Half serious question: Should Google be driving traffic smack into paywalls?
Yes, Google probably should, but it illustrates the problem you have when attempting to put a value on news content and the organizations that produce it
The news industry analyst Ken Doctor yesterday posted an article to NiemanLab headlined: Could a small Google tech change mean tens of millions to news publishers?, and if you know Doctor’s work you know it is worth reading.
But the issue involved here, what Google could do to help publishers that are part of its Google News program, is fraught with contradictions. Many publishers have been employing a paid content strategy that has deemphasized advertising, while simultaneously proclaiming that they are becoming digital first and aggressively pursuing digital advertising.
While I disagree with his remark that “paywalls have worked” – I believe they have only proven themselves at financial newspapers – I strongly agree with his conclusion that talks between Google and the Digital News Initiative should center on “how the increasingly digital world can fairly aid those creating original news content.”
Google News, as Doctor points out, is a collection of some 60K websites that provide news and information that complies with Google’s own, rather loose, rules.
“Google News is compiled by a computer algorithm that scans all the sites included in our system,” the company’s technical requirements state. “In order for your content to be included in Google News, the layout and format of your site must be easy for our crawler to read and decipher. Additionally, we have certain restrictions in place to make sure our crawler only includes links to URLs that are actually news articles.”
A publisher must apply to Google to be included in Google News. One of the requirements is that a website must have permanent news sections. That eliminates blogs, for the most part, as they usually don’t have sections, but instead long content holes. Talking New Media became a recognized Google News site when it relaunched into a new self-hosted website in the summer of 2013. The advantages became immediately apparently with weeks of Google crawling the site.
The biggest problem with Google News, from a reader’s perspective, is the fact that many news outlets that have taken advantage of Google News were really aggregators. Google appears to want to limit this, but it is hard for any search engine to put a value on news, it is a judgement call.
Doctor suggests tagging news in such a way that it can be classified as premium or non-premium:
The goal here is raise the value of the advertising on those sites, labeling them premium. But while getting the Google seal of approval might be nice, that is no guarantee advertisers would go along. After all, in th world of advertising, the value of the content generally takes a back seat to the value the advertiser places on the audience being reached. A mobile ad on Pandora might not reach a news reader, but… you get the idea.
Putting values on news sites is a difficult thing to propose, though I believe Doctor is honestly searching for a good answer.
Some reader might have other criteria they would like to see implemented. For instance, how many readers enjoy being linked from Google News smack into a paywall? In many case it doesn’t actually happen as sites pull down their paywalls for readers linking from Google News – but where the paywall is metered, it often does. Readers hate this, especially those damn pop-ups. Should Google discriminate against news sites that are not open? (I know some media outlets would love this.)
News organizations are finding themselves more and more having to deal with third party tech companies that control access to their audience. Facebook, Apple and others have garnered huge audiences that media companies want access to in order to drive new readership. Because of this, news organizations have begun conversations (some would label them negotiations) with these companies over features and requirements. The opposite approach, sitting on the sidelines, obviously does not work. Witness the disaster of the Apple Newsstand: I discussed this issue with the major magazine trade associations years ago and got nothing but shrugs, they said they hadn’t spoken to Apple and had no plans to try and do so.
So, the efforts of media companies like those involved in Google’s Digital News Initiative with European publishers is very much to be applauded (even if some might not like the idea of cooperating with Google). TNM has always advocated a better dialogue between the major platforms and the publishing world and it is a good sign that it is finally happening more frequently.
I hope Doctor’s piece motivates media professionals to begin thinking seriously about what the major tech companies might be able to do to help sustain quality journalism. It’s up to us to find answers, and having partners to work with us has to be a good thing.