’s font color to red, you’d call them a hacker. Here, Google is taking pages that don’t belong to them and adding a yellow highlight that you might not want users to see. Maybe you’re selling to color blind people and having that highlight is making it hard for them to read and it’s making them wonder why you are so insensitive. What if your site is all about why yellow sucks and now Google is highlighting your page in yellow!
For Mordy, our webpages are not Google’s to format, and this new feature crosses a line. Not that Google crossed this line on purpose, they’re not evil web mongers. They did it because they thought this will be great for the user and the question may not have even popped up, but it’s going to be hard to walk this back.
Solving the Biggest SEO Problems for Content Syndication: A Conversation with Alli Berry [00:19:43 – 00:55:36]
Mordy: Welcome to another In Search SEO podcast interview session. Today we have a second timer. She’s an author, hiker, and all-around adventurer. She even bakes banana bread in a crockpot. She is the SEO director of the Motley Fool. She is the one and only Allie Berry. Welcome!
Alli: Hi, thanks for having me again.
M: Awesome. I love having you again. I told you last time to come on again and here we are. Now we’re in the middle of the whole COVID-19 thing. So what’s really pertinent to me is how the hell did you bake banana bread in a crockpot?
A: Well, it’s the same ingredients as if you’re going to bake it in an oven. I actually did one loaf in the oven and one in the crockpot and then I taste-tested them. I would say it’s better if you can get bread to be a little bit more moist in a crockpot whereas, if you leave something in the oven a little bit too long it’s going to be a lot crispier around the edges. I think that the crockpot cooks it a little bit more evenly and it’s just cool to be able to do that. There’s really not a whole lot to it other than putting it in the bread pan, making it the same way, putting a paper towel over it, and then putting the crockpot on high for three or four hours.
M: I’ve just never seen anything not liquidy in a crockpot before. So today we’re talking about syndication. So to start off, what is syndication, how does it work, and what does that have to do with SEO?
A: Sure. Honestly, before I started working on the Motley Fool’s content, syndication was a mystery to me too. Essentially, it’s a distribution strategy and it really only works if you are a website publisher, if you’re producing enough content each day that would get another publisher interested in you. What you’re essentially doing is you’re borrowing another publisher’s traffic and you are sending them content that they are then putting up on their site. Syndication is different from guest posting because, with guest posting, only one of those sites would host the content. With syndication, you are the original host of said content and they are essentially posting a duplicate version on their site. It’s a little bit more complicated from the SEO perspective. When you hear about it at first, you think you shouldn’t do this but there are pros, cons, and neutrals to it. Basically, in order to do syndication, you need to have a partnership with another publisher. So it’s not something where if you started a site yesterday you could just do. You need to have a very established website for yourself. It needs to be authoritative. You need to have enough of an audience where another publisher would be interested in working with you. Ideally, you and that publisher should have enough overlap in your audience that your content is going to resonate with theirs. Otherwise, why on earth would they want to publish your content if it doesn’t do anything for them? It’s interesting because the syndication partner is also interested in growing their site and growing traffic and conversions as well. You are both trying to accomplish the same thing with your content. That’s how it gets a little complicated sometimes. You’re always going into this with a contract. You need to establish parameters that you’re both comfortable with. Things like a canonical tag seem like a no brainer but sometimes that might come up in a negotiation. Or maybe you’re only going to syndicate the beginning of an article. Or it would be amazing if you could find a partner out there who will give you an index tag. That would be the ideal scenario for you as obviously, your link will be the only one that’s going to be indexed. So you’re still getting traffic from that site, but you’re not necessarily competing with them over rank.
M: It’s a funny thing. I mean, you’re sort of competing with each other even though you’re not, which is kind of weird.
A: Yeah, it’s very complicated. So it’s interesting because Google has come out with recommendations for publishers that if you’re going to syndicate, you should request this, this, and this… which you should, but from the other syndication partner standpoint, why on earth would they do that? It’s about finding that middle ground where everyone is okay and if you don’t think the partnership is okay where it’s actually hindering you, then you need to walk away from it.
