EP#4 Tobias Willmann - The SEO working for a publisher

What kind of challenges does a SEO face and solve when working for a Publisher? What is News SEO? How is it like to work with journalists and in a newsroom. With this podcast episode, you will have an idea of if you want to work for a News Website and how to take the next step to towards this goal.

Tobias Willmann is Head of SEO at the Blick Group. Blick is a Swiss daily newspaper, published by Ringier in Zürich. Blick probably runs the biggest Newsroom in Switzerland. SEO/Organic traffic is the second biggest traffic source for blick.ch and an important source to reach diverse target groups. 

🧡 Many thanks to Tobias for sharing his experience with us.

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Useful links

Podcast Anchor Page: https://anchor.fm/workinseo

Isaline, podcast host, Twitter page: https://twitter.com/isaline_margot

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Sign up to “WorkinSEO” newsletter: https://www.getrevue.co/profile/workinseo

Getting in touch with our podcast guest, Tobias Willmann

Follow Tobias on Twitter: https://twitter.com/tobias_willmann

Follow Tobias on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/tobiaswillmann/ 

#WorkinSEOPodcast full transcript with Tobias Willmann

Isaline: Hey, folks. It's Isaline. I'm thrilled to record this WorkInSEO Podcast, a podcast where we explore the diversity of career path leading to working in SEO. We interview amazing people to learn from them and help you find your way in your SEO career. I am Isaline Muelhauser, SEO nerd and content strategist, founder of the SEO consultancy, Pilea.ch. 

Today, I'm joined by the brilliant Tobias Willmann, head of SEO at the Blick Group. Blick is a Swiss daily newspaper published by Ringier in Zurich. Blick probably runs the biggest newsroom in Switzerland. SEO organic traffic is the second biggest traffic source for Blick.ch and an important source to reach diverse target groups. 

Hey, Tobias. 

Tobias: Hi, 

Isaline: How are you doing? 

Tobias: Good. Good. Yeah, still at home, but doing good in general. Yeah. 

Isaline: Nice. I suppose we cannot everybody go back to the office yet. It's still a little bit of remote, right? 

Tobias: Yeah. But, in general, I think, we are fine. I also like we established a good situation to work with this, I think. Yeah.

Isaline: Let's dive right into the subject. Today, I'm interviewing you regarding how it's like to be an SEO working for publisher. 

What I hope you will understand and know at the end of this podcast is what kind of challenges SEO face and solve working for a publisher and how it is like to work with journalists and in a newsroom. Generally speaking, I hope you'll have an idea of if you want to work for a publisher and then how to take the next step to work towards this goal.

Tobias, can you remember when you heard the first time about search engine optimization? 

Tobias: I think it was in 2006 or 2007, something like that. I was studying and learning about building websites. I'm still interested in building websites. So, from time to time, I built some stuff. My interest which kind of in how do I get users to see the website. I think SEO was back then and is still a really good source to get some users to your website. 

Isaline: Indeed, it is. What made you go like, "Oh, I like these SEO things, I want to carry on doing that?"

Tobias: Back then, I had kind of some side projects. One of the projects is still active. I had some success in this to optimize the website in Google, and then I had users and I could sell something to them. And so, I found this is really cool. At some point after studying, I decided, let's try to do this full-time. So, to not build websites and do the optimization part as a side project, but to do the optimization part full-time. And, I joined an agency back then. Yeah.

Isaline: Were you studying anything related to websites or journalism or media? 

Tobias: I was studying a mix of computer science and business. So, yeah, the computer science part is kind of. Yeah, building websites was part of the lectures, but it was not so big. Maybe 20, 30% of the lectures were related to web tech or something like that. 

Isaline: We've already learned that your first SEO work was in an agency. Is that where you, for the first time, started working for a publisher? Or, what type of challenges did you tackle then? 

Tobias: I first had my private project and then I applied with the private project at an agency in Berlin. This agency was in general doing SEO when I was an SEO consultant there having different websites. I had some e-commerce, some travel websites. I think one publisher was also there, but a niche publisher. I did this for, I think, almost three to four years or so having multiple clients and solving their SEO problems. And then, I was looking for a new challenge and found that publishing is something cool. I should try. And now, I'm almost five years at Blick. 

Isaline: Almost five years.

Tobias: Yeah

Isaline: That sounds nice. Did you start straight away at Blick or were you in another newsroom at first? 

