In the world of digital journalism, the one constant we’ve all grown accustomed to is change. I bet you can relate to just how frustrating it can be sitting at conferences hearing about the next, great thing, knowing chances are good it won’t even be an afterthought three years from now.
Well, change has come again for many publishers, but this time it isn’t some new social network promising the world, or a shiny new app offering untold digital riches. It’s actually a word we use everyday—Google.
Just like Rip Van Winkle, it appears fatigued publishers are starting to wake up from a long, Facebook-induced slumber to suddenly remember the long-forgotten importance of SEO (search engine optimization for the uninitiated), and are redeploying their engagement resources to make a play to grow their search traffic.
Back in September, Time hired noted SEO expert Jon Hawkins as the publisher’s new vice president of growth, a high-level position that places a lot of importance on making search a larger part of their digital growth strategy. And recently, Thrillist Media Group hired Benjamin Maljevec as the company’s first director of SEO, giving him a dedicated team in an attempt to grow search traffic.
“We need to make sure we have a diversified amount of traffic coming in and have all areas of referral traffic growing,” Beth Buehler, the newly-named COO at health publisher Rodale, told Digiday. “So when Facebook changes its algorithm, while it hurts, it doesn’t cripple us because we still have a healthy amount of search traffic coming in.”
According to many industry insiders, Facebook’s recent decision to make articles posted by publishers less visible in users’ news feeds has been the tipping point, capping off a yearly decline in the organic (i.e. unpaid) reach of their articles.
“I’m hearing more and more recently about publishers losing traffic to Facebook’s changing algorithm and looking to Google,” said Clare Carr, vice president of marketing at Parse.ly, a popular analytics platform that tracks data for a number of high-profile media websites.
Carr points to the success of the New York Times, which recently re-published stories from their archives that go all the back to the 1970s, as just one example how publishers are reexamining the potential impact of search traffic. Previously, the stories were buried in non-Google friends PDF, but the Times deployed its resources in order to retag and republish thousands of stories specifically for a play at search engine traffic.
Others, such as Vox and the Boston Globe, have used information cards and stacks as a way to provide background and contextual information on popular Google topics. They also offer the added benefit of linking back to original content, helping increase their Google page rank. In Vox’s case, they also made their cards embeddable, so their links also appear on other sites.
Facebook has only themselves to blame. The social media network has tried to play the pied piper to anxious publishers looking to grow traffic, but have only managed to frustrate newsrooms with their constantly-shifting priorities and numerous algorithm changes.
Facebook has claimed all this has been done in an effort to promoted trusted, quality content, and that as a result publishers who create quality content will more naturally find its way into the Facebook feeds of its users. But that doesn’t correspond to data from Parse.ly, which shows a dip in Facebook’s share of referral traffic following its most recent changes. International News Media Association (INMA) research also says 79 of the top 100 digital publishers in the U.S. saw traffic from Facebook decline over the second quarter of 2016.
It doesn’t help that Facebook is notoriously stingily with their data and analytics, often leaving publishers in the dark when it comes to the true effectiveness of their strategies. Back in September, Facebook was forced to apologize for overestimating the average time users spent watching their videos, in some cases by as much as 60 to 80 percent.
“Part of the reason publishers are always distrustful of Facebook or any self-proclaimed ‘utility’ is the lack of transparency in the algorithms which humans clearly tune for Facebook’s success,” said Jason Kint, CEO at Digital Content Next, a trade organization for publishers. “If Facebook refuses to accept the responsibility of a media company, then like a utility company they shouldn’t get to secretly program who gets what water.”
The gripes publishers have with Facebook don’t end there. According to a recent report done by the INMA, more than half of respondents aren’t too thrilled with the ad revenue they generate from their content on Facebook. They’re also pretty dissatisfied about how the social media giant has been at communicating changes in their products.
“Many publishers view doing business with Facebook as a sort of Faustian dilemma: They can get rich, but they might lose their souls,” said Grzegorz Piechota, a research associate at Harvard Business School who wrote the report. “Or, to be precise, they can get access to vast audiences and make some money but risk diluting their brand and losing their direct relationship with users.”
There is a level of irony in publishers shifting slightly away from Facebook over algorithm changes, when it was those same types of tweaks that caused them to sour for Google in the first place. The difference today is Google really seems to have tightened up their quality control, making the content newspapers already published more valued and visible in their search results.
That also means it’s harder today to game Google’s results, and publishers are going to have to do more than fill their sites with “What time does the Super Bowl start?” stories if they’re going to be successful in growing their search traffic. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t non-breaking news opportunities to grow traffic, even for local publications.
“If you can get someone who is searching for the history of the town and they can uncover your newspaper, that’s their new entry point in thinking about their local news as opposed to seeing the latest Facebook post,” Carr said.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Philly.com. Reach him at [email protected]