M: There are definitely a lot of technical SEO problems that come up. There’s the whole deprecation of content, there’s the canonicalization, etc. What are some of the major things that you’ve run into over time with this?
A: The biggest one for us has been the canonical tag. There was an article published in September 2018, that Yahoo Finance was stealing a lot of people’s traffic from syndication. I’m actually really glad that it got published because we were experiencing the same thing at the same time and wondering if we were alone. It’s one of those things where as a company, we’re not super vocal in the SEO community. It’s tough because you don’t want to share too much with competitors. At the same time, we’re all having the same problems so it was helpful to have a conversation with a couple of other finance people and learn that we are all in this together. Yahoo Finance still won’t give a canonical tag so it became a thing where we were seeing consistently that they were outranking us. I think it was around 60-65% of the time, they would rank either above us or in place of us with our content and it was in Top Stories, but it was also in regular results as well after that period of being in Top Stories passed. That’s a huge issue because obviously they’re taking our traffic. It could still come back to our site as there are links in the articles that come back to us. But what’s interesting about that is we have a message at the end of all of our articles that say we are the original source of this article with a link back to it and that wasn’t effective enough. So for a time, we have not been syndicating to Yahoo Finance until we can get a contract together that we’re all more comfortable with. That’s a real big deal. SEO is one piece of the pie but we’re a publisher. We have a ton of people on our staff. We have somebody who is doing all of the partnership relationship stuff. It’s more of a business development type role. It’s money lost. They’re an audience that’s valuable to us. It’s potentially lost conversions because you have to look at if it’s more valuable organically or syndicated. Those are tough decisions. It always sounds super simple when people are publishing this kind of stuff and everyone gives the SEO perspective but the reality is there are a ton of people involved in this process (developers, feeds, etc.) and that it’s not as simple as just making the right SEO decision. You have to ask what is the right business decision.
M: Have you sat in on those meetings where you’re going to either syndicate to Yahoo or we’re going to stop?
A: I haven’t. I’m not sure it was so much a meeting as it was an FYI that things are escalating. Here are the numbers in terms of how often we’re getting outranked and if we are okay with this. Then the president of the company decided that he was not okay with it and he has an SEO background himself. Yeah, so I’m not sure it was necessarily a meeting at all. I was not there.
M: It’s fascinating to me this whole underbelly of the news publishing world that you don’t really see. There’s so much depth there. What goes into that decision? How do you weigh that? Yes, you might have your immediate loss of finances coming in from the syndicate, in this case, Yahoo. But you have a long term thing of getting so much visibility, so much notoriety, so much whatever, because we’re not Yahoo.
A: Yeah, it’s very complicated because it’s not even just the conversion so much as we also get links from this. So even if the syndication partner themselves has nofollow links, because the content gets to so many people you’ll see journalists will pick up something and link back to the original source. And they totally got to it because we had so much reach with the story. We have a domain authority of 91 and very little effort when it went into that over 15 years.
M: How did you get that Google metric of domain authority so high?
A: The reality is, we have a very natural link profile. One other thing to say about the Yahoo thing is that we did a lot of experiments before we pulled the plug on them.
M: One of the things I wanted to ask you about is that I feel syndication came into focus with Google’s original reporting preference. It almost felt like there was a glimmer of hope that you’re going to get the original reporting, you’re going to be ranked number one because you’re the original syndicate, the original content creator. What happened?
A: I’m all for the original reporting update. I have not seen it work. But in theory, it’s good. What’s interesting is that when this whole syndication came up in terms of why Yahoo Finance is outranking all of the original content if you did this update a month ago. Danny Sullivan did make a statement and I wrote this down because it’s pertinent to what we’re talking about here. “Google Search liaison Daniel Sullivan responded on Twitter that if people deliberately choose to syndicate their content, it makes it difficult to identify the originating source. That’s why we recommend the use of canonical or blocking. The publisher syndicating can require this.” It also says, “This affects both news and web results,” Sullivan said. “In fact, the original reporting algorithm update has not yet rolled out to Google News. It’s just for web search currently.”
