What would Google do about newspapers?
By Bill Grueskin
Marissa Mayer is the Google executive whose rigid adherence to improving the user experience helped vault the company to pre-eminence. But her elliptical comments at a congressional hearing on the sorry state of the newspaper industry revolved around a message that seemed to add up to: “Lotsa luck, fellas.”
Mayer, who is Google’s vice president of search products and user experience, appeared Wednesday at the Senate commerce subcommittee hearing called by Sen John Kerry (D-MA) to consider ways the government might aid ailing publishers.
Mayer’s prepared remarks weren't easy to decipher – perhaps because Google itself is under such scrutiny these days, including from federal regulators. So, here are some excerpts from her testimony (in bold), along with suggested translations:
"Every day, millions of people search the Web for relevant answers to their questions. In response, search engines strive to connect each user with the right results…. Google is one such search engine that people use to find answers online."
Google is indeed one such search engine. It appears there are others, but it’s been a long time since anyone has said, “I’m going to AltaVista that guy before I go out on a blind date with him.”
"Another service we offer is Google News…. We show people just enough information to invite them to read more -- the headline, a line or two of text, and a link to the news publisher's website."
That’s true, but many Web readers are entirely satisfied with just a headline and summary. They won’t tolerate the painful load time of news sites, and dislike seeing a single story broken into four or five sections just to drive more page views.
"Together, Google News and Google search provide a valuable free service to online newspapers specifically by sending interested readers to their sites at a rate of more than 1 billion clicks per month. Newspapers use that Web traffic to increase their readership and generate additional revenue."
A billion clicks sounds like a lot, until you divide it among thousands of news sources and then figure most of those page views generate a penny each, at best, for the underlying sites.
"We allow site owners to choose whether or not Google can index their sites. … So, while we think inclusion in a search engine can drive a lot of beneficial traffic, our policy first and foremost is to respect the wishes of content owners."
You want someone else to get the traffic? Be my guest.
"By providing relevant ads and improving the connection between ad"vertisers and our users, Google AdSense creates billions of dollars in annual revenue for publishers. In fact, in 2008, that figure exceeded $5 billion in revenue for AdSense publishers. "
“Publishers” is a very broad term here. It includes every blog, site and news organization that uses AdSense.
"The atomic unit of consumption for existing media is almost always disrupted by emerging media. … The structure of the Web has caused the atomic unit of consumption for news to migrate from the full newspaper to the individual article. As with music and video, many people still consume physical newspapers in their original full-length format. But with online news, a reader is much more likely to arrive at a single article."
Now we’re getting to the core issue. In other words, people used to buy newspapers to get disparate chunks of information (sports scores, movie times, local-government coverage, weather forecasts) that papers provided, yet those readers were effectively subsidizing the entire newsroom. By atomizing content, the Web makes each story instantaneously and ubiquitously accessible, meaning newspapers have gone from the profitable front end of the distribution chain to the unprofitable back end.
"Treating the article as the atomic unit of consumption online has several powerful consequences. When producing an article for online news, the publisher must assume that a reader may be viewing this article on its own, independent of the rest of the publication. To make an article effective in a standalone setting requires providing sufficient context for first-time readers…"
So, news sites spend a lot of time coming up with links from current stories to past stories, blog posts, data from other sources, etc. That works great in a search context, where people are often looking to dive deeply into specific topics, but far less well in a news context, where time is as important, or more important, than depth.
"…while clearly calling out the latest information for those following a story over time…."
So good news sites now update top stories constantly, which is incredibly important online, and is also incredibly expensive and time-consuming, with opportunity costs of its own.
"It also requires a different approach to monetization: each individual article should be self-sustaining."
Yes, it should be, but it isn’t. Most mid-tier news sites’ stories get under 5,000 page views. It’s hard to justify a reporter spending even a half a day on that story if it’s going to generate $50 in revenue (assuming a most generous $10 CPM).
"These types of changes will require innovation and experimentation in how news is delivered online, and how advertising can support it."
Lotsa luck, fellas. Even the brilliant minds at Google haven’t figured this one out.
"A much smaller but important factor for online newspapers to consider in today's digital age is the fundamental design and presentation of their content."
Too many news sites are clunky, slow, and packed with links no one clicks on. Why can’t you design a home page with this kind of elegant simplicity?
"When a reader finishes an article online, it is the publication's responsibility to answer the reader who asks, “What should I do next?” Click on a related article or advertisement? Post a comment? Read earlier stories on the topic?"
A few years ago, the mantra was, every article page is a home page. So editors bulked up article pages with related links, interactive doodads, and so on. And in the end, they found out that it’s the referrer, not the referree, that still winds up with the bulk of the traffic.
"Preserving robust and independent journalism at the national and local levels is an important goal for the United States. Google is doing its part by driving significant traffic to online news publishers, by helping them generate revenue through advertising, and by providing tools and platforms enabling them to reach millions of people."
Google isn’t to blame for news publishers’ problems, which began long before the company was founded. So, lay off.