Brent Payne Interviewed by Eric Enge

Picture of Brent Payne

Brent Payne

An in-house SEO with more than seven years of experience, Brent has doubled Tribune’s visits from search engines since he joined the company in February 2008. With more than a million visits per day to Tribune’s network of websites, Brent drives traffic not only to Tribune’s newspaper sites (including the L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune, and Baltimore Sun) but also to Tribune’s dozens of broadcast sites (including KTLA, WGN, and WPIX). He is a newspaper SEO authority with experience and expertise in CMS challenges, duplicate content mitigation, page-rank funneling, Google News, and Google index rates. He has also trained large editorial teams regarding SEO.

Interview Transcript

Eric Enge: Can you outline the basic background of where you work, the number of properties you have and what your day-to-day work is like?

Brent Payne: My official title is the Director of Search Engine Optimization for the Tribune Company. I handle the Search Engine Optimization work for all Tribune properties, including the websites for the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel, Sun Sentinel, Hartford Courant, Morning Call and Daily Press.

KTLA in Los Angeles is one of our larger broadcast sites, along with WGN in Chicago and WPIX in New York, and twenty-one other smaller stations across the country. I also handle the Search Engine Optimization for the websites of about 17 LocalTV, LLC stations, most of which are in the Midwest. We are working on launching some projects that I can’t talk about, but some of them which we have already launched include, a health-related site, and, a classifieds site.

Eric Enge: You spend four hours a day on each one, correct?

Brent Payne: Ha ha ha! Yes, of course! Seriously though, I try to break things down by traffic. For example, LA Times receives around 30 percent of our traffic from search, so I spend quite a bit of my time on LA Times, followed up by Chicago Tribune, which, admittedly, gets more of my attention than it normally would simply because I live in Chicago and our corporate offices are located here.

Florida papers also get a bit more attention than their percentage of traffic would typically warrant mainly because they tend to be a little bit more edgy in terms of the kind of content they post, especially in their photo galleries. That gives me some additional opportunities when it comes to celebrity related search queries and other entertainment related SEO, which is obviously popular on Google. For the Baltimore Sun site, I mainly deal with news that is related to Washington DC.

Broadcast sites are typically for Video SEO, but unfortunately our Video SEO is really poor because our current implementation of the video player sticks it in an iFrame. However, I am working on getting that fixed, as well as getting the close captioning for those videos automatically fed, which I feel would be huge in order to help our Video SEO.

Eric Enge: What are some of the unique problems that you have faced?

Brent Payne: The largest problem that I deal with quite a bit is with the CMS. The CMS was built ten years ago, but it has been changed a lot since then. At the time it was built, the current mindset was duplication, duplication, and duplication. It was definitely set up from the print mindset that it was okay to syndicate to ourselves, so literally when I got here two years ago, about 250 copies of the same article would get created on every story.

It would literally be in five or six different sections on the current domain, and then duplicates across about 50 different domains which created quite a problem. It was quite a challenge because I had to convince the General Managers of these companies why this was important, and then get tech resources to make a massive change to our CMS.

Once we got that part done, we saw an increase in search engine traffic. The current problem I am dealing with is the cross domain issue, i.e., if the LA Times writes an article that all the other Tribune properties like and thus they put that same story on their own domain, how do we get Google to realize that the LA Times is the originator of the article? Google engineers claim they are going to have the cross domain canonical tag by the end of the year, and I am excited about that, but I know they were pretty slow to initially utilize the canonical tag. Thus I’m a bit leery as to how effective it will be initially. However, I am hoping that the cross domain canonical tag actually has some type of impact by at least March of next year.

Sure, I could do 301s and force it to a single domain name, which is where I was headed, but we literally needed 3 to 4 months to complete the process with 3 or 4 developers. The cost to do that is high, so I am going to try the cross domain canonical first, and hopefully that does the trick. If I don’t see anything by March or April of next year, then I’ll go down the road of literally forcing it to a particular domain.