M: That sounds silly. The whole point of the update would be for news content. I mean, we benefited sometimes so that was great for one of our two blog posts.
A: Yeah, exactly. If it hasn’t rolled out to the news, then it’s no good. Of course, the Top Stories carousel is basically coming from the Google News algorithm, it’s not the regular web algorithm. With everything we were seeing, Google really struggles with the recency stuff and getting the original stuff to show up. I think what might be happening is because the syndication partner publishes second, their stuff is more recent. And if recency is the biggest piece of the algorithm for Google News, that might be part of it. But that’s just a theory.
M: That sounds mind-numbing. I remember when this came out, I asked you how long it takes to go from you producing the content to a partner picking it up. And it’s not immediate, right?
A: It’s not. What happens is we publish and it goes into a feed. Actually, one thing we did was experiment for a time with delaying our feeds for 30 minutes. So we’d publish and then it wouldn’t go to the partner until 30 minutes later, or two hours later, and I think we went as far as four hours later. We can’t control when the partner picks it up from there. Most of them are pretty quick. So know that, if we were actively delaying it, we were at least saying there are at least two hours between when we publish and when they publish and we thought that would be enough time. Almost all of our partners give us a canonical tag. Yahoo was one of the few exceptions. We had one partner for a while, who gave us canonical and did all of the SEO things and would still occasionally outrank us. It’s not perfect, especially when it comes to the Google News algorithm. I think the web algorithm is a lot better.
M: The news algorithm kind of sucks. It still sucks. You could type in ‘important news’ and get all these results from K232 Radio in Kansas, and not the Motley Fool because they wrote ‘important news’ in the title.
A: That’s interesting. Some partners do change up headlines so we’ll send them all of the content and the format that they wanted and all of that. But we have seen, especially with Yahoo, we were studying pretty closely, how do you even monitor when people are outranking you because it’s not as simple as you think to be able to track that. So we were searching for our exact match headlines and finding that sometimes they’re changing our headlines. So then we started searching for our disclaimer at the bottom and that was a much more effective way to find everything. So if a partner is changing a headline it’s in their right to do, they can do whatever they want.
M: But does Google know this?
A: They should.
M: The article written doesn’t say it’s written by so-and-so, it’s written by whoever wrote it originally. And it’s usually when you read something from the AP and ABC News picks it up that it’ll say it’s written by Amy Cohen, AP news. So just look at the author. That’s what I don’t get. Why are you focused so much on the canonicalization when there are so many other ways you can pull us out? The time it was released, the author, and all this stuff. I don’t get it.
A: Yeah, I would love to understand it too. It’d be nice if we had a liaison who specialized in the news. That would be very helpful.
M: That would be nice.
A: It is a bit of a mystery, honestly, the whole Google News side of things. If there are a lot of experts out there, they’re pretty quiet. And even just things like there were two different publisher centers and how do you even get into that whole game? It is complicated and I feel it’s a piece of SEO that just doesn’t get talked about as much.
M: I was going to ask you if you are having any issues being outranked for your own content, but clearly, yes, there are plenty of issues.
A: Everything that I am talking about is from somewhere between July and September, but Yahoo Finance was our biggest problem and we have stopped syndicating for a time and are still figuring out when we’re going to go back with them. So I don’t have great data to say yes, it’s still happening because we kind of took care of our end for the time being.
M: I wanted to ask you, you talk about Yahoo News and you talk about having these contracts. I’m sure there’s a ton of legalese that neither of us understands but I’m just curious, can’t you do some legal Kung Fu that would get Yahoo to say you have to canonicalize and point it back to us?
