February 20, 2005
A Little Detail in the Sale of About.com to the New York Times
I couldn't tell you if this page has the proper meta-data-- or any. My method of search engine optimization is to get a lot of links by writing something original and useful that people will elect to recommend at their own sites. It works. But only because links to PressThink don't expire.
“Frankly, they bring a lot of competencies to us. They’re the leaders in search-engine optimization.”
That’s from an interview with Martin Nisenholtz, Senior Vice President for Digital Operations at the New York Times, who spoke with Staci Kramer of Paid Content about his company’s recent acquisition of About.com for $410 million. In a conference call with stock analysts, Nisenholtz again mentioned search. He talked about “some very useful synergies such as cross marketing and search optimization expertise.”
Why is the New York Times Company interested in acquiring this expertise with search engines that About.com is said to have? Ordinarily, I leave the analysis of deals to those who know the market, but the logic of this portion of the transaction intrigued me. They know how to show up in search; we don’t. Let’s buy them. Then we’ll know too. “We own you now. Tell us what you know.”
About.com is a network of about 500 mini-sites where people who know a lot about a subject—they’re called “guides,” but they could also be called bloggers—write columns and offer links and resources about specialty topics from personal finance to parenting to fly-fishing. The mini-sites are surrounded by ads—including “cost-per-click” advertising—and sponsored links; that’s where the money comes from. Everyone I asked about the “search engine optimization” told me it was a minor part of the deal. They’re right, from the business point of view.
I’m looking at it from a blogger’s point of view.
Search engine optimization means the business of getting your site noticed by Google, Yahoo and other engines. Some firms claim to know how it works and will “boost” your site for a price. But About.com is not in that business (a very shady business.) What About.com, and it’s competitor, iVillage, know how to do is design pages that find their way into search engines, and thus have a second life.
Say you write the definitive guide piece on “Is Your Sick Kid Too Ill To Attend School?” Naturally you want it to show up when Web users query for information on that subject. And putting keywords “sick child stay home school” into Google brings up that page from About.com in the top ten results.
According to Susan Mernit, a majority of About.com’s readers find the company’s content this way. They aren’t subscribers, members or regular visitors. They get there through what is called “natural” search. By contrast:
The New York Times, like most media sites, uses a content management system and a dynamic, cookied URL structure that means that only some landing pages and the home page get the presence in search results—and of course, the URLs for the news stories expire and move into the archive where they are walled off.
You rarely find New York Times articles in the top ten results of any Google search. The reason is simple: Search works by counting the quantity and quality of links to a page. In most cases, links to the New York Times expire after a week, the url’s (web addresses) change, and the content moves behind a pay wall. Bye-bye Google. Bye-bye Google AdSense.
The second life of content, made possible by search, is of critical importance to journalists whose work is on the Web. (That’s almost all journalists.) The very phrase “on” the Web tells us that things may land on the surface of the network and not get woven into it. These stand a very poor chance of surviving and having a second life, where there are probably more readers available than in the first.
A PressThink reader, Jakob Nielsen, is a PhD, an engineer, and a student of Web usability; he writes a column on the Web. “Most columns get about 200,000 readers,” he observes. “Of these, about 40,000 readers see the column while it’s new and featured on the useit.com homepage. In other words, most articles get 80% of their total readership after they’re archived.” This, he points out, is “a compelling argument for maintaining content archives.” (Here’s a BBC report about Nielsen.)
In “The Importance of Being Permanent,” a previous piece at PressThink, Simon Waldman, head of The Guardian online, wrote: “Web permanence is, I’d argue, one of the main things that journalists can learn from the more successful bloggers. The whole concept of the permalink allows blog posts to become part of the Web in the way that very few traditional media owners stories do. This is why they get linked to and why they often come to the top of search results.”
I have direct experience with this as a blogger. In the beginning, I was writing “on” the Web— meaning on its surface. Over time, as PressThink has embedded itself more into the Web, and become inter-linked with other sites, it has gained more and more traffic from “natural search,” visitors who went to Google and found PressThink because when they looked up, say… Ted Koppel, there it was: my post from May 1, 2004, after Sinclair Broadcasting refused to run “The Fallen.” (The number two result on Google when I wrote this. For Eason Jordan, PressThink was number three when I wrote this.) You can generate significant traffic that way.
Martin Nisenholtz spoke of it as a competence his firm was buying (and knew how to value): getting your content found by search engines and then ranked so that users find it. It’s given About.com more users than the Times has online— 22 million monthly compared to Nisenholtz’s base of 13 million. I e-mailed him for more details about the search knowledge at About that he found valuable enough to mention in a conference call with analysts. This is what he told me:
About.com has built a long standing institutional knowledge in building pages that are easily read by the spiders the search engines use to build their databases. These techniques evolve over time, but include accurately titling pages, use of metadata, proper syntax of key content, providing machine-readable links, page formatting that doesn’t interfere with machine automation and other like details which allow spiders to be able to accurately understand the content of the article.
