Many news organisations receive most of their website traffic from Google News – the dominant news destination for users online. Google News is a very different animal from Google Search, and it's vital for news publishers to have a good understanding of how Google News operates and what can be done to optimise your presence there.
There's an extensive FAQ on Google about how to get your site included in Google News, so I won't discuss that topic here. Instead I'll focus on what you can do to maximise your exposure there once you're included.
The following ranking factors are distilled from my own experiences with a large local news site, as well as various online sources including interviews with Google staff, Google's own FAQs and videos, research papers and patents published by Google, and analyses performed by other SEO professionals.
Google guards its ranking algorithms fiercely. As a result we don't know how many other ranking factors come in to play, nor what weight each factor has in the overall ranking algorithm.
Google News Ranking Factors:
An article that is unique to a publisher has a much higher chance of ranking than an article that is taken from a news syndication feed or republished from another source.
Note that Google is striving to show every article under the original publisher’s banner. So content republished from other sources (such as AP) are much less likely to show up in Google News as part of your site than our own original content. AP and other news agencies are also working hard to ensure they capture the web traffic for their own content.
Additionally, if you have content that refers to an original source (i.e. "The New York Times reported that...") Google News could detect this and rank the original NY Times article higher.
A bit of a no-brainer: news articles that are more recent and tie in with current events are preferred over older articles.
Coverage of recent developments
Nowadays Google News is able to detect updates to an already indexed article. News articles that are updated to reflect ongoing developments in the story are preferred over static stories.
Google divides news articles in clusters centred on a single topic (an algorithmic feature Google calls Aggregated Editorial Interest). The more relevant an article is for that cluster, the higher it is likely to rank.
Local source & content
If a story has a location element in it, Google News tends to prefer articles from publishers geographically close to the story’s focus that create their own local content for the story.
This is a complex ranking factor that depends on a number of factors in itself. One important factor for determining publisher reputation is the volume of original content per news edition that the publisher produces. A publisher that produces a lot of original content for different news editions is seen as more reputable than niche content produces and news aggregators.
Google News defines ‘editions’ as separate categories of news, such as sports, politics, and entertainment, but also its own country-specific versions (news.google.com, news.google.ca, news.google.co.uk, etc).
It is important to note that publisher reputation is mostly independent of a website’s PageRank (PR is said to be applied 'delicately' to Google News), and that the reputation can be different for each edition. Thus it is possible for a news site to have a great publisher reputation for politics in news.google.ca, but a very poor publisher reputation for sports in news.google.com.
An article with a high CTR is seen as more relevant – with every click counting as a ‘vote’ for the article – and is thus more likely to rank higher.
The concepts of generic SEO also apply to Google News as well, so factors such as search-engine-friendly URLs, good title tags, use of header tags, strong body content, and optimised code, all factor in to Google News rankings.
For an image to show with a news article in Google News it needs to be a JPEG, have a relevant caption and alt text, and not be clickable (so the image shouldn’t be linked). The latter is because Google News wants the best image to be part of the article, so users don’t have to perform an additional click to see the best possible image.
There are strong indications that Google also personalises Google News based on collaborative filtering. This is much like Amazon.com’s recommendations system. An example: User A reads articles 1, 2, 3 and 4 on Google News. User B reads articles 1 and 3. Google News then personalises the News page and shows articles 2 and 4 more prominently, as it suspects user B will want to read these as well.
A research paper on Google’s implementation of collaborative filtering in Google News has been published and can be read here: http://www2007.org/papers/paper570.pdf
Google News Search Patent
In 2003 Google filed for a patent for “systems and methods for improving the ranking of news articles”. The patent was granted in 2009 and thus became public. Much has changed since 2003 so it is very likely rankings in Google News work very differently nowadays from what this patent describes, but we can still learn a few things from the patent's ranking factors:
- Number of articles produced by the source
- Article length (longer = better)
- Breaking news score
- Human opinion (awards won, survey results, etc)
- Newspaper circulation numbers
- Editorial staff size
- Number of associated news bureaus
- Inclusion of original named entities (people/places/organisations)
- Number of topics the source produces content for
- International diversity of audience
- Writing style (spelling, grammar, reading level)
Some of these factors are likely still part of the Google News ranking algorithm in some form or another, such as clickthroughs, number of topics, and breaking news score. Other factors are unlikely to be a part of the current workings of Google News (circulation, staff size). The full patent text is available here: http://www.faqs.org/patents/app/20090276429
From these ranking factors a number of recommendations follow that you should keep in mind when creating content for your news site, as well as any technical changes you make to the site:
- Publish unique content: Strive to publish as much unique, original content as possible.
- Publish & update fast: By being early with breaking news, as well as keeping on top of new developments, you can increase your chances of ranking high in Google News. Minor article tweaks can be interpreted as a developing story update, and are thus encouraged if applied inconspicuously.
- Develop editorial specialities: You can increase your publisher reputation in specific news editions by developing a speciality for a certain type of news. For example you could strive to cover your regional politics better than anyone else, and thus increase your chances of outranking big news publishers in Google News for local political news.
- Optimise your site for general SEO: Like with any other site, it pays to optimise things like title tags, URLs, header tags, etc.
- All images should be JPGs and non-clickable: By making sure all images used on your site are JPGs, and that images included in an article are not linked, you can increase your visibility in Google News. Having a good caption for your images also helps.
While having a Google News sitemap doesn't help your rankings in Google News, I still consider it essential to have one, if only to ensure all your content is found and indexed by Google's news spiders.
Note that these recommendations come from my point of view as an SEO specialist, and I reckon they would benefit from a journalistic perspective. Also note that this document is a snapshot of the state of Google News as it exists now. Google rolls out updates and tweaks all the time, so these ranking factors are likely to change over time.
Back in 1995 Barry Adams famously predicted that the Internet was ‘just a fad’ and ‘would amount to nothing’. He has come far since then.