Tobias: I started at Blick doing technical SEO because also in the agency, I had more of a technical background. In the end, I was doing a lot of audits like technical audits for multiple websites, and give some advice in these audits. And then, I switched to Blick and did technical SEO here because there was actually no real SEO team before. My previous boss started this and, had multiple roles for content and for technical and I had the technical role. We did a lot of basic technical improvements in the first year. And then, at some point, he left and I took over the head of SEO position. I'm still doing all the technical things in the team, but also having the team lead now. 

Isaline: In those early days, can you tell me of one or two of your favorite technical challenges you had?

Tobias: We had so many duplicates, so every article with a gallery had a duplicate gallery URL where just the gallery was. This one had no canonical to the original article, the same with video. Basically, we reduced the number of unneeded URLs a lot. This was one part in the beginning.

Also, the implementation of AMP was also in that timeframe where Google pushed AMP in the Swiss market. In general, the platform has improved a lot. If you compare to what we had five years ago, this was such a mess in general with photoshop teasers where search engine bots were not able to read what it is about, but really starting from scratch actually back then.

Isaline: For SEOs new to the field, can you explain why this duplicate thing is such a problem for us SEOs? 

Tobias: You want to show Google and also the user your best version of the content. If you have a gallery, then probably the user and the Google bot wants to see, not just the gallery, but also the attached article. Actually, no one is checking just the gallery. And, if someone is checking just the gallery, they could just check the gallery in the normal article. So, the gallery URL is just not needed. There's something called crawl budget in Google where you want to reduce the number of URLs you show to Google which are not useful.

Isaline: You mentioned something very important for newspapers where I don't know how long it will be important, but the AMP things. Give us a recap of why are we talking about AMP and why was it/is it important? 

Tobias: I think it started around 2015, '14, I'm not sure, in the U.S. where Google had kind of another HTML version, a super slimmed down version. It was super-fast and it was also always preloaded if you're coming from Google. So, if you were looking in Google for Obama back then and you saw these boxes with the news in Google, and you were clicking on it, then you usually ended up on an AMP article which was super-fast because it was preloaded and slimmed down. 

To be in these top carousels, in these top stories in Google on a mobile device, there was a pre-condition to have AMP as a technology. And so, almost all big publishers switched to having this AMP version of their websites to be in these carousels because, in search, the biggest traffic source is these carousels probably for every publisher. If you are in those carousels then, yeah, that was a precondition to rank somehow.

Now, Google has switched to having AMP, not as a precondition, but it is replaced by having a website with a good web vital scoring in the end. You need to be fast like AMP. Fast as AMP is the new thing, not having amp. Now, the question is, is AMP still needed?

Isaline: What do you reckon? 

Tobias: In our case, we have to check what's happening, but we have AMP and I think it's a good and fast solution. I see still there's no difference for us in the traffic. So, Google hasn't shifted, but maybe it's because AMP is our fastest part of the website. And so, Google is preferring this. If we would switch off the fastest part of the website, maybe we have worse rankings. But if you are a publisher without AMP, now you can think about, is it worth developing AMP? Or, is it worth developing a fast HTML version of the site? There's two options now. 

Isaline: As the publisher, what are your main objectives? What are the main goals to get traffic to rank? 

Tobias: The role of SEO as a publisher is -- the important role is to attract new users, basically, I would say, because everyone in the society is using Google actually. There is a female-male share, which is almost equal. There's also an age distribution, which is much more equal through all the age buckets. If you are a publisher with maybe some older readers, then Google is a source of young readers for you because Google has the whole society and all age buckets.

And, also what's powerful is if you are starting as a publisher with a new topic, let's say you were really good in sports but you never covered ice hockey really because you have no special journalists for this topic, then it may be a good source to go and try to get new readers through Google for this new topic so that they can learn that you now have a really good journalists writing about ice hockey. And then, they become loyal to you as a publication. Yeah, so multiple sources.

So, the powerful thing, I think, is you can attract basically everyone who is interested in a topic. It's not related to you having a good brand reputation, but you just need to cover the topic in a good way.

Isaline: How do you define what is a relevant topic for you to cover? How do you stay ahead of the trend?

Tobias: We are a team of three people in the SEO team. Marco and Veronica and my team, they care a lot about the topics in the newsroom and what could be written.

There is processes for evergreen and seasonal topics where we try to predict based from the previous years, what could be the next topic in summer or so? There's a festival season in a normal year, which is usually in the summer. You can predict that based on the previous year's data and can tell maybe "Is sun lotion the bigger topic we need to cover, or is it the festival season and how is it for SEO, how is it in social media?" You can get that out of the data and then influence the editorial roadmap kind of if it's something seasonal or evergreen. 

