In this episode of AImpactful, we delve into the world of SEO in journalism with Ryan Restivo, the creator of the YESEO app, a tool advancing how newsrooms approach search engine optimization. Our guest shares the origin story of YESEO, sparked by the challenge of improving a story’s visibility on Google. This journey led to the creation of an app that’s now a staple in over 300 newsrooms, helping journalists ensure their stories reach a wider audience.

We explore the development process of YESEO, the pivotal role of user feedback, and the app’s evolution to meet the dynamic needs of digital journalism. Emphasizing the importance of human judgment in the era of AI, our guest highlights how YESEO empowers journalists to enhance their work while maintaining the essence of storytelling.

Tune in for a fascinating discussion on the future of SEO in journalism and how technology like YESEO is making a tangible difference in the news industry.

Transcript of the AImpactful Vodcast

Branislava Lovre: Welcome to AImpactful. In this episode, we are talking about AI, search engine optimization, and journalism. Our guest is Ryan Restivo. He developed the YESEO app, designed to assist newsrooms with search engine optimization best practices. Welcome, Ryan.

Ryan Restivo: Thank you. Happy to be here.

Branislava Lovre: At this moment, more than 300 newsrooms around the world are using your YESEO app. What motivated you to start this project? How did it all begin?

Ryan Restivo: YESEO. The YESEO app is a fun adventure, that I had never realized that I was going to have a chance to do. I learned about the RJI Fellowship Program, The Reynolds Journalism Institute out at the University of Missouri, and their fellowship program back in early 2022. And one of the first things I heard was about just focusing on finding a great idea. And that’s what I tried to focus on. To start finding a great idea, I was very fortunate and lucky that an editor came to me and kind of inspired the idea that I had and it was why did this story not rank on the first page of Google? And we made a spreadsheet of the first page and we made all this other stuff. And we learned very quickly that this home health care aide that was being harmed didn’t fit on the first page in our story, but it was on everybody else’s. And I live in a competitive market, New York City area, so it was easy to see why ours didn’t rank, the keywords weren’t there. So that was the spark that lit the fire.

And that idea turned into, well, I built things in slack before for newsrooms. So the idea of the challenge to kind of approach RJI fellowship was to say, well, we could build it for more than one, right? And RJI’s mission is to support small local newsrooms. So the idea to build this kind of came naturally from there, it was like, could we just do this but scale it? And I love making Google sheets, but I can’t make thousands of them. How can we make sure that it works for people that I never even meet? And that’s where like the idea just kind of went. And then from there, I’ve been very fortunate that RJI supported me and my project all the way up until launching it in March, and then since March. It’s been an adventure, like you said.

Branislava Lovre: We said that the YESEO has hundreds of users. Did you expect this level of interest and response?

Ryan Restivo: No, I it’s easy for me to say no. It’s funny. The reason I want to do this, I wanted to help more than just one newsroom and my project and RJI’s mission really aligned in that sense, right to help a lot of newsrooms out there and have something that can help more than one newsroom, and around this time last year I was building the thing so it could be installed in other workspaces which was a pain, I’ll say myself, but once I got over that, it was a great, you know, hurdle to get to and make sure that people can install it. I now know people who’ve used it all over the globe and like that to me is just really special that I’ve had an effect on people, or people have used this thing and have used it to improve their work. And that was always the goal here, extending out and reaching out to folks that I may never otherwise meet and helping them do their jobs just slightly better, and I’m really fortunate to be in that position.

Branislava Lovre: You went through the whole journey from an idea to a finished product. Could you share with us the process of developing? Did everything go smoothly?

Ryan Restivo: No, nothing ever goes smooth, right? I launched this thing in early March. The version that launched in March, compared to what’s out there now, is vastly different. And that’s the exciting part, seeing how it has evolved from what it initially was. I remember, it was that same week I was trying to make a significant backend change, and then RJI launched it. I was still halfway through that backend change at that time, so I was rushing to make sure I did everything needed to ensure it would work just fine, to minimize any breakdowns.

As time went on, everything had to change and improve gradually. The influx of users has really helped me figure out how to better serve them. I got some good advice very early on, even before launching, through the News Product Alliance’s mentorship program. My mentor talked about how you’re going to see how people use your product once they get their hands on it. That’s the only way you’ll really see it.

I had metrics to track usage, and it was fascinating to see how people didn’t understand certain functionalities. Things I thought were straightforward, which I had tested and others in newsrooms had tested and could figure out, became confusing when released to a broader audience. There were differences in understanding certain aspects or knowing how to do something, so it was crucial to guide users through these points and ensure they could engage with the value proposition that YESEO offers their newsroom.

