AOL’s acquisition of Huffington Post for $315 Million seems to have been driven in large part by Huffington Post’s ability to publish content that was trending upward on Google search. Rather than report on the news, report on what people are looking for.

From the New York Time’s Claire Cain Miller yesterday morning:

The Huffington Post has hired veteran journalists to beef up its news coverage. But a significant chunk of its readers come instead for articles like one published this week: “Chelsy Davy & Prince Harry: So Happy Together?”

The two-sentence article was just a vehicle for a slide show of photographs of the couple and included no actual news. But “Chelsy Davy” was one of the top searches on Google that day, and soon after the article was published it became one of the first links that popped up in Google’s search results.

It was an example of an art and science at which The Huffington Post excels: search engine optimization, or S.E.O.

Online publishers use software that look at activity on search engines; generate headlines based on it; and assign employed writers and freelancers to write corresponding articles or blog posts.

Perhaps this is the road to profitability for print journalism, but we’re likely to end up with low quality content that’s written to appeal to the search engines, as opposed to people.

Rich Skrenta, chief executive of the search engine Blekkom, told Miller:

S.E.O. is “absolutely essential.” Still, it can turn into a “heroin drip” for publishers. They had this really good content at the beginning, but they realize the more S.E.O. they do, the more money they make, and the pressure really pushes down the quality on their sites.

The outcome, as reported by Miller, 35 percent of The Huffington Post’s visits in January came from search engines, compared to 20 percent for CNN.com.

No question writing about what people are looking for can produce valuable content. And I am not implying that Huffington Post does not produce any good content.

The problem comes when publishers produce content just to garner traffic, not to produce something of value. The latter ought to sound very familiar to law firms who publish blogs solely for search.

There is hope for quality content. Social media is increasingly more important in the distribution of content. The better the content, the more likely it will be shared via Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Google is also going to take sharing into effect in pushing content to the top in search.

And at the end of the day, people do remember who’s offering value.

  • How many people do you think are going to continue to write for HuffPo gratis now that Arianna Huffington collected $315 million for her venture. AOL bought itself a big piece of nothing.

  • Don’t be so sure Carolyn. There are a ton of legal professionals who write content published in legal publications and on legal websites like law.com that they don’t get paid for. They do it for the exposure. ;)

  • Great points here, Kevin. In the past, I spent years working for online journalism websites in New York and San Francisco. Both definitely put an emphasis on writing strong headlines that would benefit from SEO, but stories were never (I should probably say rarely) written simply for Google. For the photo gallery example above, SEO was clearly the only point. But I think there is a middle road way to combine strong stories with smart SEO tactics.
    Thanks for the post.