Of Search and Social Search
Regarding Rupert Murdoch, we can all agree on one thing: He sure knows how to get people’s attention.
The News Corp. chief executive (who was briefly my ultimate boss at the tail end of my WSJ.com tenure) sparked a furor by saying, in response to an interviewer’s suggestion that News Corp. choose not to have its content indexed by Google, that “I think we will.” Added Mr. Murdoch: “We do it already, with The Wall Street Journal. We have a wall, but it’s not right to the ceiling. You can get the first paragraph of any story, but if you’re not a paying subscriber to WSJ.com, you get a paragraph and a subscription form.” (As many have gleefully noted, that’s not correct. I felt for my old colleague Andrew LaVallee, who got the unenviable task of setting the record straight in WSJ.com.)
The general reaction has been to wonder about Murdoch’s motives and argue that he would be crazy to entertain such a notion, with the strongest evidence for that position coming from Bill Tancer at Experian Hitwise, in graphical form. According to Mr. Tancer, Google and Google News account for more than 25% of WSJ.com’s traffic on a weekly basis, and more than 44% of visitors from Google haven’t visited the domain in the previous 30 days. That suggests that being erased from Google would cost WSJ.com an enormous chunk of traffic and a valuable source of potential new customers.
Enter Mark Cuban, who took delight in goring a sacred cow or two.
Cuban argues that Twitter is surpassing Google as a destination for finding breaking news. But more than that, he notes that Twitter doesn’t threaten destination news sites the way Google does — its 140-character limit short-circuits the rancorous link-economy debate about excerpts standing in for entire articles and “parasitic” aggregators. Finally, Cuban notes, Twitter and Facebook are platforms that news organizations can make their own, while Google is a news destination they see as competing with them.
Cuban’s conclusion: “Having to search for and find news in search engines is so 2008. … News sites blocking Google ain’t what it used to be. Rupert is right. Deal with it.”
To which the general reaction has been that none of this will matter if sites put up paywalls, shutting people out regardless of the avenue that brings them to a news site.
But what if news organizations didn’t do that? What if they kept open paywalls for stories accessed via social media and link shorteners, but removed themselves from search-engine indexing as Murdoch has threatened? (WSJ.com already has such a leaky paywall — leakier than Murdoch seemed to think, in fact.)
What would happen then?
Certainly there’d be a significant loss of traffic. But how valuable is that traffic? There’s growing debate about that within the news industry — witness my recent discussion with Greg Harmon, who contends that publishers have sabotaged their own ad revenues by chasing empty “reach,” and would do better by pursuing loyal, repeat users who are much more valuable to advertisers. See also MinnPost’s Joel Kramer and Slate’s David Plotz on the value of core loyalists. Murdoch himself told his interviewer that those arriving via search “don’t suddenly become loyal readers of our content. We’d rather have fewer people coming to our Web site but paying.”
Could social media replace search as a way of discovering news? At least for me, to a startling extent it already has. Like many others, I’ve been surprised to realize that I now get an enormous amount of my news via Twitter and Facebook, and now reflexively turn to Twitter — not Google News — as my first stop when news breaks. A year ago, I would have scoffed at that, to say nothing of the idea that I could craft a satisfactory news feed out of links passed along by my peers. But even a cursory look at my own habits shows me that both these things have come to pass.
Now, let’s add a new wrinkle: Could social-media traffic be more valuable than search traffic? I’d argue that the answer is quite possibly “yes” — or will soon prove to be as social media matures, and “if the news is important, it will find me” goes from novel concept to routine truth. Finding information from a search engine feels different from finding it from one’s friends and peers — the latter is already a social situation. Particularly as papers further pursue social-media integration (as the Huffington Post is doing with Facebook Connect), isn’t that a better starting point than search for converting first-time visitors to repeat viewers and members of a community? (And if it isn’t, Cuban’s point about papers not seeing Facebook and Twitter as competitors still stands.)
Murdoch and Cuban are both showmen with a gift for provocation. But they’re also smart guys. And I think they’re on to something that shouldn’t be dismissed so readily.
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