May 21st, 2007
What do offline media journalists have in common with Made For AdSense publishers, i.e. online publishers who create sites with junk content for the sole purpose of making money off of Google’s pay-per-click ads? Quite a lot it seems — Google is destroying their business models from either end of the content quality spectrum. Compare the following:
What I think is occurring is that we news types are mourning our lost autonomy and power. We’re angry that, like everyone else, we’re subject to business and financial pressures. Editorial independence has subtly eroded. Decisions about what topics to cover (health, technology) are increasingly tailored to appeal to advertisers. Splintering media markets have weakened the economic base for newsgathering. In 2005 and 2006, Time magazine cut its news staff by 14 percent, says the Project for Excellence in Journalism; it reckons that NEWSWEEK’s staff is half its 1983 level (though Web hiring has offset some losses). Even if the Journal rebuffs Murdoch, it cannot escape these pressures. It has already put ads on section fronts.
The changes involve more than economics. When I started, print journalism required two basic skills: reporting and writing. Now, journalists are expected to be multimedia utility players, feeding Web sites, posting videos and doing TV. Up to a point, this is valuable: finding new ways to engage and inform. But it’s also time-consuming and detracts from reporting. Just what constitutes journalism is less clear. Hitwise, a survey firm, counts 8,001 news and media Web sites. The largest (Yahoo! News) has only 7 percent of the traffic. The skills that are rewarded are shifting from diligent, curious and clear, to tech-savvy, quick and edgy.
I think the big long-term distinction between what Google considers low quality and of quality is going to be brand equity. Do people visit your site from channels other than Google? Large brands get more return out of buzz marketing, while smaller businesses lean hard on search. inbound made a great post in that WMW thread about the arbitrage and MFA changes, which notes that Google is getting better at coming up with proxies for visitor value.
Based on Google’s authority-centric relevancy algorithms and this move it is clear that Google wants to trust the larger businesses so they have less work to do policing the web. The way around getting forked by Google is to create something that does not need Google to exist. Create the type of site that people would link at if Google did not exist, and the type of site that they would want to advertise on directly. I have a large AdSense site that needs a re-brand and some serious work on content quality if it is going to stay viable in years to come.
Can you identify the source of BOTH of these quotes? I’m guessing most people can’t — in fact, I might lay claim to being the only person on the web who reads both Aaron Wall’s SEO Book (second quote), a blog about search engine optimization, but also, more deeply, about the fundamental dynamics of the web, and Romenesko, a Poynter Institute blog that covers the news businesses with an emphasis on the newspaper industry, which is where I found the first quote from a Newsweek column by veteran journalist Robert Samuelson. (It’s a shame if I am in fact the only crossover reader because Romenesko readers could learn a lot from Aaron about how the web really works.)
What linked these two articles in my mind is that they are both lamenting the loss of content business models, but at opposite ends of the content quality spectrum.
On the one hand, Google (as emblematic of the web’s content economy) punishes publishers that spend too much money creating content that can’t survive in the web’s brutally efficient disaggregated content market, e.g. investigative journalism. On the other hand, Google is now also punishing publishers in its AdSense network who spend almost nothing on content, just enough to hold the ads together.
The grand irony here is that Aaron is advising new media Made For AdSense publishers to be more like old media, i.e. develop a brand that people would seek out even if Google didn’t exist, and Robert Samuelson is advising old media journalists to relax and embrace new media. Compare:
The real news about the news business is that it isn’t collapsing. It’s merely changing.
From a risk management perspective, I think every web publisher should own at least one real branded site, even if it offers low returns for the amount of work required to maintain it.
Even more interesting is the net effect on content — a regression to the mean of content quality. Neither hacked together crappy content, on the one extreme, nor Pulitzer Prize journalism, on the other, can any longer thrive in a Google-driven content ecosystem.
Why? Because most people don’t find either to be sufficiently valuable. Not valuing Made For AdSense content isn’t difficult to fathom. As for investigative journalism, etc., it’s not that people didn’t value it when it came packaged with the newspaper. It’s just that most people don’t search for it (and search drives the web), and there isn’t a market for running ads next to it.
This doesn’t mean that investigative journalism will cease to exist or that clever online publishers won’t find ways to make money from online advertising without investing in content. It’s just that the economics of both have shifted to the middle — at least for now.