A: No. They don’t have to do anything. I mean, at the end of the day, they don’t have to take syndicated content. It’s really on them to figure out what is the right strategy for Yahoo. How much content do you need? Can you find publishers who are willing to go with your terms? Honestly, if you don’t have somebody who’s advocating for the SEO side, it’s pretty easy to just go ahead with whatever the partner wants and do it and you might not even notice that anything’s happening. Honestly, I would imagine that a lot of syndication, partnerships, and stuff, are handled by business development teams more than anything else. So no, they don’t have to do anything and we don’t have to do anything. That’s what’s interesting with Danny Sullivan saying you should require your partners to block or canonicalize. Okay, we could take that hard stance, we probably should. But then what are we losing? It’s the brand awareness piece. It’s the audience building piece. It’s all of that. I think it just comes back to your content strategy and what makes sense for you.
M: Doesn’t Google doing this put smaller publishers at a disadvantage because Yahoo can do whatever they want because they’re Yahoo?
A: Absolutely. The flip side is it would be an interesting content strategy if you were only partnering up with very relevant sites to you that are smaller. You could probably have more leverage to get them to do what you want because your brand is helping them grow. I guess it depends on the people who are publishing the content to be syndicated, what are our strategies and what we want.
M: I’m curious, what have you tried to do to fix all of this? Has anything worked? Is there anything to do?
A: I talked about deleting feeds. That was one thing we did try. It was an interesting experiment. How valuable is a canonical tag in reality? Can we get this fixed without it? If we can, that proves that the canonical tag is not as valuable as Google makes it sound. By delaying, with a two-hour delay, we ended up outranking Yahoo for our own stuff 45% percent of the time.
M: Does that last?
A: Yeah, I mean, we were mainly just monitoring from the Top Stories perspective, but it only gets better with time because the canonical tag will start to actually work. I suspect that maybe it’s not getting picked up fast enough or something. I don’t know.
M: That’s what sucks about it. No one knows anything. What would Google lose by telling you?
A: I don’t know. It would be very helpful just to understand that.
M: I mean, we’re talking about news publishers, not some casino site.
A: Right, and we could talk about how you define a news publisher another time because it is kind of broad. We’re more of a news analysis publisher. Back to our fixes, delaying feeds was a little bit effective but it wasn’t effective enough for what we wanted. We added language to the bottom of all of our content, citing us as the original source, making that an explicit call out. I would say that that was not really effective. It was an effective way for us to track all of our content.
M: This whole thing makes me wonder, even if you say Yahoo was not pointing back to you, and they’re outranking you, does Google still pick you up from an entity perspective? Do they notice that the Motley Fool is one of these feeder entities who’s super authoritative and super awesome because they’re feeding Yahoo news?
A: I would assume so. I don’t know how you could possibly argue something different. There’s the brand-building perspective and then there’s also just the amount of links that you can acquire naturally by just having your stuff everywhere and then other people picking it up. That seems to work well.
M: Any other fixes we should be aware of?
A: No, other than trying to go back to the partner renegotiating.
M: Or you could just cut them off.
A: Yeah, well partners can do it to you too. If you send enough content with errors or something breaking on the partner side, they might just stop you for a little bit.
M: Good note for people to check their grammar.
A: Not even grammar, but let’s say there’s a broken link. If we’re giving them things that are going to make their site worse.
M: I never even thought about that. I’m not a syndication person. I wish we were syndicating my stuff.
A: Not yet.
M: I will get there one day. Let me ask you this. What advice would you give to somebody who’s trying to syndicate their content?
