Familiar with Google’s Top Stories feature?
If not, you’re about to be.
In this guide, I cover everything from Top Stories origins to why they’re so important to how you can improve your odds of ranking for them.
Before They Were Google Top Stories, They Were In The News
First step? Going back to the Google news box beginnings.
In its earliest incarnation, Google results would occasionally feature a “News For” box.
This would appear when a major event or person was searched for, right at the top of the SERP. Generally, it showed a small thumbnail image, headline and short excerpt, as well as related headlines from other sources listed below.
The stories featured in this box were pulled directly from Google News, which only includes sites that have been submitted, reviewed and approved directly by Google.
Then in October 2014, Google tweaked the results slightly and labeled the new box “In the News.”
The information here looked similar to the old News box, with one major difference – it now included news from a variety of sources, not just those approved by Google News.
Rather than going through the Google vetting process, In the News stories were treated like any other search. Google simply attempted to return the most accurate result for the search query, regardless of whether or not it was Google News approved.
That meant that non-news sites like Reddit, Yoast, etc. now had as much of a chance of landing the news box as any other reputable news site.
As you can imagine, that was good news for many smaller sites.
The catch, of course, was that some less-than-reliable content slipped through, in the wake of all the “fake news” scandals, that spelled trouble for Google.
One of its biggest hits came in November 2016, when a false report claiming that Trump won the popular vote in the 2016 election surfaced in users In the News results.
Enter Google Top Stories
In December 2016, Google announced it was replacing the In the News section on desktops with Google Top Stories – similar to what already existed in mobile searches.
This new format featured a card-style set of stories to better present the most relevant stories of the day.
Some speculate that the change came as a direct result of the fake news scandal, and Google strategically replaced the word “news” to draw a more solid line between its Google News results and traditional algorithm matches.
But Google claimed that the change had been in the works for months, and was simply updated to more closely match its mobile version.
A Deeper Look at Google Top Stories
Top Stories – like the News box before them – generally appear as the result of search query about current news, and are composed of what Google deems the most relevant articles on the topic.
They can appear in two ways:
- Card-style at the top of the SERP: these typically appear in blocks of three, with a thumbnail image, headline, and source URL
- Vertically at the top – sans thumbnail; appearance is closer to normal search results, with headline and link, usually features 1-3 stories at a time
Google Top Stories are still powered by Google Search and not Google News, meaning that it will continue to include a broader list of results.
But that doesn’t mean it didn’t take its fake news lesson to heart. As of January 2017, Google had removed 200 publishers from its AdSense network, many of which were fake news publishers.
Though a broad range of sources have the potential to be pulled into Top Stories, it tends to favor larger, distinguished news sites. At its introduction in December 2016, the top 10 sources were:
Which leaves many to wonder: what are the chances of a smaller organization making the Top Stories section?
SERP Features and Google Top Stories
Let’s take a little side trip.
Because before we dive any deeper into the importance of Top Stories, we need to lay a little groundwork about SERP features in general.
A SERP feature is “any result on a Google Search Engine Results Page (SERP) that is not a traditional organic result.”
In the past, all results in Google looked pretty much the same – a headline, URL, and short text description.
But you may have noticed a little variation in your results over the past few years. Now, a Google search returns results with review ratings, image carousels, videos, and more.
Of course, that also includes the Top Stories feature.
All of those, in fact, are SERP features – and they’ve proved to be both a blessing and a curse to SEOs everywhere.
Because they’re so prominent, detailed, and visually appealing, SERP features tend to land most of the clicks. While that’s great news if your content is included in the feature, it can cut significantly into a site’s traffic if it isn’t.
The idea behind the features is to answer a searcher’s query in as few clicks as possible. Again, great for the user, not so great for brands who rely on those clicks.
It all comes down to this: For sites that specialize in current news and trends, it’s more important than ever to be aware of Google Top Stories.
How Are Google Top Stories Ranked?
As with all things Google ranking-related, the exact science behind the system remains a mystery.
Yes, we know that Google uses their algorithm to power its Top Stories. Beyond that, not much has been revealed.
But in last January, Google Webmaster John Mueller offered a little insight into the process, commenting:
“The “In the News” and the “Top Stories” section in the search results are completely algorithmic and based partially on the content, partially on the queries, partially on how we think it makes sense to show websites with that kind of top stories set up there. Some of this I believe also depends on whether you are using AMP on your pages, valid AMP or not, so all of these things kind of come in together. Essentially, it is organic ranking and that kind of determines which URLs we show in which parts of the search results.”
