Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Google & Media: Biting the Hand that Feeds You

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.


  1. The point about relationships is a good one, particularly as jouranlism is one of the least trusted professions in the UK, right down there with politicians (see http://www.markpack.org.uk/should-journalists-be-learning-from-politicians ).

  2. A major problem is also: a given print ad pays about ten times as much as a given online ad.

    The trouble is, no-one much is buying print ads any more.

    The print ad sales units then blame this on Google, rather than ad market conditions or (never ever) themselves.

  3. If any media company starts to actually do investigative reporting, with bias only towards the truth, maybe they can garner some loyalty. Until then, I'll use google and make my decisions independent of where the info resides. I feel absolutely none towards any of them. For a single example, look how they played cheerleader in the runup to our invasion of Iraq.

  4. The major problem isn't the print ads, it's that no one buys classified ads anymore. They had previously contributed to 40% of revenue on most dailys and have simply vanished.

  5. Newspapers need to stop looking at their sites as "destinations." I rarely have the time to visit a destination. Google certainly isn't a destination. They're (probably) delighted if I leave their site in less than three seconds, because that means they've helped me quickly find what I'm looking for. Newspapers view such a visit as a half-step below theft.

    The web is click, scan, click, scan, click, scan. The joy of the web is that "click" can take you anywhere, and "scan" can last less than the blink of an eye. Once newspapers accept that this is legitimate behavior, then at least a few of them will embrace it, and they'll allow themselves to become essential parts of my daily tour of the web.

    Imagine a news site that always presented a complete article on a single, fast-loading page. At the bottom of the article were three links: the first a highly relevant ad, the second a link to another article of interest on the same site, and the third a link to a competing site's take on the same subject as the original article. This site has set itself up as a three-second visit, and if it's done its job correctly, that will be a profitable visit: the ad is good enough that the user wants to click on it. If the ad isn't good enough, then the second (internal) link still beats the competitor's. And finally, even if the site fails to sell me on the ad or the second article, it's still earned my trust by sending me to a competitor to get good information.

    Now I see the newspaper's interests aligned with the user's interests. I'd trust that site enough to click on its links preferentially in Google News.

  6. And craigslist, I think, is to blame for that one.

  7. John,

    I think your take is spot on, but I'd love to hear your specific ideas on how media companies can "restore relationships" with their users.

    Though I'm biased (as a Googler), I don't believe that Google's to blame for the current frustrating state that newspapers find themselves in. Yet, as a long-time fan of newspapers and journalism itself (and with many journalist friends), I'd love to hear concrete ideas for, well, saving journalism.

    Mike Tsao, I think you've hit upon some neat ideas... simplicity, speed, and respect (for the user and for competitors). I know I'm certainly turned off by the reverse, so that -- for instance -- I consciously avoid those news sites with pop-up ads and articles spread in tiny chunks across 10 pages.

    But while I know what doesn't work, I'd love to hear about or see examples of what does. Building and supporting an online community -- while certainly increasing engagement -- is very resource-intense and thus expensive.

    So what are the answers?

  8. It doesn't help that the search function provided by many media web sites is so dysfunctional. It is usually much quicker and more accurate to use Google, even when searching for content on one particular site.

    Likewise for site navigation. For example, I would love to bookmark the Local News page at my local newspaper's web site, but there is no such thing. The URL changes every day! So I just give up and use Google News.

    If the media want us to be loyal to their brand, they have to create a product that is as easy to use and as useful as Google.

  9. The resistance of media to the transition in their business model is not unusual (even web hosting and developers are suffering from the illness). News and information has become commoditized (see Joseph Pine's TED presentation "What Consumers Want") and there is no going back. In addition, the media has destroyed it's relationship and the trust of its audience through sheer greed. Greed kills and in this instance it has killed consumer trust. When local papers run "articles" in which local businesses paying $300 are "featured" and national media openly slants coverage for ratings, then trust — and brand — is destroyed. Even online media is suffering from this mistake, combined with an increasingly poor user-experience (Pine's again).

