Fast Times on a Sinking Ship: Publishers and Search Engines

Rupert Murdoch has again put himself and News Corp. in the centre of a debate which is gaining considerable steam:

Have newspapers and large publishers found a viable strategy to stave off extinction, by de-indexing their content from search engines?

After much discussion of subscription based models which would shift the commercial focus away from ad revenue, Murdoch made headlines recently with talk of an exclusive deal with Microsoft to provide Bing users with access to News Corp. content (which includes some heavyweights like The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post).  That’s right, Google (and its 65% share of search activity) would not be invited to that party.  Bing’s 10% share does not exactly represent a swing for the fences… and according to a recent New York Times article, Google estimates it provides news organizations with 100,000 clicks every minute (“Google and News Corp. Do Need Each Other“).  That’s 144 million every day.

Brushing aside raw click volumes, let’s look at the quality of this traffic.  There are a variety of proprietary data sources which would help us valuate these audiences with some accuracy, but Google Insights is free to the public and, not surprisingly, very insightful.  Here we use the Wall Street Journal as an example:

In aggregate, we see the overall quantity of search queries including the phrase “wall street journal” at its highest in 2004, sliding in 2005 and flattening for a long stretch leading up to the Fall 2008 financial crisis.  At that time there was a major spike, with far higher query volumes than observed in 2004, but this quickly tapered off.  The trend then resumed its downward slide in the second half of 2009.  At the time of this writing, we’re at an all time low.

What does all this mean?

This downward trend doesn’t necessarily mean that online readership of the Wall Street Journal is declining.  All we’re seeing is a decline in the use of this brand name in search queries.  Even casual readers of the Wall Street Journal know that it can be accessed at WSJ.com, which bypasses the need for a search engine.  Another share of these readers may not remember the domain name, but likely have it saved in their browsers’ history.  This leaves branded search activity focused largely on these kinds of queries:

• AIG chairman quoted in wall street journal
• wall street journal article about lehman bros
• geithner on wall street journal front page

This type of search activity is fading for a variety of reasons.  One perhaps overlooked explanation is that newspapers’ brands simply don’t have the same appeal as they did in the past.  If a user wants to know what exactly was said about Lehman Bros. in that article, how important is it, really, that it came from the Wall Street Journal?  Certainly we cannot assume that 100% of the purveyors of news in the marketplace will deliver that quote in the proper context, but ranking algorithms in search engines like Google make sure that the authority of news organizations like The Wall Street Journal bouys those pages in the search results, ahead of fly-by-night bloggers and other armchair journalists.

Over time, this algorithm has only gotten better.  But the search query volumes continue to decline.  It’s looking more and more like a brand issue.  If Murdoch is serious about turning his back on two-thirds of the search audience, he better have a plan for how to replace them. And if it’s merely a negotiating tactic, as the above New York Times article suggests, where on Earth does this swagger come from?

About Paul Burani

Paul Burani - Partner, Web Liquid Group. Connect with me on Google+

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