In breaking news or in the daily news with different tools, you can have a look in Google Trends, for example, to check what's currently trending. And, do we cover the topic? Do all the competitors cover the topic but us not? Or, is it something new? If you, for example, check Google Trends for other markets, then maybe the trend from another market may pop over to Switzerland and then be relevant here. 

A lot of articles are produced just to drive traffic within 48 hours. It's not like if you are an e-commerce and you try to do a blog post, and then you expect probably that the blog post is lasting for some months to be relevant. So, a comparison of Samsung phone versus an iPhone 10 work for a year if it's a good comparison. But in our case, if it's news, if it's breaking news, then usually it's over after two days, three days, something like that.

Isaline: I see that timing is essential in your work. You also mentioned the newsroom. Can you tell us a bit more about how it's like, the atmosphere at a publisher, for instance, in comparison with the agency works that you previously did? What is specific? 

Tobias: As an SEO, if you're working for a publisher, that's in general amazing because there is people who can write and they are writing every day.

Sometimes working in an agency, it's super hard to convince a client that they write anything, and then they write something and you think, "Oh, no one can read that" because they are not trained in writing. In general, it's really good. They are writing, there's no spelling errors. They write regularly and they produce a lot of stuff. So, that's really cool. In terms of the atmosphere, if you are in the newsroom, it's quite noisy. If something is happening, then they're gathering around and then they discuss the topics. They have a lot of meetings and they plan what to do and sometimes these changes during the day.

Plan ability is not so easy. If you are an SEO, usually your topics are not prio one here because a journalist, they try to have a new topic, which nobody wrote about. Everything I can give them from SEO data is something I found in the trend. If the trend is there, then somebody else wrote about it already. So, my topics are by default not that interesting to the journalists. 

What we also try is to push if they have some ideas to say, "Yeah, that's a good idea" and to push the idea which they already have to be then done. And also, we also try to get some follow-up articles in some cases. If they wrote something which we really liked and which we saw perform really well in SEO, then we try. "Yeah, that's a cool one. Maybe you can extend it." Maybe we can do something more because we see that there's still interest in search. 

Isaline: Would you say that you have, as an SEO, more impact on type of evergreen content than on the very trendy immediate content?

Tobias: I would say so. Because the evergreen content is not like there's nobody having something more important usually because they have more a roadmap. So, there, it's easier to influence in percent, but in general, the evergreen topics are at some point, there's not so many, and there's also the task of recycling older evergreens. You need to do more research to come up with good evergreens than to come up with a good breaking news topic. I would say, it highly depends. In general, it highly depends on the topic.

There's huge differences in, does it work in search, or does it work in Google Discover, or in Google news? There's completely different articles which work best there. 

Isaline: To come back to the subject of the journalists, how do you communicate with them? Is that very spontaneous, lots of talking things, or do you provide tools, and then you have the perfect tool for journalists to have relevant data and they get an email?

Tobias: In our case, we adapt to them basically. We had some tries with giving them tools. You see, there's different departments in the newsroom and they have different workforce. Sport journalists work differently from someone who's writing evergreen content for lifestyle. I don't think there's a tool which fits all the needs.

We adapt, so Marco and Veronica and the team, they adapt to the teams and they try to give them inputs as they liked the inputs. There's also the idea to sit in the newsroom and join different teams and do trainings with them. But even the trainings are, in our case, special trainings for the department. It's a lot of work. It's also the acceptance of the topic and the learning curve is really different from one journalist to the other. But yeah, that's like with clients, it's the same. Some clients that works instantly perfect and in another case, you need to train a little bit more to get to the goal of SEO roadmap and whatever. 

Isaline: There is lots of curating information according to the needs of the journalist in your job, and also lots of research and analysis of data of past data. How about the technical side? You mentioned that you're still doing most of the technical work. At the moment, what do you have in your minds at night, or maybe hopefully not at night, but what is the most important questions you have in mind? 

Tobias: Web vitals is a big topic, so for almost a year, and we make great progress at Blick. We are on the way to be the fastest publisher of Switzerland, I would say. 

Isaline: Congrats.

Tobias: When Google announced it about a year ago, then we said, yeah, for us, it was a real issue because probably we are with Blick TV and all the huge images and big ad spaces and stuff. We are really hard to get good web vital scores. We started early and we implemented basically everything you can do from a tracking and project setup perspective to really see progress there. Then, we started to optimize and I'm really happy with the IT Department that they applied so many great things and that we improved now to really our goals are met, our internal goals. So, there we are fine. But still, there is ideas coming from the IT department how to improve even more. And so, I'm really happy with this one. Let's see if we get to the level where we discuss to switch off AMP because our normal side is as fast as AMP. So, let's see. 