Another concern I deal with are political issues. Say there is a huge breaking news story, and the LA Times and Chicago Tribune both want to write a story about the LA fires, for example. And, let’s say someone from Chicago was killed in one of the LA fires. Well, the Chicago Tribune would want a story that is more about the death of that person so the story is more focused to the Chicago area. However, the story coming out of L.A. Times would be more tailored to a Los Angeles audience.

I have to deal with the online editors from both those newspapers and get them to understand that the story in the Chicago Tribune is not really about the LA fires, it’s an angle of the fire, and that they should still link to the LA Times for stories about the LA fires. But if the editors in LA could utilize the Tribune’s story in a related story section, that would be appreciated as well.

It is always a challenge to get newspapers to link to each other. Even though we all work for the same company, there is still a lot of journalistic competition between the different properties.

Eric Enge: You get involved in the negotiations as well, correct? While there is certainly an SEO reason for you to be involved, this is really a bit more fundamental issue than just SEO.

Brent Payne: You are absolutely right, but it’s a consolidation of resources as well. I think that we’ll get to a point where this is less an SEO conversation and more a resources conversation, where we will discuss if we really need eight or 10 different movie critics throughout the Tribune network, instead of just one or two. I think that’s going to be a difficult pill for some of us to swallow as we continue moving forward and realize that monetizing on the web is a different model than monetizing in print.

Eric Enge: Getting people to make the mental switch from print to online media is a real issue?

Brent Payne: Correct. Luckily I still have significant buy-in with the company, and our upper management, all the way to the COO of the Tribune Company, understands why it’s important for our papers to get traffic from the search engines. Which makes it easier for me. I have the tools within our content management system to force a change if I need to, but I don’t like being the bad cop. I’d prefer to build and utilize relationships rather than forcing a change or being the bad cop with editorial.

When Michael Jackson died, I didn’t care how many versions of the story were out there. The only property I had ranking well for it was the LA Times, so I literally forced every story about Michael Jackson’s death to LA

It’s hard to make a lot of friends doing that, but I rebuild those relationships over a period of time and I make sure that I find out what’s important to each of the different newspapers and broadcast sites. I eventually help them rank well on what was really important to them, because at the end of the day, the Tribune properties care more about local visits then they do about national visits. So if I can get a local win for them via some of these SEO processes, it is much more valuable to them than winning on a national story.

Eric Enge: There is obviously a lot of classic corporate negotiating going on. You have well-meaning people with their own individual objectives just doing their thing that are walking around with blinders on, and sometimes you have to help pull the blinders off of them.

Brent Payne: Right. On my first day working for the Tribune Company, there was a huge stack, probably two-feet high, of site reviews from some of the best SEO consulting companies in the industry waiting for me on my desk. There were different reviews that they collected over the 18 months before I started working for them, and they seemed pretty accurate to me as I looked over them. Maybe a few things were incorrect, but for the most part they were totally on point.

I picked up that stack of SEO site reviews, walked over to the guy who hired me, whom I had just signed papers with earlier that morning, and I told him that I quit because he really didn’t need me to do this. He literally responded with, “Okay, let’s go to lunch.” So he took me out to lunch and explained to me that it wasn’t a matter of them not knowing what to do, but that they needed someone who could actually implement their plan.

He told me that the reason they hired me was because they believed I had the technical ability from an SEO standpoint to know what to do to make sure the company didn’t make any missteps.

But, more importantly, they felt that I could actually get the plans implemented, because I have the personality to affect change, and they had not been able to do that for over a year. Overall, probably 80 percent of what I do is selling; selling ideas, selling concepts, selling why this particular change needs to be done, and then making huge, SEO changes.

I think there are people in the industry who are considerably more versed in SEO than I am, but I have unique skills where I can sell or convince people to get that done. One of the frustrations I have with of lot of consultants is that they tend to tell you exactly what needs to be done in a perfect scenario, but they don’t give you any fallback options.

Eric Enge: Right, that’s a really important part of SEO. The perfect SEO solution might not play well with the way a site is built. It’s important to have other potentially implementable options.

Brent Payne: There are a lot of people who question why we don’t do some things that other companies do. I have had some conversations with Marshall Simmonds (who handles SEO for the NY Times) about some of the things they are and are not doing, and it’s not a matter of us not knowing some of these simple things we should do. For example, I understand that it would be much better to do a 301 Redirect directly to LA Times for an LA Times story rather than putting a canonical tag in there. I get that, but I also implement what I can do immediately, and then I work towards the perfect solution over a period of time.

