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Read All About It: Online News Has No Clue About Optimization


I’ve been reluctant to write more about publishers issues with monetization having recently written pieces here, here, here and here but the recent spotlight cast by Rupurt Murdoch on Google’s traffic and sympathetic follow up pieces by respected writers like Tom Foremski and Michael Arrington have now boiled me over.

Having spent the better part of a decade optimizing and monetizing both natural and paid search traffic on a daily basis I want to directly address the two memes now gaining velocity. One is that search traffic is “low quality.”  The other is that publishers should leave Google and form a Bing “collective.” Both concepts are ludicrous.

The Quality of Search Traffic:

Search traffic is inarguably the best traffic that exists on the web for monetization because of the recovery or discovery goals that are expressed in the query. The referring URL passes along rich data sets with it that can be further parsed for optimization. Search traffic also trends in remarkably predictable temporal patterns as do the event driven behaviors associated with it.

So the issue is not that the traffic quality is low but that sites like the Wall Street Journal and many others do little or no site side optimization for it. The referrer data is robust enough for the WSJ to deliver an amazingly relevant, compelling and dynamic experience. The technology is there to do a myriad of things with this search traffic especially reducing bounce rates, increase subscriptions, collecting leads and funneling visitors into higher value areas of the content. If publishers treated every page like a landing page and thought of themselves as much marketers as publishers they would be generating much more revenue. After all, user intent is generated on the publishers domain. It only gets fulfilled on Google.

How inept are newspapers? Let’s take the data that they themselves provided in the recent American Press Institute Revenue Initiative Report (09/14/09).

  • Net monthly visitor rates have not increased since 2003
  • Percentage of 2009 total online revenue from SEO (large sites like WSJ): 0%
  • Percentage of 2009 total online revenue from SEM (large sites like WSJ): 1%
  • Only 23% of publishers are monetizing registration
  • Only 11% of unique visitors are registered
  • Only 25% use registration data for ad targeting
Publishers should be disgusted with these efforts and should take a long look in the mirror before they start blaming others for their demise.

Publishers Leaving Google:

Let’s get one thing straight. Google is the number one brand in the world and a more trusted and valued brand to the general public than your newspaper. Google has been getting better and better helping people for a long time now and keeps extending its useful reach. At the same time news has become more and more commoditized and less and less trusted. The Google habit is real. People are not going to stop using Google because your content is not included in their index. It is this exact arrogance about content that has lead to the demise of traditional media – at first devaluing the web as a medium, then devaluing search and now devaluing the users of the medium (see above).

One more data point from the API revenue report that is relevant here:

  • Preserving print revenue is a primary driver to paid online access models [71%]
Search fractures the content hierarchies and information architectures publishers created to assist them in deriving revenue from their media. As someone that has worked with a number of the most well know publishers I sympathize with their being held accountable to many old media bosses and their legacy goals. There are a number of really smart people in this space especially at places like CNET and WPNI. Still, I cry no tears for their demise. Digital bits move at the speed of light. Digital strategy and execution must move along side it.


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Excellent Post, Jonathan. I really wonder if/when Online Newspapers like the WSJ will accept the fact that Google is, in fact, the largest brand in the world and they need to embrace SEO. If these Online Newspapers were smart, they would hire an SEO vetran like you and at least listen to your recommendations for optimization.

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