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The Anti-Google Backlash

The junkies are rebelling against their dealer; the dope is Web traffic, and the dealer is Google.

For years, the search giant flooded the market with an ideology built on the early 2000s ill-fated philosophy of “get all the eyeballs you can and 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-engine optimization consultants were enrolled to help implement the new click-to Grail. At the same time, so-called search-engine marketing (SEM) made a lot of expensive noise as media organizations bought keywords to improve their ranking in search results, some of them spending as much as $100,000 a month on this digital heroin. At some point, for many sites, clicks coming from Google—thanks to SEO compliance and aggressive SEM—were contributing to 40 percent or 60 percent of their entire traffic.

A sign is displayed outside of the Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.
Getty Images
A sign is displayed outside of the Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.

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 across the globe have melted: minus 16 percent in Western Europe, minus 19 percent in Central/ Eastern Europe, and minus 21 percent in North America. At the same time, Google is still cruising at a 35 percent 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 their 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 of which honestly sums up the industry’s embarrassment. Gavin O’Reilly, the elected WAN president, delivered a passionate but unconvincing speech. A few years ago, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Mr. O’Reilly called Google “kleptomaniacs.” This time, he chose to turn up the heat on the copyright issue, denouncing “the countless thousands of bots and spiders that trawl through cyberspace [who] should not presume that ‘our content is simply their content.’ ”

In doing so, O’Reilly displayed a great deal of bad faith.He deliberately avoided the publishers’ addiction-to-traffic contradiction that actually is at the heart of the question. For most part, publishers have actuallychosen to hand Google as much content as they can. They even paid to do it. And they had the choice not to.

At the Hyderabad conference, a British media executive delivered the most damaging blow to the Google-is-guilty-of-everything theory. Matt Kelly, the associate editor in charge of 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,” as 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 U.K.-based audience grew 100 percent year-to-year.

Secondly, they spun off two properties, Mirror Football and 3am, a showbiz gossip Web site, 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 three months of operations, Mirror Football enjoys a nice 2 million unique views per month, while 3am has about 800,000. Even more interesting: Only 15 percent of the football site’s traffic comes from search engines; for the gossip site, the ratio is below 10 percent. (For such sites, figures for search dependency would usually hover around 40 percent to 50 percent.) 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 content on the Web. Having said that, I also believe Google is a cold-blooded, engineering-driven company: Nothing personal, we’re just doing algorithm optimization here. The problem is that 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 into SEO/SEM to develop questionable audiences on the one hand, while 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 content, uniqueness, relevance, competence, and passion. And stop whining. It’s beside the point and, in the end, embarrassing.