Eric Enge: At a recent conference I heard you say something about how rapidly content is indexed on these sites.

Brent Payne: Yes, it’s quite different than some of the other sites I worked on in the past. When I worked for it was different. Our content was re-indexed by Google about every two weeks. Today, it literally takes Google five to seven minutes to update the index for the LA Times homepage. I think that’s widely different than what most people deal with, and it sometimes causes problems for us.

One of the things I have had to drill into the minds of all the writers, editors and publishers here is that as soon as they hit save or publish, or whatever the button happens to be, Google will see it. If they don’t have their headline right, it’s going to cause a problem because Google is going to see exactly what they have written.

If they don’t have a lead photo in their story before they save it, Google is not going to see the lead photo. After that, it may be 30 days or longer before Google takes a second look at that URL. You have to get it right the first time. All the information for the story has to be in the story before they save it. If you look at Google Trends for any major breaking news story, huge spikes occur within two to three hours of the break, and then the spike is done, so it is essential to have it right the first moment we go live. A scenario that underscores the point of quick indexing occurred when I was doing SEO training at the Orlando Sentinel about a year ago. At the time there was a big story on Caylee Anthony and her mother’s involvement in her death. In the other room they were doing CMS training, and they decided they would put in Caylee Anthony as the headline just as an example. Within 15 minutes, they were getting complaints from people who found a story on Google for Caylee Anthony that ended up ranking well in Google but just had a crap story written for it. I had to interrupt the training, add a NoIndex to the page, and then go into Google Webmaster Tools and request the removal of the URL.

Then I emailed the guys at Google saying that this needed to be taken care of, and luckily it got removed pretty quickly. We were ranking for some pretty odd stuff, and that’s the power of the trust and authority that some of these major domains have.

Eric Enge: It puts the trust itself at risk.

Brent Payne: Right, absolutely.

Eric Enge: The good news is that your content is indexed incredibly quickly, but if it’s not the way you want it when you put it out there, it might not get fixed for thirty days.

Brent Payne: Correct, although Google News now claims that they will refresh the Google News content within 12 hours. As a side note, I have had conversations with Google News where they have told me they literally have 300,000 to 500,000 stories about Barack Obama live at any particular time.

Do you really think they are going to refresh all 300,000 to 500,000 of those stories on Barack Obama within twelve hours? Hell no. I have a bit of an issue with that timeframe that Google is publicly stating, because I am just not seeing it. I am seeing it could be several days or weeks before they look at it again. At least they are looking at it again, however, so I have to give them that. This is huge in comparison to what they were doing even six months to nine months ago. I, however, still tell our journalists to make a new URL for an update to a huge breaking news story because it’s easier to rank in Google News than it is in Google Web. Once that new URL is put in, you can go into the older version of the story that you had and 301 redirect it to the new version so you don’t lose your link juice and can still rank well in Google Web. It also helps to change your title tag, and the H1 tag in that first paragraph in order to get past the Google News Duplicate Content Filter. That’s what we have been doing, and it’s been working great.

However, Google web search has made a change which is driving me crazy right now, which is that they have slowed down how quickly they reattribute page rank on a 301 Redirect. It used to be that they would immediately transfer page rank as soon as Googlebot would see the old URL that you have now pointed to that new location. I could do some pretty cool stuff with that, but now it seems to be delayed several weeks. This is causing me some issues based on what I have trained the journalists to do. We just aren’t gaining the web success that we could have. It’s even worse now that Google News and Google Web are getting even more different, as we, as content creators and SEOs, kind of have to choose whether we are going after a Google web search or Google News results SEO win, and that’s frustrating.

Eric Enge: I recently wrote a post about the cost of site moves. Basically, the main thrust of the story is that you will lose traffic, and I am trying to help people get a sense of how much traffic is going to be lost.