M: Honestly, I think that you need a really good strategy before you set out on this path. I would not say that this is a super easy path to start. Forging relationships with partners is extremely time consuming and you’re going to get a lot of ‘No’s for a while. They want to work with brands they already know and trust. Depending on who you’re going with, I will say that there does seem to be potential for websites that are closely aligned with yours and it doesn’t have to be syndication. It could also just be the guest post thing like a guest column, something like finding ways to partner with sites that truly do make sense for your brand I think can go a long way. Whereas, unless you’re really doing the news or something that’s very broadly focused, like finance that touches everybody, it’s probably not going to make sense to try to go to the big Yahoos, MSNs, and AOLs of the world which do exist, believe it or not. When you look at a homepage like Yahoo or MSN or an AOL or whatever, the majority of it is content that’s been syndicated.
M: Well, the majority of the content that you click on in World News or CBS News is all coming from Reuters or the AP.
M: It seems to me that syndication is like a formalized version of a link building campaign.
A: It kind of is, except that you’re going to get a lot of nofollows in the process, and even how that is looked at by Google has changed recently so they could decide that they’re going to weigh that as a follow link. I can say that even if it doesn’t look like it’s helping just the amplification effect absolutely is helping.
M: Awesome. Since I have you here and since you’re an SEO news person which I think is so rare and so cool, I’m wondering as there’s an issue relative to the time recording this of Google saying that they’re still going to show paywall content within the news results in the Top Stories carousel. I know there’s pushback to why Google should rank something that you can’t access and I’m curious what you think about that.
A: I think it’s complicated. The reality of news today in journalism today is that they are drowning, they need help, and they need people to pay for their content to stay afloat. I understand that and empathize with that. There have been times recently where I have landed on a news article and wanted to read it bad enough to pay for the source and I feel happy to do that especially in this weird time that we live in. I think if you take away all of the content behind a paywall, you’re not going to have much left. So I think this is the reality that we are in today and that we should all be paying for the news.
M: I hear. That sounds like something someone who works for a news website would say so I hear that. I agree, it’s a total mess.
A: Yeah, and we do not want it to be government run.
M: This reminds me of what happened with France or the EU that ruled that Google is going to have to pay for any content news that shows on the France SERP within Google News. What I find interesting is that if you’re not walling the content, they’re making it public for everybody except for Google and that’s sort of a contradiction and the other side if you are pay-walling it so then Google does bring you potential users who will pay for your content. So what are you upset about? I don’t understand it.
A: I can’t understand why you’d be mad at Google giving you web traffic. And if you’re not pay-walling then it’s a great lead gen opportunity. You have your free content, you have a great call to action that gets people into your funnel. That’s the dream.
Optimize it or Disavow it
M: You either have your content syndicated on a really awesome website like CBS News or Yahoo but you’re not getting the rankings that you want or you have some crappy partner who’s nobody from nowhere and they’re syndicating your content and you’re ranking well for the queries that relate to that article. Which would you rather?
A: I don’t really like either scenario. Can I disavow both?
M: It’s a free country, free world. But you have to explain why both are not good.
A: If I’m having my content syndicated on a “crap” website where I’m ranking well, then why wouldn’t I just kill that feed because I’m doing fine on my own. And syndicating to the elite of the elite is fine, as long as that converts well, but otherwise, I would like to rank our own site. I think I’d probably take the elite of the elite if I had to choose.
M: Thank you so much for coming on. Stay healthy, stay inside, and I hope your liquor lasts.
A: Thanks. Same to you. I hope you get your liquor.
SEO News [00:56:31 – 00:59:18]
Google Fresh Content Bug is Back: Yet another bug prevented fresh content from being indexed by Google, the good news is that the bug was fixed.
Bing Offering Link Data: Bing webmasters tools is now giving you amazing link data… with it, you can have a look at any site’s backlink profile!
Google Has Shaken Up Its Staff: Some big names, some familiar names at Google now have new roles. For example, Ben Gomes is no longer the head of Search but is taking up projects related to Google Scholar, etc.
Google Rich Results Schema Now Showing for Homepages: Brodie Clark seems to have found cases of rich results based on schema showing up on the SERP for a site’s home page.
Tune in next Tuesday for a new episode of The In Search SEO Podcast.