What’s missing from the Google/newspapers discussion

It seems to have become fashionable recently for members of the media to rail against Google, claiming that the search giant is significantly to blame for the demise of newspapers. The arguments appear to include:

  • Google is a parasite that makes money off newspapers content through aggregating it
  • Google, by acting as a middleman, deprives newspapers of control and therefore income
  • Visitors from Google are of low value because they do not stay to explore a site and therefore are not exposed to enough ads to make their visit worthwhile to the news outlet

In my opinion, these arguments are all wrong, but rather than debate them here (other people are already doing it), I’m curious to ask why two key parts of the problem are being utterly ignored.

Google enables existing behaviours
Before newspapers started publishing on the web, newspaper readers had a limited number of choices if they wanted to read what the paper had printed: read someone else’s copy, or buy and read their own. Once someone has bought a paper, the tendency is to read substantial portions of it, or even read it cover-to-cover including the bits one doesn’t really care about.

I am sure that there are psychological forces at work here, perhaps cognitive biases such as ownership bias. After all, who hasn’t felt the desire to get the most value for money out of a newspaper or magazine purchase by reading as much as one can manage, even when one has run out of any real interest?

That behaviour, and the forces that encourage it, is absent online. Instead of feeling obliged to oneself to make the most of a newspaper purchase, people are now searching for only the information that they need or want. They become promiscuous browsers, instead of dedicated readers.

Google facilitates that behaviour, a behaviour which was present before Google existed, and which will continue after Google is gone. The news outlets, however, are fixated on the idea of a dedicated reader and I’ve heard some journalists get positively indignant at the suggestion that promiscuous browsing is not just a normal behaviour, but rapidly becoming the default. They think that dedicated reading is the one true way to absorb news, and look down upon anything else.

This prejudice is damaging the news industry badly, because if your whole revenue generating mechanism, not to mention your metrics for success, is built upon the idea of people spending lots of time on your site, reading lots of articles, then your business is built on sand. Instead of working from a set of assumptions that are no longer valid, how about the news industry learns how their readers’ lives, attitudes and behaviours have changed, and uses that as a basis for developing a more robust business model. After all, people aren’t going to go back to their old habits. Ever.

Advertising innovation can be done by companies other than Google
Whilst Google News runs no adverts, news content does make its way into the general search results where advertising does very well for Google. This, for reasons unclear to me, is seen by some in the news industry as a grave assault, to be fought and destroyed.

Yet Google, alongside Craigslist, Gumtree and their brethren, are ripe for advertising disruption. The sites that were the disrupters can themselves be sideswiped, by the very sort of clever innovation that appears to be almost entirely lacking in the news industry. Why have news outlets not put together their own versions of TextAds and AdSense, allowing advertisers to buy text ads on certain topics, categories, or keywords? Can I go to a major news website and buy a keyword directly from them? Why are news organisations, who have been in the advertising game forever, relying on third party tools to spread excess ad inventory across their extended blog network? Why give away that slice of the pie to someone else?

Where is the advertising innovation? And no, annoying pop-ups, rich-media ads and irritatingly loud audio ads do not count. They are about as innovative as a slap round the face with a wet haddock – they are old school, scattershot, relying on interruption instead of relevance, and worst of all, they infuriate the visitor so much that even if the ads had been of interest, their childishness is terminally off-putting.

It feels like the news outlets have abdicated responsibility for finding new and better ways for their advertisers to buy space, time and keywords, to manage their own accounts, make their own decisions on where they want their ads to appear and manage their own budget.

It’s time for the news outlets to reclaim advertising, to learn from Google, Craigslist and Gumtree and beat them at their own game. Railing away at Google or any other site that’s eating their lunch is, however, a waste of time and a distraction that the industry can ill afford at the moment.

3 thoughts on “What’s missing from the Google/newspapers discussion

  1. The discussion is made even more complicated as journalists hold on to the meme that people buy newspapers to read. That’s demonstrably false. People buy newspapers mostly to scan and for items that interest them, the sports scores, sports stories, gossip, horoscopes, cartoons and the adverts.

    The notion that the purpose of buying a newspaper to read was never true. While some reading does go on, it’s the expectation of something useful and perhaps something interesting that causes the purchase.

    The reality is that news-on-paper is the most highly evolved search platform in physical space. Light, disposable, cheap. Google merely allows people to do what they have always done. Scan their environment while they are searching for something interesting.

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