With less than a week to go before the election, I noticed something very strange on our website.
Our top story, day after day, was not the usual – crime, national politics, breaking news – but rather a letter to the editor. And not just any letter to the editor, but instead one of the blandest, most routine letters you can imagine – a note from an official of the local Republican Central Committee outlining the party’s endorsements and recommendations for the coming ballot.
We run this kind of thing multiple times every election cycle as the Democrats, Greens, Republicans, and various political clubs tout their choices.
Like most letters, these items tend to get a few hundred web views and that’s about it.
But this one was far surpassing even most news stories. It was posted late on Saturday, Oct. 28, and by the following Friday, it had racked up more than 7,000 views, more than all but the most popular stories, photo galleries and obituaries published that week.
Curious, I dug deeper into the analytics and discovered that viewers were coming from all over the country – from San Francisco to New York, Seattle to Atlanta, even Honolulu.
By Election Day, things had gotten out of hand. The letter shot to the top of all our lists, with 60 to 80 viewers reading at any one time. On Nov. 6 alone, we racked up more than 4,000 views on that letter.
In the end, the letter totaled 43,000 views from 35,000 readers, who spent an average of more than 4 minutes reading the item. Just to give some perspective, during the same 10-day period in 2017, the entire Opinion section, including all letters and columns, drew about 27,000 views from 23,000 readers, who spent only just a little more than 1 minute reading each item.
What the hell was going on?
Turns out I had accidentally tuned into the magic of the blandly named “Search Engine Optimization,” also known as “SEO,” meaning making sure a headline has certain key words that will make it as visible as possible to Google and other web search engines. Usually this takes the form of very specific words and very long titles.
For example, it is better to say “Napa man killed in motorcycle accident on Highway 121” than use a traditional print-style headline like “Local man dies in wreck.” In print, the shorter headline works because anyone who picks up the paper will know that “local” means “somewhere near Napa.” On the web, however, a reader might be in Napa, but could just as well be in Miami, or Moscow, or Shanghai, so “local” is meaningless. They would never type “local man killed” into Google, but they might type in “Napa news,” which could pick up our article.
In the case of the letter, however, it turns out that its remarkably generic headline was the key to its success. Since I was in a hurry, with dozens and dozens of letters stacking up in the final frantic days before the election, I slapped on a basic headline: “GOP recommendations for Nov. 6.”
By the Friday before the election (and even as I write this on Wednesday), the Number 1 item that comes up if you type GOP and Recommendations and Nov. 6 into Google is our letter. The Number 1 in the whole country.
Turns out, lots and lots of people all over the country wanted to know who the GOP recommended in the election, and since I had omitted any specific location or details in the headline, our letter was inadvertent SEO gold.
Once I figured this out, every time I looked at our analytics and saw the letter safely at the top, I laughed out loud. We couldn’t have generated that kind of buzz deliberately if we’d tried, but here it was as a pure expediency-driven accident.
Of course, I feel a little bad. I am sure there are lots of puzzled Republican voters all over the country desperately trying to figure out what Measure I might be, who John Cox is, or why the GOP was recommending a Yes on Proposition 6, whatever that may be.
Sorry, voters. Next time I’ll add “Napa” to the headline to keep the frenzy under control.