Ego Check: Topher Kohan, SEO of CNN.com and Writer for CNN Geek Out!

It has been great to see “geek culture” featured more prominently in popular media over the years in a non-condescending manner. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King swept the Oscars close to ten years ago. Now, superheroes dominant movie theater box offices while zombies are featured in a popular television series and video games have become a multi-billion dollar industry. It was unheard of many years ago for a mainstream news outlet to feature a section on “geek news,” but CNN now does just that through their Geek Out! blog.

Topher Kohan, SEO of CNN.com

Recently, I was able to interview one of the writers for Geek Out!, Tophan Kohan. Topher functions primarily as the SEO of CNN.com; he was very kind to communicate back-and-forth during his quite busy schedule. He talks about balancing his roles with CNN while finding time to play games, including his dedication to his friendly local gaming store’s 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Encounters campaign. He describes how other writers can boost the findability of their website with a variety of SEO tools. We discuss the relative lack of mainstream acceptance of roleplaying games in popular culture and how that might be remedied. Enjoy the interview with Topher Kohan and follow him on Twitter @Topheratl.

Thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. You are the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Coordinator for CNN.com in addition to a writer for CNN’s Geek Out! blog. What is a typical day like for you in those roles and how do they intersect?

So a typical day for me is a lot of writing, reading and meetings. I spend a lot of time looking around and meeting about what is the next thing we are doing on CNN to make sure I know the scope and understand what SEO needs will be on the product. I support CNN.com, CNN International HLNtv.com and a few more international sites. I also read a lot of content to keep up on the latest SEO news and Geek news.

In addition, I written a weekly column for Geek Out that is a list of the new comics coming out this week and a review with thoughts on one of them. I pitch four to five stories each week, not to run every week but I pitch a lot! Of those, perhaps one or two will get the green light and I then work out a schedule to do research and interviews and write it. My main job is being the SEO for CNN so that takes priority over other things. The rest I do on my breaks and at home.

I should say that the things I pitch and cover for Geek Out are mostly comics and tabletop gaming. I love that I have a chance to talk about two things I love in geekdom!

It seems that you have a great deal of responsibility at CNN, but are allowed some time to explore your geek-related interests. I certainly want to discuss the Geek Out! blog in more detail, but I’m quite curious about your role as SEO. First of all, could you explain what your functions include as a SEO? My understanding is that it’s your job to ensure that content appearing on CNN.com is easily found through search engines such as Google or Yahoo. Since CNN is such a strong brand name in news, I always assumed that “just happened.” But now I’m guessing there is much more to the process.

There is a level of “it just happens” but the same could be said for the other big news sites out there so that is where I come into play. I work with the editorial team and let them know what Google is looking for and what folks are searching for. Not that I say, “Hey, folks are searching for purple hair so we should have something about purple hair.” But if we have content then I ensure Google can find it and that they know what it is about and it comes up for the right searches and shows up high. I do the same thing with our designers and developers to make sure the site is set up and coded in a way that search bots can easily read.

I do this on a day-to-day basis and look for trends and changes that are happening and what we should do about them. I am also involved with breaking news events by talking with the writers and editors to help them know what keywords folks are searching for at that moment.

On that note, I imagine many individuals are searching for a way to bring more eyes to their product – such as a game or blog. What suggestions do you have for people who are trying to “get noticed” and extend the reach of their product? What are some of the best (and worst) ways to ensure a product is not drowned in the never-ending flood of online content? 

I love talking about SEO and I really love helping folks that are running blogs / sites out of the love of the subject they cover. My top five things that every blog can do to help them get found in Google are:

1) Write good content that (in the first 250 words or so) talks about what the post is about. If you are writing a post about D&D Next then don’t wait till the fourth paragraph to say D&D Next. This may sound simple, but you would be surprised on how many folks don’t follow this advice.

2) Write a headline that tells me what the post is about. Don’t get all cute with the headline that will not let your readers or the search engines know what it is about.

3) Sign up for Google Webmaster Tools (GWMT) and get your site verified. It is easy to do and it will give you a lot of good information on what Google sees on your site and if there are any problems.

4) Create a XML sitemap of your site and submit to Google through GWMT. It is the beast way to let Google know where your content is found. Once again, it is easy to do, and there a many free tools on the web to help you do it. And GWMT provides instructions regarding exactly how to submit it.

5) Set up Google Analytics on your site. Again it is easy to do and it will give you a lot of great information about your traffic and users that will help you make your site better in the long run.

There are a lot of good SEO blogs out there and a lot of really bad ones too so be careful! If what someone is saying to do seems to be like you are cheating the system, then it probably is!

