June 19, 2015 Last Updated 11:20 am

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.

FT-paywallWhile 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:

What if Google provided a persistent tag to be associated with any article originating with one of those 60,000 publishers? Those include thousands of legacy newspaper and magazine brands, but also the digital news startups that emphasize original content creation as well. As programmatic trading systems matched targetable content with advertisers, that apparatus could differentiate “premium” from “non-premium” audiences. Further, such premium content could still be found by category, like tech, sports, or health, increasing its value. Importantly, such tags wouldn’t only accompany articles in Google News itself, but on all news found throughout Google, including web search.

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.

  • Nate 3 years ago

    I think Google should downrank paywalled content, or at least mark it as such. That way I know that I’m not going to find the answers I’m looking for.

    And as for the question about what Google can do for news sites, it’s based on the flawed assumption that news sites are worth more to advertisers or readers than general interest sites. They’re not, really.

    A lot of the best editorial content can be found on personal blogs, and the same goes for news coverage. For example, one of the best sites for ebook news (my blog) is not found in Google News. What’s more, there are a bunchaton of niche informational sites which are immensely valuable to readers but are excluded from Google News.

  • Jeremy 3 years ago

    Not sure I understand why you disagree with Doctor that “paywalls have worked.” Have you posted any analysis that substantiates your belief that “they have only proven themselves at financial newspapers”?

    • D.B. Hebbard 3 years ago

      I know of no newspaper company that is today in significantly better financial shape due to paywalls. TNM has for the past five years tracked the financial performance of publicly traded newspaper companies and has seen only that paid digital circulation has, at best, compensated somewhat for losses in paid print circulation, and overall losses in advertising.

      Meanwhile, the reports from the financial newspapers seem to indicate that they are consistently finding readers willing to pay for access to their online content.

      From the reader’s perspective, the reason why paywalls work at financial newspapers is obvious: the news and information provided by these papers is financial rewarding for the reader (and in many cases the cost of the digital subscription can be written off as a cost of doing business). With a consumer news outlet, the news and information has to be considered so worthwhile as to justify the cost. Few papers are finding that they can meet that criteria.

      Are there papers that believe they are having success with their paywalls? Undoubtedly. But they are rare, and few are enjoying record levels of total revenue. Instead, they are, as I said above, simply mitigating their revenue losses.

      I remain largely neutral to paywalls, though inclined to believe that to succeed in any medium you must understand that medium. If newspapers understand something about succeeding online that the major digital pure plays do not, they are doing a good job of keeping it a secret.