It’s been very interesting to observe how different newsrooms use the app in varied ways. As it evolved, people’s usage habits changed, or how they used it became different. There are two main ways to use it for your stories: before publishing or after publishing using a URL. Watching how people shift their usage over time from one method to the other has been intriguing.

Learning their stories has been super interesting. One of the great things about being a free app is that it’s as easy as going to the YESEO app and hitting “add to Slack.” But to truly understand the impact, I need to learn more about the users. I’ve worked hard to learn the stories of the newsrooms that have been affected by and have found benefits from using YESEO. I’ve been able to catalog these experiences in case studies. It’s fascinating to figure out and learn more, especially since you don’t need an email to sign up, you don’t need to provide a credit card, you don’t have to do anything, really. It’s just a click of a button.

Branislava Lovre: Since YESEO’s release, there have been several updates based on user feedback.

Ryan Restivo: Yeah, one of the things about the original idea, as I mentioned, was inspired by existing links. A few months into my RJI fellowship, I started showing this to folks, and the feedback I received was, “This is great, but what about a story I haven’t published yet?” So, around December last year, I thought, “Okay, maybe I’ll just build that too,” thinking it would be easy. It was not. It required creating an entirely new process just for that. But it paid off in the end because, based on metrics, usage started to shift from mostly links to now, where over two-thirds of stories going through YESEO are from this other method we call ‘Prep.’ It allows you to input text directly, get a similar analysis, making it as easy as copy and paste, lowering the barrier to entry. We’re agnostic to any CMS, so as long as you know how to use your clipboard, you can use this feature. It’s been interesting to see people shift from using published links to copying and pasting their text for analysis.

Branislava Lovre: The YESEO is easy to install and use. Why did you choose Slack for it?

Ryan Restivo: I chose Slack because it was the first platform I learned to build apps on and the first thing I used to code. Many years ago, I had a long weekend free and decided to pick up a programming language. It was in service of building a Slack app for a newsroom. I built that app and kept adding features to it, experimenting with anything I could build. This newsroom found a practical use for it in breaking news. Someone suggested previewing our breaking news email newsletter, so I built that feature quickly, and it became incredibly valuable. I even had to leave my laptop plugged in during one of my vacations to ensure it kept running. Of course, we later moved it to a server, so it doesn’t run like that anymore. Through the RJI fellowship, I even added buttons to the YESEO app, making it more user-friendly. Slack was always something I felt connected to for building on top of. My proposal to RJI was specifically to build an app for Slack that could help with SEO in journalism. Since 2020, we’ve all become more digital-focused, and Slack has become an essential tool for journalists to engage not only with their audience but also with their entire team. Building on top of Slack to give newsrooms opportunities to improve seemed like the best approach.

Branislava Lovre: So, anyone interested can use YESEO for free and easily. They just need to add it to their Slack workspace.

Ryan Restivo Yes, you can get it by going to the YESEO app and clicking on the ‘Add to Slack’ button. It’ll be easily installed in your workspace. If you install it for the first time, it should welcome you and give you some tutorials. One of the things I learned after people first used it was to make sure we’re pointing them in the right direction on how to use it. We make this simple for folks. YESEO is in the Slack app directory, so it’s as easy as searching there. You can search ‘YES,’ and you’ll basically find YESEO since I think it’s the first term that uses ‘yes.’ And that’s where you would find apps like Dropbox and Outlook that Slack offers. It was released in July and has been there since. Getting it in there was a fun thing to do.

One thing I learned about the Slack app directory is that YESEO uses commands, so slash commands. For those not familiar with Slack, you have little text boxes. If you hit slash remind, you can write a reminder for yourself for the future. A best practice in apps for Slack I wasn’t aware of initially is that if you use a command, you should be able to type ‘help’ and get a tutorial. So, if you use the command for YESEO, like slash analyze, you would usually put a URL in there. But if you’re unsure what to do, you can type ‘slash analyze help,’ and you’ll get a tutorial on that. The same goes for ‘slash prep,’ which is where you would copy and paste text from an unpublished story. Typing ‘slash prep help’ will give you a quick tutorial on how it all works. And that’s something I continue to learn and build on.