I should do a SEO 101 for the RPG blogging community at Gen Con or someplace like that!

I would certainly attend your session at Gen Con as I have not completed most of your suggestions for my blog. Good content? I hope! But cute titles? Guilty! I have not signed up for GWMT or Google Analytics, but that is certainly on my To-Do List now. Thank you for the information!

Speaking of blogs, could you discuss how you first became involved in CNN’s Geek Out! and how you have built up the Geek Out! brand through SEO and other means?

I can’t remember if I got started writing for Geek Out with a review of Avatar or if I did something for them before that. I do know the first big thing I pitched was a story I co-wrote about D&D Encounters. I talked about how part of Wizards of the Coast’s hopes for the event was to bring older players like me back into the fold. It was a good story and was the first time I got to interview folks at WotC.

Visit CNN’s Geek Out! blog for up-to-the-minute news on all things geek.

The real upside of that story was that it got me back into D&D and table top gaming in general. I went to play a session or two of Encounters to get the feel of the event and 4th Edition. I had stopped playing very early in the beginning of 2nd edition, so it had been a while since I was at the table. I liked it and wanted to finish the season out and have played every season after that to the point that I now help run the Encounters program at my Local Friendly Gaming Store!

That was also a kick-off for me felling better about pitching stories and such, like the two open letters I have written to George Lucas begging him to stop messing with the Star Wars films. September, 1 2011 we got a blog of our own and I slid right in to cover comics and table top gaming.

I also got back into D&D after a break of more than 15 years. I’ve enjoyed 4th Edition, and look forward to whatever D&D Next has in store. I recall the announcement of D&D Next back in January in many mainstream media outlets like The New York Times. It was remarkable because D&D typically only appears in mainstream media to highlight or emphasis how the hobby is “crazy” or “dorky.” And several of the columns on D&D Next in mainstream media featured some groan-worthly commentary regarding the hobby and players.

As a member of the mainstream media, why do you think D&D and other tabletop RPGs have never broken through these stereotypes?

Even on a “Geek culture” blog it is still difficult at times to sell roleplaying games stories outside of “Crazy as it might sound people still play that D&D” kind of stuff.

I have to remind myself that tabletop RPGs is such a niche in the big picture of the general population. I can really get mad when folks look at me funny when I say I want to write about the news of tabletop gaming. Sometimes I’m not taken seriously! I have seen a rise in folks talking about tabletop gaming in the media, and I think this is due to the fact that the generation working are now were at the right age to have played or been exposed to D&D from its start.

I always find it funny that news sites have no issue talking about or reporting on video games, but find the idea of using pencil and paper to play your games to be “to nerdy.”  Yes, I know that the video gaming industry is bigger money then the movie industry, but still!

I have tried in my little way to find ways to write about RPG’s and tabletop games and show the creativity and the upside of using your imagination. I think as long as this hobby we both love has a relatively small user base of fans (compared to the likes of Golf or other endeavors) it will always be a fringe activity and easy to talk about the fans as “outsiders.”

Hide your sons and daughters!

Video games are certainly more mainstream than tabletop games, although a good portion of the media coverage is still focused on whether or not video games are too violent. The same concerns were voiced about Dungeons & Dragons back in the 1980′s when people were also scared that Mötley Crüe and Ozzy Osbourne would turn the next generation into devil-worshipping freaks.

But video games moved beyond simply being a fringe hobby enjoyed by “nerdy” people. They became big business and now games are promoted and released in the same way as a summer-movie blockbuster. How did that happen? And what can tabletop companies learn from that evolution to increase market share and mainstream acceptance?

I think the change came when the generation who grew up playing video games became the ones who get the say on what is and is not cool. Video games are also more accessible than tabletop RPGs because you can play a video game by yourself. And it is not like most geeks are good at meeting new folks to play games. In my mind, video games can be a gateway to “geek world” but can also be so far from “geek” that it is not funny. I think it is fair to say that all video games have a level of geek to them but not all folks who play video games are geeks.

It seems companies like WotC and Pazio should find ways to make their intellectual properties more mainstream like Blizzard and EA have accomplished. I understand that Madden is not the same as D&D Online, but they need to do something. The novels where an attempt but that seem to have died out and the D&D movies were a complete disaster!

So, as a player and an expert in the field of search engine optimization, what has been your experience of current roleplaying games in terms of how easy it is to find the information you seek?

I have had rather good luck finding the information I look for but I think part of that is because I know how to search for things in a way that the average Google user does not. For example, I like limiting my searches for things that are PDFs or only things from a certain date range.