We run into this all the time when working with large companies, where an executive makes a decision that may be brilliant from the traditional marketing point of view, but it is just total disaster from an SEO perspective. The article is focused on trying to get people to understand that by changing their domain name, changing their URL structure and all of their content, they are going to lose more than half of their traffic, even with properly implemented redirects.

Brent Payne: I feel so sorry for our broadcast sites and our TV stations because they have changed their URLs so much even in the past couple of years. We also have not done a great job with 301 redirecting from the old domain to the new domain. We have done some of it, but most of what we did was quick fixes. They are definitely being hindered by it, and I’m frustrated that, as a result, broadcast sites collectively account for only five percent of our SEO work in comparison to newspaper sites.

Some of these broadcast sites like KTLA, WGN and others are serious destinations for news, and yet their website is not ranking well because of the massive changes they have made and the poor job we have done moving from domain-to-domain. It happened exactly as you describe, where upper management decided to make a change and we had to roll with it.

Eric Enge: At SMX East we talked about some of the unusual page rank sculpting things that you have done. It would be great to talk about that a little bit.

Brent Payne: We have done some rather significant work with that. Last year we did a lot of work with what I call dynamic page rank sculpting. We had five different levels setup for NoFollows on all of our homepages and section fronts that could be controlled individually by domain name. A select group of people, including myself the online editors, and the producers of the site could rate what type of news day it was on a scale of one to five.

A scenario that was a huge, highly focused national event that people cared about is what we refer to as SEO Level 1. Of the 400 or 500 links on their homepage, we would reduce it to literally one followed link on the page (the rest were NoFollowed), which would also be the H1 tag on the page. It worked extremely well last year, literally every time we moved it we were on the first page of Google, usually in the top five for whatever that particular story was.

Eric Enge: The spike in traffic for breaking news was the critical area for you to focus on.

Brent Payne: It’s all about breaking news, and we have PageRank 8 sites PageRank 7 sites, and PageRank 6 sites, and we want to focus their authority on the most important news.

So we can choose SEO Level one through five, where one represents only one followed link on the page to a particular destination. A five would be everything on the page is followed except for terms and conditions and privacy policy, stuff like that. A normal news day would be an SEO Level 3, which would NoFollow about half the links on a page.

If something bigger happens, we might set it to SEO Level 1 or 2, and then at night open things back up, like go back to SEO Level 5 so that Google can at least get some type of wider distribution of the page rank coming from our strongest pages being–the homepages and the section fronts.

Eric Enge: Right. The fascinating thing here is that this mechanism was getting response that quickly. You are talking about reprocessing of page rank in a dynamic manner.

Brent Payne: Yes. The fact that there are news cycles involved is only one of my problems in News SEO. There are number of queries that people are looking for that are involved. It’s not as normalized as ecommerce, where the number of people searching for Sony DVD player per week or per month doesn’t change too much, unless it’s the holiday season. That way you can track what is and what is not working considerably better. With news it’s much tougher, because the news cycle itself has a lot to do with how much traffic you are getting from search engines.

That being the case, I can look at where we are ranking on the first page and where we are ranking for stuff that we wanted to rank for, and last year it was working really, really well for that type of stuff. But, then I noticed it was more difficult on inauguration night than it was on election night. I don’t know if that’s when the change in Google’s NoFollow treatment occurred, but I know on election night our dynamic PageRank sculpting worked great. When it came to inauguration night, something seemed to have changed significantly, so it did not work so well any more (Editor: for more on how Google changed its treatment of NoFollow, see this post).

Eric Enge: Welcome to the world of SEO.

Brent Payne: Exactly. Another thing we have been working on is the way in which we flow page rank from different domains, specifically how we are utilizing our topic galleries to do this. The New York Times has a single domain, and they have commented that they wish they could link out more from their site.

In December of 2008, we had literally eight different topic galleries for the eight different newspapers, and we had the same topic gallery on each domain. In other words, we’d have 8 copies of the same topic gallery like Barack Obama, instead of just a single topic gallery living on one site for Barack Obama. That wasn’t too effective, and we weren’t seeing anything rank too well in the search engines based on that, so we consolidated it to just one topic gallery that was owned by a particular domain. Considering we have 50,000 topic galleries, I had to go on somewhat of a knee-jerk reaction on assigning the majority of them.