These are essentially the two main entry points for newsrooms to start using SEO. Once you input your story, you’ll be asked for some additional information, like the location of your story, which could be Ohio, Oklahoma, or Western Canada, for example. You’ll enter the market you want to focus those keywords on. You’ll also be asked about the kind of time span, especially if it’s a big breaking news story, we could search some Google trend data. Once you make those two selections, it takes about 2 minutes. It does a lot of work in the background, and while it’s doing all that work, it sends a fun message saying you can go make a cup of coffee for yourself, and by the time you’re back, it’ll be ready. When it’s ready, a little button will indicate that your report is ready, and you click that button to get a lot of reporting that’s been made in those 2 minutes. All of the data you then see has already been made in that two-minute span. You click the button, and you’re getting all that reporting there, so you don’t have to wait. Once you click a button, you’re seeing all that information.

You can see how tightly or loosely related the keywords are to your story, pulling out those main keywords in your story and trying to think about whether the story is actually what we want to tell people in our headline or if we’re telling people in our headline the same thing that’s in our story, similarly to our descriptions. And then, one other thing we do is you can then explore those keywords off on Google Trends because they’ve been compiled too, and there’s a button there.

Another feature is a suggest headlines button. I started this project in July of 2022, and around three-quarters of the way through that, there was a large surge in AI usage, and these GPT things started coming out. So, I had to think about a practical way to help newsrooms with this. I’m very lucky and fortunate that I was able to talk with someone much smarter than me, and he was telling me how he was using GPT to teach him new languages of code. He was learning, using it to learn Ruby and TypeScript, and all these other things, while I was using it very simply. So that really took me back to the drawing board, and I thought about other ways I could use this in the application.

With the suggest headlines button, what it’s doing is it’s feeding some of the data that’s already been input and then running an experiment most of the time about how to generate some keywords or descriptions or other information that can help you towards getting to a headline that you might want and giving options, right? So, five or six headline ideas, and a lot of the things that I’m headlining in here are that they are ideas. These are starting points where you can take one or take two and kind of mash them together and think about it and put it in your style. One of the benefits that comes with Slack is that you can’t just copy and paste; there’s no way to put it into a CMS right away. So you have to decide what works for you and you have to be able to take it and put it into your CMS and figure it out.

To me, that’s important when we’re using these kinds of products because we always want to have a human in the equation. We want someone to decide. And for me, I think that when you’re talking with newsrooms, it’s hard for them to embrace technology. But one way to make sure that they’re going to embrace this technology and use it for the better is that they will still have some control. They want to make sure there’s some control here. So, everything and the language that I try to put into YESEO is really paved around ideas and making sure people are just making those decisions and figuring it out.

Branislava Lovre: Could you share with us some of the most interesting feedback from users?

Ryan Restivo: Absolutely, there are so many fascinating stories about YESEO. One that really stands out to me happened after I spoke at an event for the Illinois News Broadcasters Association in spring 2023. Post-presentation, a person named Jenna from the audience shared that they used YESEO for a story which turned out to be one of their highest engaged pieces in over a year. It was a moment of genuine surprise and excitement for me. I don’t always get direct feedback from users, so hearing such impactful stories firsthand is incredibly rewarding. It’s affirming to know that something I’ve built is making a real difference in people’s work, even if I don’t always hear about it. Jenna’s story, for instance, was documented as a case study on the YESEO app’s website, providing a deeper insight into how they’ve leveraged the tool effectively.

Branislava Lovre: What can we expect in the future when we talk about YESEO?

Ryan Restivo: I’m really optimistic about the future of YESEO. It’s been installed in 300 workspaces, with almost 10,000 stories analyzed in just over nine months, which is astonishing to me. On January 31st, I’m hosting a free webinar through RJI to teach people about YESEO. The past months have been about introducing YESEO to the world, and now I’m shifting towards education. The webinar will be an interactive session where participants can learn, use YESEO, and ask questions in real-time. It’s all about empowering users to bring back valuable insights to their newsrooms, fostering a community where users support and educate each other on best practices with YESEO.

Branislava Lovre:: In 2023, AI and its ethical use were discussed more than ever. What can we expect in 2024 regarding AI and journalism?

Ryan Restivo: AI has become a buzzword, especially with the rise of GPT, but the foundation of AI in journalism, like machine learning and natural language processing, has been around for a while. Moving forward, newsrooms need to embrace technology as a tool to enhance their work rather than viewing it as a threat. The challenge is to bring everyone along in understanding and utilizing these tools effectively. It’s crucial that we keep humans in the decision-making process, ensuring that technology aids but does not replace the human element in journalism. As we continue to integrate AI and other technologies, the focus should be on using these as tools for improvement, with people remaining at the heart of all decisions.

Branislava Lovre:: Thank you Ryan, for joining us and sharing your insights.

Ryan Restivo: Thank you for having me