A few days back, before I left for China and before the holiday season descended upon us, we tackled a key question: "What's the Biggest Mistake Media Companies Make Online?"
I received several solid answers from followers of this blog, including Frymaster who immediately took sides in the ongoing war between Traditional Media and Google. Wrote Frymaster: "I reject out-of-hand the assertion that Google is profiting from others' content. Rather, I say that Google profits from connecting users to content. It is a service that most web publishers appreciate greatly. Google, unlike any other search engine ever, goes to great pains to deliver the least-skewed results possible. Google is constantly on the hunt for people who game their system. That's why they succeed. There is a direct connection between Google's user-centric, community-oriented approach and their financial success."
Rupert Murdoch's protestations aside, there is no doubt that Google is driving vast amounts of traffic to websites run by traditional media companies. In recent years, most of BusinessWeek.com's growth came from search optimization and direct traffic. Up until only three years ago, the number one referring domain at BusinessWeek was always a portal until Google's popularity replaced Yahoo Finance and MSN Money as the top referrer. Search--largely Google--now accounts for some 45% of the traffic at BW.com, up from less than 20% in 2006. That simple little box is driving vast amounts of advertising inventory (and therefore revenue) to the site and it's no coincidence. In common with every other media brand, we did lots of things to make our site search friendly. We rewrote headlines, simplified URLs, hired an on-staff SEO expert to lead seminars in search optimization. In other words, we courted Google and the search traffic we achieved. It's a similar story everywhere else.
In the war between the traditional media brands and Google, the old cliche about biting the hand that feeds you is certainly in play. Some of the complaints from media can be attributed to sour grapes. Many incumbents resent that most efforts to find information on the Web no longer starts with a brand. It starts with Google which is largely brand agnostic. So, in effect, Google has become this massive transaction machine, and as everyone knows, transactions are the antithesis of relationships. If a brand wants a relationship with its audience, Google is getting in the way. It's how Google was able to siphon nearly $22 billion last year in advertising from traditional media. And it's the most obvious proof that media brands have diminished in value. People are more routinely turning to Google to get information, rather than a brand known for its expertise in a given area. They'll google (yes, I'm using Google as a verb) leadership before going to The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, or Harvard Business Review. They'll google President Clinton before going to The New York Times, Time, or Newsweek. Why? Because they trust Google to serve up unbiased results; because they want to see what is generally available out there and not tied to a brand, and because most brands no longer wield the power and influence they did years ago.
Instead of complaining about this and threatening to block Google from crawling a site, media companies would do well to step back and more fully understand what they really need to do: rebuild the relationships they have with their readers, viewers, users. To offset the massive transaction machine that Google is, media brands need to focus on restoring relationships with users. That's why "user engagement" is not an idle phrase to throw around but is essential to making a brand successful online. Original content isn't enough. Gee-whiz tech tricks aren't enough. Neither is a fancy design or a search trap gimmick. You need an audience that is deeply and meaningfully engaged in the content of a site, so engaged in fact that many of those users become collaborators, and that requires tremendous amounts of work and editorial involvement with the audience.
So when you hear yet another media mogul complain about Google, understand that the value of that mogul's brand already has been greatly diminished by transactions. And that's because the brand has done little to maintain and rebuild its relationships with its customers. This is where Frymaster hits the nail on the head: "There is a direct connection between Google's user-centric, community-oriented approach and their financial success." Media incumbents have to learn that a user-centric, community-oriented approach is crucial to their survival and their ultimate success online.
John A. Byrne is the chairman and CEO of C-Change Media Inc. Until recently, Byrne was editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com and executive editor of BusinessWeek. He holds the distinction of authoring a record 58 cover stories in BusinessWeek magazine and is also the author or co-author of eight business books, including two New York Times' bestsellers. Byrne had also been editor-in-chief of Fast Company magazine. He founded C-Change Media, a digital media company, to take advantage of the sea change that is roiling the traditional media business. C stands for content, curation and community, the three common attributes of each C-Change web venture.