How Mother Earth News Is Using Analytics to Drive Content
It's easy to be intimidated by content analytics processes -- the publishing industry doesn't always attract people with a statistician's temperament. As I discussed in a previous article, The Basics of Content Analytics for Publishers, when your content is the engine that keeps your business alive, it's important to be able to check its vital statistics at a glance -- and as Mother Earth News found, subjecting content to statistical scrutiny can prove transformative.
Mother Earth News started as a rootsy, Kansas-based monthly covering such diverse topics as farming and nutrition, health, recycling, and DIY repair work. Today, Mother Earth News's site makes money in three ways: by selling space on its vast site through Google Adwords (and, to a lesser degree, individually negotiated ads); subscription sales for its print magazine; and newsletter signups (it sells advertising space in its emails).
Editor-in-Chief Cheryl Long says that as Mother Earth News transitioned from print to digital, it was able to turn relationships with existing advertisers into some favorable deals on banner ads while using Adwords to fill in the gaps, but that wasn't enough.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is key to growing traffic and in turn increasing revenue earned from banner ads. To implement better SEO practices, Long’s team first had to discover what was working on the website. They had to build content analytics into their everyday work processes, in this case, Google Analytics.
In order to study the effects of individual pieces of content, Long began to add customized codes to each piece of content that allowed her to place articles into several buckets at once, making it easy to analyze by date, author, content type, and other metrics. Long says, “Using the bucket codes we developed, we can see when a piece is doing nicely and developing long-tail traffic.”
The tags Mother Earth News's team added have enabled Long to compare the time and money it takes to produce a blog post or article with the expected page views (and therefore revenues). This allows Mother Earth News to fine-tune its budgeting, too. (You can learn the basics of custom URL building through Google Analytics from Google itself, and there are even Chrome extensions to streamline the process, which requires some programming in GA.)
At the same time, Mother Earth News needed to make sure writers were hitting the right phrases to pick up as much search traffic as possible, so they turned to their publisher, Ogden Publications, to build out a keyword vetting process.
Jen Black began doing keyword research as an intern, and was eventually promoted to head the web services team at Ogden. Mother Earth News’s content is strongly seasonal, so Black’s team uses Google Adwords to find out what search terms its audience is interested in, and lays out an editorial calendar alerting Ogden's editors and writers as to when those keywords should be used in online content.
“It’s mostly a way for us to bounce ideas around,“ says Black. “We’re going to have a wide range of content no matter what for our different sites, but we look back on that to see what specifically is the most popular.”
Repeating the same keywords can put your content in a position to compete with itself -- always a danger when you're publishing in niche areas -- so Black advises that publishers always add something to well-worn topics.
Part of Black’s approach is to continuously refresh older content, too. “If we have a story that we know is going to be useful over time, what we’ll simply do is go back to that exact story and update it to be more current, and add more to it so Google will recognize that.”
Mother Earth News's two-pronged approach to SEO and content management has meant it's squeezing more revenue out of its site than ever before. Search stats for individual keywords, plus detailed traffic statistics sorted by categories like author and subject, make for more predictable revenues than in the days before Google Analytics, and have helped Mother Earth News both stabilize its costs and take the guesswork out of its content calendar.
Related story: The Basics of Content Analytics for Publishers