Even with that knowledge, I am very disappointed with results from WotC when I search for information. When I returned to D&D and wanted to run some games, I wanted to use an established world to run them in. This was mostly so I could ease my way back into being a DM. I went looking on WotC’s site for a place to find out all the information I wanted on Forgotten Realms and was surprised at what I found. The information was really lacking. I had to go to other folks blogs to find most of the information I wanted. I also had a lot of luck searching other sites like Obsidian Portal. Folks add a lot of information into their sites there and I have used it for research very often.

In general, most RPG blogs can do a better job in SEO (but so can most sites on the web) but all in all I can usually find what I am looking for or at least information on what where to go next to find it. Every now and then, I go searching for that one thing and just find nothing out there, which I do not think is a SEO problem. I simply think no one has bothered to write it yet!

I find WotC’s site busy and difficult to navigate at times. Taking your example, I went to WotC’s D&D site and searched for “Forgotten Realms” and got the following results. The first link is broken and the second link takes the reader to WotC’s Forgotten Realms page.

The information there is organized into Recent Realms Articles and Product Releases; but it’s not clear how to access other information. How do you find an encyclopedia about Forgotten Realms? When clicking on the More Realms Articles link, the reader is taken to a list of approximately 100 articles on Forgotten Realms. But how does one navigate those articles in the archives? It seems like you have to know where to go in order to find what you need.

How would you do things differently? And not to only focus on negatives, what do you think WotC gets right with their approach?

Follow Topher @Topheratl

I would love for WotC to have a section that is like a Wiki for each of the “official” worlds. The Wiki could tell me about important locations, NPCs, gods and anything else that is vital to a campaign in the world. It would only have the public information there, but another level for DDI subscribers. They could also included links to publications for purchase; in a perfect world those publications would be in a format of my choosing - print or electronic. They have some content like that now and I enjoyed the adventure by level and system PDF they released over the holidays.

I understand they need to make money off the content they produce but if the information about the gods of Neverwinter are in a 3rd Edition book -  and no longer in print - then please put the PDF up in a way I can easily search find. And if they want to sell that information, create a price point that is fair and make money that way.

It must be such a challenge to organize the available content from previous editions, novels, modules and other products and transfer that information to an easily accessible online venue. For example, I cannot imagine the results for “Orcus” if a search combed through everything that has ever concerned Orcus in official products throughout the editions. But if that was possible and the results could be filtered by-product type, edition and so forth, then that would be amazing. It will be interesting to watch how they move forward with PDFs and online distribution.

Speaking of moving forward, what are your thoughts on how the D&D Next playtest is being handled in terms of public relations with fans and media?

I can only imagine setting up and organizing all that information would be huge; they did well to make it a community project. My home group was in the Friends & Family playtest and we enjoyed it. I was disappointed that my group only saw one iteration of the rules. We did not get updated rules after we gave feedback to WotC. I play with a group who loves 4th Edition for lots of reasons so the “changes” in Next where not that big of a hit with them. I think that if we are still in my campaign when Next is released we will stay with 4th Edition.

I think the way they are introducing the new edition is really well done, but the proof will be if they show the community that their feedback was heard and incorporated. How they will do that I have no clue! I think the hotline is great and Mike Mearls being available for so many folks in the community to interview and communicate with goes a long way. The loss of a prominent member of the design team was handled much better by the online D&D community then I thought it would be.

Thank you for your time. It has been great discussing these topics! Any final thoughts on gaming before we conclude?

I am excited for the new edition for no other reason then it looks like we will get new - or I should say, new for most folks - world to play in, which will be fully supported by WotC.

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About The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.
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3 Responses to Ego Check: Topher Kohan, SEO of CNN.com and Writer for CNN Geek Out!

  1. thetypingdice says:

    If WotC had that lore search you hypothesized, with filters for edition/supplement/year, etc… it would make me so happy. I agree their site is disorganized but I just can\’t put my finger on why. I frequent the site often but can\’t help but feel it could be so much better. They also need to suck it up and get with the PDFs. When you buy a book from Paizo, you auto get the PDF to download. That should be an industry standard.

    • The Id DM says:

      Thank you for the response. The site feels “busy” and less than intuitive. I’m not a layout expert but there’s a lot going on with the site. At least the huge pop-up ads seem to have been taken down. I’m sure my blog could be better organized as well, but I don’t have the time and expertise to do it. I’m sure that takes a great deal of time and skill. Given how much players use digital resources, it should really be a priority for the company (in my humble opinion).

  2. Howdy! Do you know if they make any plugins to help with
    SEO? I’m trying to get my blog to rank for some targeted keywords but I’m not seeing very good success.
    If you know of any please share. Appreciate it!

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