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AOP SUMMIT 2010: Mirror Group digital chief denounces pursuit of SEO

Matt Kelly, the outgoing digital content director of Mirror Group, denounced the strategy adopted by some publishers and internet firms to pursue editorial scale through search engine optimisation (SEO), arguing that it risked compromising quality journalism.

Matt Kelly: denounced the strategy adopted by some publishers

Matt Kelly: denounced the strategy adopted by some publishers

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Kelly, who leaves the Mirror next year to join online video sports company Perform, was speaking at the AOP Summit on Friday (15 October).

His comments were sparked by the words of Chris Barr, senior editorial director of Yahoo, who said that in order to optimise the searchability of editorial, content needed to be "tight" and "short".

Barr said: "If what [a user] types in is not in the metatags or headline, then they’re not going to find it."

He argued that the optimal size for editorial on the web iwas 300 words. "Get to the point, cut the lead down," he said. "You have three to four seconds to get people to click through to your story."

But Kelly riposted, claiming that tailoring content in order to optimise it for search undermined the tenets of journalism. Barr's words exasperated Kelly, who cited the writings of Vanity Fair contributing editor Christopher Hitchens, whose journalistic account of his own cancer suffering is widely admired, but not known for its brevity.

He said that he found the "digital content/SEO stuff quite depressing", adding: "I think it helps the crap get up there."

Kelly said that the area of online that excited him was not search engine content aggregated by the likes of Yahoo, but social media. In particular, sites like Twitter, because by allowing users to select who they follow, it became "an informed source".

Meanwhile, Barr conceded that Yahoo still faced the challenge of "being where the readers are" and admitted that Facebook was "at our heels".

Kelly repeated his concerns about the search for scale.

He asked: "Isn’t it more interesting to have a smaller, more focused audience? Why are we so obsessed with pursuing scale?"

But he insisted that he was not "spurning scale" per se. "I’d like to be the biggest, though most engaging website in the world," he said. "But what I would say is let’s stop at four million users, if more than six million dilutes the quality."

Kelly said that his concerns regarding editorial were compounded by the continuing struggle of publishers to monetise the internet.

He said: "It disappoints me when I see how ineffective advertising is online – we have a long way to go before we understand how advertising works on the internet," he said.

"The quality of display is becoming increasingly ineffective for us as a revenue stream. We’re often seeing the wrong ads to the wrong people and it’s almost bordering on negligence."

He called for greater investment into understanding audiences; stressing that the value lay in collecting data on people by engaging them in compelling and relevant editorial.

"That detail is gold dust," he said.

The AOP event did not mark the first time that Kelly has denounced the pursuit of SEO. Earlier this month, he defended his stance in an interview in mediaweek.co.uk.

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