Homepage Design & Linking Strategy For Publishers [SEO Case Study] – Search Engine Journal

Homepage Design & Linking Strategy For Publishers [SEO Case Study] – Search Engine Journal

What happens when a publisher’s homepage redesign dramatically reduces internal links? See what one publication learned and how it recovered.
A publisher’s homepage is one of its most important pages for News SEO.
So what happens when the number of internal links to articles from a publisher’s homepage is dramatically reduced?
We learned just that at a national news publisher in Ireland that I work on, Independent.ie.
In this column, I’ll share our experience redesigning the homepage and how the resulting change in internal linking architecture affected search rankings.
You’ll learn the various ways the homepage supports a publisher’s SEO goals, find internal linking tips and advice from top News SEO professionals, and discover what not to do to avoid similar issues when implementing a paywall.
Let’s dive in.
Implementing a paywall was a major strategic initiative for Independent.ie.
Their business and editorial leaders wanted to promote as much premium, paywalled content on the homepage as possible.
The idea was to showcase Independent’s best journalism to its most loyal direct readers.
This initiative was supported by data that showed that “fly-by” or non-loyal readers would still be able to access the rest of the free content from search and social, as well as other external article referral sources.
However, that data didn’t reveal how important the homepage was for SEO.
In January of 2020, the site’s homepage was redesigned to only show the best “premium” paywalled content of the day.
From a structural and technical SEO perspective, this meant that the total number of articles being linked to from the homepage went from 174 to 48 – a 72% reduction.
But that’s not all.
Article detail pages were redesigned to remove the “clutter” – that being article referrer widgets such as “Most Shared” articles, as shown below.

The new design was arguably cleaner, more modern, and had less of that “clutter.”
But for SEO, these changes had terrible consequences.
In comparing Feb 2020 performance to the month prior, there was a 38.79% drop in keywords ranking in position 1.

As shown below, a negative correlation in % of position 1 rankings was revealed from the article sections that were removed from the homepage.

News sitemaps help.
However, according to Google’s documentation, homepages and sections of a news site are very important pages that Google uses to discover the latest news.
By ensuring that news articles are found on a publisher’s homepage when they are published, you can help Google’s discovery for crawling.
Most news articles, particularly when it comes to large news events, go against the common advice for tackling keyword cannibalization.
For news events, using the target keyword in the headline is beneficial for SEO.
When two stories are optimized for the same news keyword, I have found on various occasions that search engines will rank the article featured on the homepage as opposed to that with the freshest published date (albeit, this is anecdotal from my experience optimizing news stories on Google).
To support my claim, in Google’s documentation on how it ranks news, prominence is a key component:
“The most basic signal that information is relevant is when an article contains the same keywords as your search.”
How a publisher “features that coverage prominently on their sites, as well as how much a story or article is trending” are important factors.
This is why when optimizing for news events, the most recent development on a story needs to be found on the homepage.
This can help search engines determine which one they should rank in the top stories for the target keyword.
The homepage of most news sites has the most external PageRank.
This, in turn, passes on “importance” or ranking signals to other pages on the site.
By removing pages from the homepage, signals to Google and other search engines that these pages/articles are less important.
According to Barry Adams, News SEO consultant, the most common approach is to have a sidebar with the latest articles.
Take this example from Dutch publisher NU:

This publisher also has a dedicated page (“https://www.nu.nl/net-binnen”) with the latest articles linked from their top-level navigation.
John Shehata, Global VP of Condé Nast, recommends the following strategy for increasing article internal links for publishers based on article popularity:
Which one delivers the highest CTR for your audience will be unique to each site and he recommends testing each type.
Having section blocks of the most important news sections of a site, with the latest news per section, is a great way to ensure the most recent news on the site are passed PageRank from the homepage.
All important news sections were re-added to the homepage, displaying the six latest articles published in those sections chronologically.
The latest news sidebar was added to the homepage, both on desktop and mobile.
As a result, these two solutions increased the total articles listed on the homepage by 8% more than prior to the redesign.

Each news article then recommended related articles to the reader and search engine based on topic and popularity.
Readers also saw the most recent articles published on the site chronologically.

Search impressions on Google returned to previous levels.

Article referrer traffic to other related articles increased 10%.

First place rankings improved, but not back to a level pre-site redesign.

The key insights that publishers should take away from this case study are these:
And finally, the next time you are in a meeting discussing the potential impact of a homepage design change on SEO and need proof to back up your argument that design changes impact SEO – please share this case study with them!
More resources: 
Featured Image: metamorworks/Shutterstock
Dan Smullen, News SEO Consultant from Dublin, Ireland has an MBA with a specialism in Marketing from the prestigious Dublin …
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