That's a big one. I did a lot of tests there like in inside projects and some websites to dig really into that topic because I knew that that's a big one. I'm really happy with this one. There's not so much stress for us than I hear from other publishers where they started late in the project or late after the communication of web vitals. they started probably too late to be done with the date.

And actually, I don't see web vitals as a pure SEO topic. We know that it's a UX topic. So, no one wants to wait. I'm really happy that we are at a point where this has such a high priority so that we see that a fast website is something every user profits from. It's not like you develop a weather widget where 5% of the users are profiting from, but a fast website everyone profits from. I really enjoyed doing this project. 

Isaline: I hear you have an internal IT team. Do you have close relations to them? How does the work, the collaboration go? Because we talked about journalists, but I heard that the technical side is obviously very present. How does it go? 

Tobias: I'm not sure, but if everyone else is doing that, most of the time I'm writing tickets. And then, I tried to get it into the sprint. That's the thing. With the IT team here, we established a really cool process that this works. There's no project manager or something involved between me and the IT team. Most of the time, it's smaller things we have from SEO. I mean, we improve the website for five years now. So, we are at the point that there's almost never a hurry to implement SEO stuff. And then, I create some tickets with some ideas, and then we do some estimation of how long it takes, and it's somewhere in a sprint. If we start early enough with vitals, then we get it done within the timeframe, which Google gives us.

Isaline: Nice. That sounds great.

Tobias: Yeah, it's really great.

Isaline: I heard you have a very versatile position where you have a little bit of management. Since there is a team, you have the collaboration with journalists and also collaboration with IT departments with the technical side. Time is running, we have learned so much already about newsrooms and SEO work for publisher, but then now what do you see next? What do you see in the next future as career options or as things you want to learn or do? 

Tobias: In general, there is always new stuff coming in SEO, I think, and also working for something like Blick, there's always something changing. We just started to have Blick in French. There is some SEO things involved here, which we are currently working on. I don't think SEO as a topic is somehow getting boring or if you're working for a company like Blick, it's getting boring because there's always something new. And also, to get more into -- I always try to learn some development stuff, some new development tech stuff to just try, for example, like last year there was a lot of options with all these lockdowns to try some new things. So, I tried, for example, to learn Gatsby JS and how this influences speed of websites, something like that. There's also a lot of things I'm thinking are interesting in publishing related to aggregators. So, something like Google Discover or the Apple news widget and how to track those, how to find out how those work. Because in the end, it's recommendation algorithms which show you news. I think with SEO knowledge, there is some room to improve there. 

Isaline: And, for someone who would go like, "Hey, yeah, I'm starting in SEO. I want to work for a publisher," what's your best advice?

Tobias: In internship at the publisher is definitely something cool. We have also interns at Blick and now Marco, he came back. He was an intern and then went to an agency to work there for, I think, two years and then came back to us. I think that's a really good career path for someone who wants to work at the publisher to learn something about general SEO, an agency is perfect for that. And then, to specialize into news maybe. Also, if you are a journalist, when we have this open position, then every journalist, of course, wanted to have a journalist. But the thing is that, there's almost no journalists out there with a profound SEO knowledge. So, it's really hard to find.

If you are a journalist and you want to learn SEO, then you have to join an agency for one or two years, learn some really SEO stuff and then go back to the publisher and be like the perfect position. I mean, journalistic background and profound SEO knowledge. That's what we want. Yeah.

From tech, it's always an option coming from a tech perspective. 

Isaline: I see that there are multiple entries, multiple possibilities to enter as SEO in the publisher industry. And, that sounds great.

Tobias: Yeah.

Isaline: Do you have multiple different types of profiles and then just go ahead and professionalize and focus really on one industry?

Tobias: Yeah.

Isaline: And now, it's already the time for the last questions. Is there anyone you want to give a shout-out or mention in the podcast? It's your moment to share the love?

Tobias: I want to give a shout-out to my team. They are on vacation currently and I'm really looking forward to have them back in the SEO daily. Yeah. So, yeah, thanks.

Isaline: Thanks a lot for being with us today. This was WorkInSEO Podcast with Tobias Willmann. If anyone wants to follow up the conversation with you, is there anywhere where people can reach you?

Tobias: I'm on Twitter and LinkedIn. Just follow or write me a message. I'm happy to answer questions.

Isaline: Great. I'll make sure to share the links in the description of the podcast, so you can find that very easily. That was it. Thank you for today.

Tobias: Thanks a lot. 

Isaline: Thanks a lot. And, goodbye, see you next time.