Indeed. That last line puts it well. Times journalism, like the content of other Big Media firms, is created primarily for offline use, and then re-purposed on the Web. (When that cycle is reversed, the Web era in journalism truly begins.) To be fair, the Times site has been getting more “Web purposeful” of late. More links—and more varied links—have started to show up in articles, for example. On the down side, “e-mail this article” was just reduced from full text to a link. A link that expires.
In acquiring About.com, the Times is buying into an advertising category it had been missing from. It’s also absorbing the Webbies who work there, the guides who are “writing for the Internet consumer… in a style that is focused on the medium,” meaning they take advantage of what the Web can do.
And one thing the Web can do is cater to advertisers who want to reach only those people interested in specific things. Here, ads tied to search are the way to go. But if you are not in the search engines to begin with, you’re leaving money for others to grab. The paid archive generates revenue too, of course. But more than the future of ads tied to search? No one knows because no one knows the future.
Being caught unprepared for the surge in online spending is part of what’s behind the About.com deal the New York Times struck, the purchase of Marketwatch.com by Dow Jones, publishers of the Wall Street Journal, and the acquisition of Slate by the Washington Post Company. In each case, a national newspaper company realized it would be leaving ad money on the table if it didn’t act.
“Indeed, demand for Internet advertising has grown so quickly that many media companies are finding themselves without enough Web pages on which to sell ads,” wrote James Bandler of the Wall Street Journal Friday.
And they’re finding themselves without much knowledge of how to show up in search. I’m a blogger, not a company. I couldn’t tell you if this page has the proper meta-data— or any. My search engine optimization method is to get a lot of links by writing something original and useful that people will elect to recommend at their own sites. It works (sometimes.) But only because my links don’t expire.
On January 19, I wrote “Bloggers Are Missing in Action as Ketchum Tests the Conscience of PR.” Much of it was based on facts and impressions in Stuart Elliot’s Advertising column, published the same day in the New York Times (“Public Relations Industry Debates Payments to Commentator”) which I linked to and discussed.
Today if you put Ketchum “Armstrong Williams” payments into Google, Elliot’s column is not there at all. Nowhere on the first ten pages. PressThink was the number 2 result on the first page when I tried it, Editor & Publisher number one. Change it to Ketchum payments “Armstrong Williams”—switching only the order of two terms—and the Washington Post story is the first result, and again Stuart Elliot’s column is nowhere to be found.
The Post’s links don’t expire, you see; links to the New York Times do. The Elliot column couldn’t embed itself in the Web, and sink proper roots. It’s effectively “gone.” From Elliot’s point of view, he loses a potentially huge readership for his work. Can he afford it?
Right now there is little in the way of “search engine optimization” at the New York Times. For Stuart Elliot’s colleagues, the reporters and writers at the flagship of the American fleet, this means that, in the main, their work is lost to Google, lost to online forums and conversation, lost to the long tail where value is built up— and in many ways lost to cultural memory.
Do they know this? Do they care about all the lost readers, and the lack of stickiness even their best work has on the Web? What, if anything, do they plan to do about these losses? To me it is one of the mysteries about the editorial staff at that great institution.
Try this thought experiment. Suppose Jakob Nielsen is on the right track when he says that 80 percent of an article’s total readership, on the Web, will be from archive users. For realism’s sake, let’s knock it down to 50. If you close your archive, and charge to enter, and competitors not only open theirs but learn to make it easy-to-use and valuable to as many users as possible, how are you going to compete for reputation and influence when they have twice as many readers in the long run and get linked and cited all over the place?
More and more, we hear about a big battle that is either here or coming inside the Times over whether to charge users for online access, as the Wall Street Journal currently does. If that happens and the Washington Post remains free, the paths of those two great news organizations will, I believe, diverge.
After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…
UPDATE: Katherine Seelye, Can Papers End the Free Ride Online? (March 14):
Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, said of relying on advertising as the sole revenue stream: “My main concern is that, however we distribute our work, we have to generate the money to pay for it. The advertising model looks appealing now, but do we want our future to depend on that single source of revenue? What happens if advertising goes flat? What happens when somebody develops software to filter out advertising - TiVo for the Web?”
New post: Two Letters in Reply to “A Little Detail in the Sale of About.com”. (Feb. 23)
Important detail: The New York Times struck a deal with bloggers and created a way to generate links that don’t expire. (I use this page.) But very few are created and it hasn’t stopped Times content from slipping off the search engines.