While there’s still plenty left unsaid, we can pick up a few key takeaways regarding how to better prepare your content to rank in Top Stories.
How Brands Can Tap Into Google Top Stories
Building off of what Mr. Mueller said, here’s what we know about how to rank:
Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) is a Google initiative launched in 2015 designed to make mobile pages load as fast as possible.
Google is all about finding the right answers fast, so it makes sense that they’ve increasingly given priority to sites using AMP.
Not only that, but John Mueller also emphasized the role of AMP in his comments on Top Stories rankings, going even further to say: “some of these depend on specific markup maybe, or if you are using AMP, some of these de do only use AMP results, so that is something to kind of double check that if you’re trying to show AMP and there’s something technically wrong with the way that you’re providing AMP pages, then that’s something you need to fix too.”
Bottom line: If you haven’t installed AMP, you should do so if you hope to appear in Google’s Top Stories.
Important New Update: You can now create AMP stories for the top stories here. Learn more about that here.
Focus on Traditional SEO for Google Top Stories
Mueller also made a point to clarify that when it comes down to it, organic rankings play a major part in who gets chosen for the Top Stories.
With that in mind, it’s as important as ever to focus on your traditional SEO efforts.
That means doing your keyword research, incorporating those keywords throughout your headlines, body content, title tags, etc., and promoting your pieces to secure as many reputable backlinks as possible.
Bottom line: Do everything you can to get your content on the first page of the SERP – if your page is already there, it’s that much more likely it will get pulled for a Top Story box.
Stay Current for Google Top Stories
If you’re running a news site, this one’s a no-brainer.
The only way to match a current query is to already have the information written and published.
Anticipate upcoming events like holidays, sporting events, etc. and closely monitor the keywords and trending stories around your niche so you can be in on the action before the story hits the masses.
Creating very consistent, quality content will help your SEO efforts as well as keep you on top of the game when it comes to current news.
Bottom line: Be on top of your niche, and try not to let your competition break the story first.
Look for Uncovered Territory
This goes along with the former. In your attempts to stay current, you should also attempt to be unique.
It goes without saying that Google looks for the most newsworthy content from the most trusted sources to run in its Top Stories, so chances are if you’re covering a story the New York Times broke 15 hours ago, you won’t be replacing the Times spot in the news box.
So look, if possible, for a new angle. Top Stories can be triggered by viral content or niche events, so try to produce a story on a topic that isn’t covered by the masses.
How To Track Your Rank In Google Top Stories
Tracking a site’s rank in the Top Stories section isn’t quite as straightforward as tracking regular, organic results.
But thankfully, it can be done, and if your end goal is to pop up in the news box, it’s important to do so.
SEMRush and RankRanger both offering tracking tools.
This excellent guide by RankRanger outlines and explains in-depth how you can keep track of your content’s position in the Top Stories. To get started, here’s a brief rundown of their best practices:
- Select the right keywords
Choosing the right keywords takes on a whole new meaning when it comes to Top Stories, because the nature of them is so fleeting. What’s hot one day won’t be the next, and your keyword choices must reflect that.
Here are a few tips:
- Stay current – I mentioned this above, and it’s equally true here.
- Be very specific – don’t rely on broad keywords here, drill down to be as pointed as possible
- Keep them updated – because the news is constantly changing, it goes without saying that your keywords should too
- Track the right domains
While we know that big name news channels are usually the ones to take the Top Stories, we also know that Google’s algorithm allows for a variety of sources to appear.
Often times, the domains you think you’re competing against aren’t there at all. To avoid that mistake, you should:
- Focus on your specific segments – the news isn’t a one size fits all operation, and a search for “katy perry” is unlikely to produce top stories from the Wall Street Journal. Make sure you know your niche, and which domains are most popular in it
- Track overall performance
This, without a doubt, is tricky. But again, not impossible.
This is where RankRanger and its complex set of tools come in handy. To measure your current Top Stories performance, use their Website Rank Distribution Report. You can also track long-term performance using the Insight Graph.
SEM Rush also lets you track this. All you need to do is put in your domain, click on organic and select this link on the right side of the page.
Wrapping Up Google Top Stories
There’s no doubt that Top Stories have a positive effect on user’s overall experience.
But as a news organization, you may not be as thrilled about them.
While that’s understandable, always keep in mind that a strong emphasis on traditional SEO is and always has been the best way to a better rank in the Google SERPs.
Also, remember that it’s not all about big-name news. If you have a timely, optimized piece of content that covers a niche subject, there’s no reason why you can’t break into the news box.