    I've canceled my print media and catch my news via news.google.com with no customization beyond a local news section. I can see at a glance a) what's happening, b) at least 4 different takes on what's happeing and c) drill down to the best (note to writers: that opening couple of sentences are increasingly important). I pick up the Seattle paper when I'm heading in for some shopping to a) support the poor guys selling at hte ferry, b) see the sales ads for the day and c) have a portable schedule of available cultural options. I'm hoping the Apple tablet will give me a viable eReader to replace the physical media — and the media will give me something worth paying for.

  10. "It doesn't help that the search function provided by many media web sites is so dysfunctional. It is usually much quicker and more accurate to use Google, even when searching for content on one particular site."

    I've hit this all too often, and it is deadly for a site. If I have to go outside the site to search for content on the site itself, the odds increase dramatically that content returned for another site will catch my eye and lead me away - possibly never to return.

    Then there are those sites with "internal" search so dysfunctional, the first good lead returned goes elsewhere. However, in those cases that might be considered a feature rather than a fail...

  11. And don't forget other site which acts as portals like Twitter.

    Google requeries you to have the key words to search on. Twitter (as a portal) allows you to set up the people and sources who generates the keywords and ideas which may be of interest. After all, relevenence of news and events to a given person are first filtered by intermidenaries like reporters. With the raise of the number of Internet users, a small percent of the "common" people will still outnumbered perfessional reporters.

    For example, I would not be on this site if I don't caught a link via twitter.

  12. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



  13. I can easily see both sides of this issue. Google is great at deep linking into sites. Deep linking works if you want your information to be found within Google. On the other hand, if your company is a newspaper or a magazine in it for the sales and site sponsored ad revenues, deep linking in Google may not be what you want. You may want your users to come directly to your site and search locally. By using Google for searching, users see Google sponsored ads and not New York Times sponsored ads. Those search results preclude the New York Times from deriving revenue from their own ad sponsors when users use Google to search.

    I believe that there is an answer here. Google would need to provide a way to preserve the local ad revenue that is independent of Google and, at the same time, still provide relevant search results from that site. That means that sites like the New York Times need partnerships with Google to drive change in search results that preserve the NYT local ad revenue potential. How exactly to do this is open for discussion. But, that means Google needs to be willing to do this and it also means Google may lose some of their own ad revenue by giving it to a partner site under specific search conditions.

    The Internet was founded on people being friendly neighbors with one another. Unfortunately, that ideal changed in the mid-90s. Now, most commercial ventures (like Google), are friendly only to the point where it doesn't dip into their revenue stream. Once it crosses that threshold, they cease to be friendly neighbors and become aggressive competitors.

    Google needs to consider being less aggressive when it comes to this. Google must also realize that while Google's search results are important, content creation businesses like the New York Times are just as important to keep in business. Google doesn't create content, the NYT does. Content is what users seek. Few people search Google for the sake of the search itself. Most people search Google for content (i.e., articles from the NYT). Keeping high profile content companies in business and happy, keeps Google users coming back to search for content and clicking on ad revenue links. If high profile businesses fold, it directly impacts the relevance of Google's search results.

    After all, while Google crawls to find data to fill their search results, Google didn't create the content to fill the database and cannot claim ownership. The content creator created and owns that data and, thus, should have the rights to specify how those results are presented.

    Thus, there must be a middle ground available that keeps both sides happy and functional.

  14. Good post! Some media brand are trying to restore their brand using social networks, which are starting to rival Google in sending traffic to certain websites. However I think most media heads don't understand the need to build a relationship rather than appearing to be the source of information.

    It will take a generational change in owners and management before old media understand the need to build relationship with it's readers, if they can hold on that long.

  15. Google is by far the most successful yet humble large company I know. Meeting the workers there reminds me so much of what a utopian corporate set up should be: hiring smart people who respect others and want to do the right thing.

    By the way, I just came from BusinessExchange. I admire the risk that BusinessWeek took on BusinessExchange, for being so open to readers, the main reason why I like the magazine so much. Hope Bloomberg doesn't wreck what makes BusinessWeek so appealing and informative.

    Thomas Huynh, founder

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