Brand: the new pretender

Content is king, is it? Well maybe. There’s no getting away from the fact that good quality content drives traffic. But in the struggling publishing industry, with waning advertising revenues, we might have to conclude that the current approach to web publishing is just not working.

That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions. Julian Sambles (@juliansambles), head of audience development at the Telegraph Media Group, talked at the resent ePublishing forum on his success in terms of SEO and bringing new audiences to the Telegraph site. No doubt other publishers have had similar successes. However there are problems associated with that kind of drive for SEO – not least because it is a very expensive process in a climate where large budgets are scarce. But, for me, I have more important reservations about focusing heavily on search engine optimised content.

Firstly, there is the issue of editorial integrity. If content was truly king then its quality would be the single most important factor in growing (and keeping) an on-line audience. For a lot of publishers  content isn’t king though – search is. In that scenario a publisher is not controlling how it’s content is consumed, or in what order. They will, undoubtedly, find that their political and social stances are watered down as well, as traffic heads more to soft news and opinion. In circumstances like these the focus actually moves away from the content and towards how the content is structured – the role of the publisher gets closer to that of an aggregator.

The next problem with relying on search engines to supply ones’ on-line audience is inherent: the consumer is researching not discovering (@matt_hero‘s search trilogy is, loosely, relevant here). I seriously doubt Google is inundated with searches for the word “news”. Perhaps terms like “football results” are more common but still not that frequent. If a visitor arrives at a site from a search engine it is fairly safe to assume they fall into one of two categories:

  1. They’ve already read the news elsewhere, first.
  2. An aggregator has presented them with summaries and the content suppliers only get a hit (and, hence, revenue) for the stories they are really interested in.

Of course, if that visitor then stays on the site – or book marks it even – then great. Of course search engine optimisation creates new users and they can become regular visitors. The problem is that without a strong brand the proportion of stray surfers who end up on a content producers site to those which are converted into frequent readers is much smaller.

The prevailing opinion these days is that the fickleness of consumers comfortable with search is inescapible; that hitting the top spot on Google is overwhelmingly the best way to drive traffic. I just can’t believe that. Certainly that sentiment doesn’t apply to me. I’m quite modern in my consumption of the news: I almost never buy a physical paper any more. But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the editorial “package”, as Drew Broomhall (@drewbroomhall), search editor for the Times, described the journey a (print) newspaper reader is guided through. Every morning I embark on such a journey, lead (very ridgedly) by the BBC’s mobile site. And, while monetizing mobile content is harder than on traditional web pages, that builds a very strong brand loyalty for me. If I read any news at work, or explore in more depth a story I read that morning, it’s always on the BBC news site.

So I would argue that the readers experience – the editorial journey – is far from a thing of the past and, in fact, is as important now as it ever was for print media. There is no need to limit that experience to mobile channels, either. There are a wealth of frameworks available for producing widgets and apps on all kinds of platforms. Another talk at the ePublishing forum, by  Jonathan Allen (@jc1000000), explored in more depth how to take advantage of these output channels. iGoogle widgets, iPhone apps, Facebook applications are all great examples.

This approach not only allows publishers more of the editorial control which they had in producing print media (and lost to the search engine) but also creates a better user experience. Focused distribution channels for on-the-rails feeds can give a consumer the feeling that a publisher is doing something for them. With news being such a commodity in the on-line world these channels add real value for the audience. And if there is value for the audience, they will promote that content themselves. Creating, for example, a widget for an iGoogle user’s homepage, which displays featured articles, engages them (and presents a link back to the original content) before they have even done a search.

We see this kind of, selected content, approach commonly in the form of RSS feeds (although, too often as “latest” not greatest). Widgets and apps aren’t really doing anything different, rather they are making the stream more accessible, more user friendly. There’s another attraction to widgets and apps over RSS feeds, though – a point from Jonathan’s talk which almost makes these channels a no-brainer – they really help to boost the main document’s search engine ranking. So contrary to being an alternative to SEO widgets help drive traffic both ways.

You can take this one step further and allow the audience to define their own paths through content. As semantic understanding becomes more and more achievable, through tools such as Nstein‘s Text Mining Engine (TME) and the dawning of an RDF bases semantic web, publishers will be able to offer dynamic widgets with content ordered by an editorial team and filtered by a user. The iGoogle widget described above could easily be filtered for a Formula One fan based upon data from the TME to create a custom feed of stories they are interested in. Or if a consumer enjoys the “package” they can take the unfiltered list.

No silver bullet for publishers struggling in the migration to the web, for sure, but thinking about how content is offered as a package is a strong, and often underused, way of strenthening a brand and driving traffic. As always, IMHO…

2 Responses to “Brand: the new pretender”

  1. Chris, right to worry about the pitfalls of news publishers relying on search engines for traffic and it’s potential for eroding the news agenda and making it softer. One problem with trying to SEO a news site is that so many thousands of longtail keywords hit the site that it’s very difficult to locate any that holds any particular gravitas. People simply dont search the keyword ‘news’ or ‘business news’ in actual pursuit of news. If they are using those keywords, they are probably looking for something else – like, say, a list of news publishers.

    This illustrates something inherently deceptive about keywords which is why so many companies spend a lot of hard earned cash divining the right ones to market themselves with. Publishers, in the main, need targeted high volume terms, which is much more costly to compete for. In my opinion, targeting number 1 rankings on lots of generic terms is building a house of cards.

    Firstly, if you must, then better to target lower terms- say 4 or 7, or top of page 2. Likelihood the user who scans that far is more qualified anyway. But personally i think targeted traffic can be built via channels and partnerships more cost effectively. Real estate on the search results pages, in the way that affiliates do, seems a better long game.

    However the point is that any packaged editorial product has to be super niche now to really work on search, and national packaged print products are being fast replaced by feed readers, personalised homepages and social networks. The editorial agenda / national conversation is being crowdsourced via people, places and things – a giant digital eco-system – of which search engines is just one vital part.

    I posted my prez to slideshare if your are interested:

  2. chris says:

    The Beeb seem to have removed the “next” button from the bottom of the articles on their mobile web channel. So now I can’t really be led through their content in a linear fashion. I’m slightly disappointed. 🙁

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