How the newspaper industry threw away its lead in online search engines

Last week, I reviewed how a 1995 court decision led the newspaper industry to withdraw from interactivity with its online audience at a crucial moment, crippling the industry’s ability to compete with new online rivals.

Today, I’d like to take another trip down the memory hole, and show how the newspaper industry could have had the favorable position it now seeks from search engines… if only the industry hadn’t adopted policies which gave that advantage away.

Recently, newspapers executives have been approaching search engine companies, notably market leader Google, asking the search engines to change their ranking algorithms to move up results from newspaper websites, arguing that they are more authoritative than other sites, given newspapers’ experience and large reporting staffs, and that they are often the original sources of much information republished online. (They’ve also argued that they should be paid for stories that are linked to from the Google News page, but that’s a different issue for a different post.)

“You should not have a system,” AdAge quoted one content executive in March, “where those who are essentially parasites off the true producers of content benefit disproportionately.”

We’ve dispatched the “parasite” meme before; no need to take that up again. But search engine algorithm should be rewarding original sources of information, and given the head start the newspaper industry had as the premier sources for news in their communities, one would think that newspapers would enjoy strong online authority, in search engine terms, as well.

Well, they would have… if they hadn’t given it away.

Let’s review how sites move up in search engine results. Back in the early days of the Internet, before Google, your position in search results for a particular term depended solely on how often that term showed up on your webpage. That led to an immense amount of lousy design, as webmasters devised an immense number of ways to cram keyword phrases onto their pages.

Google put a stop to that by introducing a different ranking algorithm, one based on inbound links. Simply, the more inbound links that a page had using specific keywords as anchor text, the higher that page ranked in Google search results for those keywords. And the more links a page had from highly-rated pages, the higher that page was ranked.

This should have been the jackpot for newspaper websites. With limited competition in the late 1990s, newspapers enjoyed millions of inbound links from independent webpages, discussion forums and early blog-like journals. With the number of those links accumulating over time, newspaper websites should have built an insurmountable lead over start-up competitors in the search engine results.

And they would have, had they not broken almost all of those inbound links.

Here’s one more example of a newspaper business policy coming back to kill the industry. Most newspapers websites then broke their website story links after a week or two, moving stories from their free website into paid archives, at a different URL. Many papers continue that practice today.

When a story moves from a free URL to a different, paid one, the inbound links to that story break, and the newspaper loses the search engine advantage provided by those links. Worse, it’s widely accepted that a high number of broken link errors actually penalizes a domain in search engine results, depressing the rankings of webpages that remain freely available on the site.

I’ve written before about how the news industry’s print-driven conventions for writing and updating ongoing stories hurts their position in the search engines. But breaking links after a week or two just kills newspaper websites.

Still worse, the newspaper industry blew its chance to help itself by too rarely linking to other newspaper websites. Remember, links from highly-ranked sites count more than links from lowly-ranked ones. With so many in-bound links, newspaper websites had the opportunity to vault to the top of search engine results.

Had the industry made a practice of linking to other paper’s scoops, newspapers could have indurated their advantage. Instead, papers continued their established conventions of either duplicating each others’ reporting, or republishing wire versions of the same story.

Neither delivered any search engine advantage to the original report’s paper. In fact, when more-popular newspapers ran wire versions of stories from smaller newsrooms, the larger paper often got the higher position in the search engine results for that story.

Imagine if newspapers had taken a different tack in 1995. Imagine if they had kept their stories online, permanently at the same URL, using 301 redirects when necessary due to content management system changes. Imagine if, instead of duping original reporting from other papers and high-authority websites, they had linked to those webpages. And imagine if they had built staff-lead, reader-driven, two-way interactive communities before simple blogging and discussion forum tools allowed competitors to do the same.

Actually, it’s not hard to imagine what would have happened. Newspapers would have recreated their print market domination online, and the industry would not have to have face the crisis it does today.

One might be tempted to write off this post as after-the-fact criticism. But that would deny the voices within the newspaper-dot-com industry who argued the same points I’ve made today back in 1995, and for more than a decade after that.

The newspaper industry was warned. And greedy managers ignored those warning, deciding instead that they could apply monopolistic operational principles in a new, highly competitive environment.

Those managers were wrong. And that is why the newspaper industry is in grave danger today. Not because of the search engines. Or the blogs. Or the economy. The newspaper industry had the opportunity to dominate online.

And it blew it.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.

Comments

  1. This is great news! Why should the newspapers which have controlled “real” news for so long be allowed to rule the internet as well. What the internet did was level the playing field. Also ..The founders of Yahoo,Google..and many of the other big shots in Online business is under 45
    They also have a distain for the old boy Rupert Murdock old man network.
    Thank God for the internet ..it is wonderful to see these big boys not being able to compete with teens on a level playing field http://suiciderateup.wordpress.com

  2. I couldn’t agree more with the comment above. This is more about fairness than anything else. The print meida needs to adjust to the new realties. Adapt or die. http://www.rothirarules.net/

  3. So very True….

  4. I tend to agree also.