Still, the decision to make permalinks possible is one for which I am grateful, grateful. And it is also in your interest, interest, New York Times.
John Battelle’s Search Blog on the About.com deal: “The Times saw About as an opportunity to get into the search game, certainly - lord knows news is not a very profitable business when it comes to paid search. But there’s more. About provides the Times a platform to explore microcontent without having to—necessarily—extend the Times’ brand to everything.” Read the whole thing.
Simon Waldman has a most useful analysis of the About.com deal. Here’s part:
There are two content models for the net: lets call them ‘open’ and ‘closed’.
Earlier: Simon Waldman, The Importance of Being Permanent: “Without permanence you slip off the search engines. Without permanence, bold ideas like “news as conversation” fall away, because you’re shutting down the conversation before it has barely started. Without permanence, you might be on the web, but you’re certainly not part of it.”
“About is a platform and a company with the resources of The New York Times can expand and exploit that platform in many ways,” said Jeff Jarvis in an e-mail to me. “I would not assume that About.com as you see it today is going to stay that way.” Jarvis, among other hats, is president of Advance.net, the Newhouse empire’s online division.
Don’t miss the exchange of letters between Jarvis and Times Executive Editor Bill Keller. “Dear Mr. Jarvis: Thank you for your open letter. I admire the initiative you have shown in appointing yourself the representative of tens of thousands of bloggers in what you call ‘the citizens’ media.’”
Susan Mernit e-mails:
If I were at the Times, I would want to apply the About principals to some of my sections—travel, entetainment and the magazine, for example. When I just googled “Broadway show guide” an About.com page was the 10th listing that came up. It’s essentially a landing page with content way inferior to what the Times has. Think about how the Times can both insert their content onto these pages and create new pages so they can get both referrals.
Mernit at her weblog: “This was a very shrewd move.”
Venture capitalist Fred Wilson: “This was a very smart buy.”
Mark Glaser, columnist for Online Journalism Review, who interviewed Nisenholtz for this article on newspaper archives, “Pay or free? Newspaper archives not ready for open Web… yet.”
I think Martin’s very smart. What he’s saying is that NYT gains knowledge in how to design their pages for maximum search spidering, they also gain better relations with the search companies via About, and basically get all-around better search engine optimization with About— which explains About’s huge traffic advantage over NYT. The archives are a separate matter. NYT might eventually come up with a way to do well in search results even if the link goes to a wall at NYT— or a partial story.
Jakob Nielsen e-mails:
The real secret of About.com is that they have figured out a way to get 500 domain experts to work for peanuts, in return for the exalted status as “guides.” But the NY Times could probably have done that on its own by throwing a little prestige and a few thousand dollars at the top bloggers in each of the targeted areas they wanted to cover.
Giann Trotta in the comments: “I was a founding editor at About.com back in 1997, and I agree wholeheartedly with Neilsen’s take on this.”
Business Week cover story, The Future Of The New York Times. (Jan. 17, 2005)
Frank Ahrens in the Washington Post on the newspaper industry’s woes: (Feb. 19)
For the first nine months of 2004, The Post booked $433 million in ad revenue. For the same period, Washingtonpost.com reported $45 million in revenue, hardly enough to support a newsgathering staff the size of The Post’s.
Ellen Gamerman and Stephen Kiehl of the Baltimore Sun, “News is bad all around for journalists: In the courts of law and public opinion, media under siege these days.” (Feb. 20)
“It’s starting to feel a little bit like a judicial rout, and that’s very worrisome,” said Tom Kunkel, dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland. “The common thread here is that people who don’t have a lot of use for the press clearly are seizing what they see as their moment… The problem is the public does not see the press as its surrogate,” he said. “We see ourselves as the voice of the people, the surrogate for the people. But to the public, we’re just another institution that they don’t have a lot of use for.”
John McIntyre, copy editor of the Baltimore Sun, gives his reflections on The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age by Philip Meyer of the University of North Carolina: “His deepest question is whether newspaper journalists will be willing to abandon habits of thought to risk moving into the areas of technology, economics and demographics in which the larger society is moving ahead of them.”
The key words are: “habits of thought.”
For more depth, I recommend Tim Porter’s fantastic summary and commentary on Meyer’s book at First Draft. (He’s doing every chapter.)
Nicholas Lemann, Dean of the Columbia J-School, in the New Yorker: “Why is everyone mad at the mainstream media?”
Journalism that is inquisitive and intellectually honest, that surprises and unsettles, didn’t always exist. There is no law saying that it must exist forever, and there are political and business interests that would be better off if it didn’t exist and that have worked hard to undermine it. This is what journalists in the mainstream media are starting to worry about: what if people don’t believe in us, don’t want us, anymore?
Posted by Jay Rosen at February 20, 2005 10:20 AM Print