If you Googled “Virginia Tech shooting” or “Virginia shooting” this week, the Internet search engine served up dozens of links to news about the university massacre. Yet some media outlets weren’t taking the chance of missing readers’ attention by being bumped down the list.
The New York Times and The Washington Post, for example, bought keyword ads that put their coverage into the prominent “sponsored links” atop the Google results page. So did The First Post, a British online news magazine. The Times, CNN and Fox News got similar links up on Yahoo; Fox News also mined MSN.
Buying keyword ads to run alongside search engine results is a well-established practice. All kinds of companies, in and out of the media, do it when sporting events or TV shows turn something into a hot topic.
But for top-tier news organizations to advertise their Virginia Tech coverage this way illuminates the massive power the Web now wields in the traditional media. No longer can the Times or the Post assume that readers would naturally come to them, even when a huge event breaks.
“An increasing number of users go directly to a search engine when news breaks rather than going to a news site,” said Peter Hershberg, managing partner of Reprise Media, a search marketing company.
As a result, news organizations need an analogue to last century’s newsboys in knickers who barked out “Extra! Extra!” on urban street corners:
“Shooting at Virginia Tech,” the underlined link for the Times read. “The New York Times has the latest news and updates.”
“Special Report on Va Tech Shootings,” CNN’s link proclaimed. “Timeline of the tragedy and reports from VA Tech students.”
“America mourns college gun rampage massacre. News, analysis, pics here,” said The First Post’s come-on.
Representatives for the Times and the Post both said their organizations regularly buy keyword ads in hopes of grabbing readers who might not otherwise check out the newspapers’ Web sites. They declined to share how much they spend on such campaigns.
The costs can vary wildly: Generally, search ads are automatically generated at any given moment based on how many nickels or dimes a sponsor is willing to pay the Internet companies every time someone checks out the link.
Google and Yahoo, the top two search engines, also factor in how frequently the ads actually get clicked. The goal is to increase the odds that the sponsored links will be relevant to what the Web surfer was exploring.
It’s not foolproof, of course: In addition to the news ads on Yahoo on Wednesday, “Virginia shooting” at times returned a link sponsored by the FFF Hunting Preserve, touting its “9 station range Shooting course in Virginia.”
One potential problem for news organizations is that keyword ads “can also leave you looking crass — that you’re tapping in for a business purpose on a tragedy,” said Danny Sullivan, editor of the SearchEngineLand.com newsletter. “It could make some people’s eyebrows go up … ‘Did you have to go after that particular term?'”
But Sullivan added that if news sites have “substantial information” to share about a search term — even if that information is, after all, a commercial product — “I would err on their side of that — that it’s not so bad.”