The junkies are rebelling against their dealer. The dope is the traffic, and the dealer is Google. For years, the search giant flooded the market with an ideology built on the early 2000's, ill-fated, get all eyeballs you can, the rest (i.e. monetization) will take care of itself.
Publishers have invested tons of money, energy and brainpower in order to follow The Google Way: designing sites, structures, pages, even setting editorial rules to gain audience. Any kind of audience, by any means necessary. Legions of Search Engines Optimization (SEO) consultants were enrolled to help implementing the new click-to-Grail. At the same time, the so-called Search Engine Marketing (SEM) made a lot of expensive noise as media organizations were buying keywords to improve their ranking in search results, some of them spending as much as €100,000 a month in this digital heroin. At some point, for many sites, clicks coming from Google thanks to SEO compliance and aggressive SEM were contributing to 40% or 60% of their entire traffic.
Then, the tide reversed.
Publishers soon realized the Google windfall was not as high as expected. As the search giant kept thriving, their own revenue plummeted. Over the last 12 months, newspapers print and digital advertising revenues have melted: -16% in Western Europe, -19% in Central/ Eastern Europe and -21% in North America. At the same time, Google is still cruising at a 35% operating margin altitude. The economic crisis and the structural problem of web sites (endless inventories inducing low prices) caused CPM (revenue of an ad per thousand viewers) to drop. This convinced publishers the advertising-based free model wasn’t going to fly. They told themselves that sometime, somehow, readers will have to pay, and that Google, with its all-you-can-eat, free-for-all system, was in fact "doing evil" to they dying business.
That was the backdrop for last week's 62nd Conference of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) Congress and for the 16th World Editors Forum (WEF) I attended and spoke at, in Hyderabad, India.
As expected, this 2009 edition of the WAN/WEF was open season against Google. There, Dow Jones’ CEO Les Hinton went after "the false Gospel of the web" and urged the audience: "beware of geeks bearing gifts". "It is true that Google is at the heart of the crisis confronting journalism today", he said, although he acknowledged "that the industry is the principal architect of its greatest difficulty today".
The conference ended with a debate, "What to do about Google?", the title which, after all, honestly sums up the industry’s embarrassment. Gavin O'Reilly, the elected WAN's president, delivered a passionate but unconvincing speech. A few years ago, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Mr. O'Reilly had called Google "kleptomaniacs". This time, he chose to turn the heat on the copyright issue, denouncing "the countless thousands of bots and spiders that trawl through cyberspace should not presume that “our content is simply their content".
In doing so, Mr. O'Reilly displayed a great deal of bad faith. He deliberately avoided the publisher's addiction-to-traffic contradiction that actually is at he heart of the question. For most part, publishers have actually chosen to handle Google as much content as they can. They even paid to do it.
And they had the choice not to. (In the next issue of the Monday Note we'll explain the ways and means to shield contents form indexing robots)
At the Hyderabad conference, a British media executive delivered the most damaging blow at the Google-guilty-of-everything theory. Matt Kelly, the associate editor in charge the internet operations of the Daily Mirror, has a lot to say about handling the Google dope. Mr. Kelly's Hyderabad keynote speech is an absolute must-read for those who want to deal with the Google issue in the best possible way. His take:
- "In our great frantic headlong rush to accumulate users at any cost, many of us were all too quick to sacrifice anything that stood in the way of search engine optimization."
- …"Content wasn't king. Traffic was."
- …" The very CPM model we'd prostituted our brands for online, began to punish us".
- About the word "users" employed to describe the online audience: "...Online, "users" is about right. They find our content in a search engine, they devour it, then they move back to Google, or wherever, and go looking for more. Often, they have no idea which website it was they found the content on. This was the audience we've been chasing all that time. A swarm of locusts".
Unlike Gavin O'Reilly who seeks refuge in legal quibbles about copyright, Matt Kelly and his Mirror crew decided the audience degradation process could actually be reversed. First of all, 18 months ago, they relaunched the Mirror.co.uk site focusing on the key attributes they considered crucial to the Mirror's brand. It turned out to be a great success: their mostly UK-based audience grew 100% year-to-year.
Secondly, they spun-off two properties, Mirror Football and 3am, a showbiz gossip website, both designed without regard for Search Engine Optimization considerations. “And the hell with SEO”, says Matt Kelly. “We're chasing passion, here, not page impressions”. And here is the interesting thing: after just 3 months of operations, Mirror Football enjoys a nice 2m UV/month and 3am about 800,000 UV/mo. Even more interesting: only 15% of the football site’s traffic comes for search engines; for the gossip site, the ratio is below 10%. (For such sites, figures for search dependency would usually hover around 40% to 50%).
To sum up, what Matt Kelly and his crew did is "putting SEO in its rightful place as a tool to be used when appropriate, [and] focusing our main attention on what is unique and brilliant about what each of these properties represents".
Don't get me wrong here. I'm not an anti-Google zealot. I actually believe the search engine has, by far, brought more good than bad to the internet in general, and to the news-related contents carried by the worldwide web. Having said that, I also believe Google is a cold-blooded, engineering-driven company. Nothing personal, we’re just doing algorithm optimization, here. Problem is, Google is built on a market-share capture model that turned out to be inherently deflationary.
What I don't like is the duplicity shown by legions of publishers: pouring huge sums in SEO/SEM to develop questionable audiences, on one hand, and, at the same time, whining about copyright violation and fair use abuses simply because this styrofoam audience is not monetized enough.
"What to do about Google", demagogically asked WAN's chief Gavin O'Reilly? With all due respect, Gavin, do what the Mirror.co.uk did: work on what your constituents' publications can do best in terms of contents, uniqueness, relevance, competence and passion. And stop whining. It's beside the point and, in the end, embarrassing.
I'm not through with this. Next week, I'll come back to the subject, parse Google’s pathetic defense and analyze the complicated technical issues surrounding flexible copyright.