We moved most to Chicago Tribune, which wasn’t necessarily fair, but that’s what we did. The Tribune newspapers could request any topic gallery they wanted, and a bunch of the different Tribune newspapers went through the list of 50,000 topics and grabbed what they wanted. For example, The Orlando Sentinel and Sun Sentinel grabbed a lot of hurricane and Disney searches, and we broke it up other topics geographically or based off of news events that were occurring locally.

When that happened, our topic galleries all of a sudden popped, and we now rank on the first page for terms like: Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, even weird things like Delta Airlines, because we are able to crosslink from several domains to one domain. Plus, the topic galleries are pretty compelling content to link to and they only have one destination to link to instead of eight. But, obviously a lot of strength comes from within the Tribune network of sites. Currently, in stories across all eight newspapers, (and we will soon expand that to all fifty domains) mentions of keyphrases link back to the exact same topic gallery location.

On the commerce side, we have an example of the visibility that Google has into what we are doing. We had a scenario where we launched e-stores inside of our newspaper domains. Inside those e-stores, we were selling products that probably do not match our demographic. We were selling belly rings, as an example of one of the craziest things we were doing, and we were linking off to other sites that probably didn’t have the best link network in order for people to make that purchase.

For the sites we were linking to, it was a thrill to have a lot of PageRank linking to them for things like belly rings, and that was a good move on their SEO part. However, within 24 four hours of launching the sub-domain, I received an email from Google telling me we had either been hacked or we were linking to a massive spam network. They asked me if I was sure that we really wanted to do this, because it was going to cause problems not only for the sub-domain, but for the main domains as well.

We essentially got a warning from Google that we wouldn’t have if we were a smaller set of sites, or if I didn’t have the relationships established that allow for this type of communication. I know the BMW situation (Editor: for more info on the BMW situation, read this post) is talked about a lot, how larger sites are treated differently than smaller sites. I will absolutely agree that we are treated differently. I know that Google can’t state that because it’s just not a good PR play for them, but I think it’s absolutely true. In this business, you have certain relationships, and if you develop all those relationships, you are going to get advance warning like this, either from a good friend or from a close business contact. I think that even CNN would agree that it’s the same thing for them. How many people have literally a dozen Googlers in their Instant Message system? Very few. How many people have two dozen or three dozen Googlers that they can contact about different problems that they have with their site? Very few. We are lucky that we have that, but we are also a major content destination for queries that people are searching for on a daily basis. I am not going to be pompous enough to think that Google must have us. I do think that a lot of news companies are getting a little caught up in the fact that they think their content is so unique that Google needs them.

Internally, we are exploring certain options that may not be great for SEO, such as pay for content subscriptions (“paywall”), but we really do have a lot of commoditized news that’s just not going to fly for. When you have CNN writing a story about it as well and they don’t have a paywall up, or you have New York Times writing a story on the same type of topic, the users out there that are coming from Google don’t really care where they are reading that news from. They just care that they can find out what’s going on.

I am a little concerned about the direction that news sites are trying to take and the attitude that they have that we are uber special and Google needs us. Google doesn’t need any one company. They would like to have some companies more than others, but they don’t need any specific ones in my opinion.

Eric Enge: In my opinion, even if somebody does need you, that shouldn’t stop the selling, because good relationships are things that grow. Relationships where one party is arrogant or, in this case both parties, I think they are pretty problematic.

Brent Payne: Right, I agree with that. Unfortunately I have been in a scenario where I had a public war with Google about a year ago. I am not going to get in to too many details on it, but you can look it up in a lot of our press releases either from Google News or from Tribune. That scenario where you are lobbying back and forth press releases against one another is not a good situation to be in. To get a phone call from Google News saying that in five minutes they are going to remove you from the index because they believe you did a public opt out of Google News is not a good call to take. Having to try and stop that and literally get executive level people of both companies to slow down and have a civilized conversation is tough. We have just got to be careful and really figure out how we want to work together, as there is a lot of money on the table.

Eric Enge: Thanks Brent!

Brent Payne: Thank you Eric!

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