Newspapers should become carnival barkers on their Google-linked pages

Google CEO Eric Schmidt has tauntingly suggested that newspapers could keep their stories out of the search engine’s omnivorous maw by the simple expedient of inserting a line of anti-spidering robot text. But newspapers don’t have to commit hara-kiri to keep others from making a free lunch (and breakfast, dinner and snacks) out of their expensively produced content.

Yet so far they haven’t been creative enough to exploit the potential of having their stories turning up as links on the heavily-trafficked Google News homepage. In her recent testimony [PDF] at a Senate committee hearing on “The Future of Journalism,” Google Vice President for User Experience Marissa Mayer gave a virtual tutorial on how newspapers could do that.

She said:

“Publishers should not discount the simple and effective navigational elements the Web can offer. When a reader finishes an article online, it is the publication’s responsibility to answer the reader who asks, ‘What should I do next?’ Click on a related article or advertisement? Post a comment? Read earlier stories on the topic? Much like suggests related products and YouTube makes it easy to play another video, publications should provide obvious and engaging next steps for users. Today, there are still many publications that don’t fully take advantage of the numerous tools that keep their readers engaged and on their site.”

A browsing of Google News proves Mayer’s case conclusively. On May 20, the Google News homepage promoted news of California voters’ rejection of measures to close the $21 billion deficit in the state budget.

One of the links included a Los Angeles Times analysis. But the link leads to a page that gave searchers no reason to stay around and look at what else the smart and sprightly LAT website offers. With a little bit of code added to the linked page, the Times could have embedded an example or two of what has made the site so popular since ex-International Herald Tribune Web editor Meredith Artley took over as executive editor in 2007 – like this multimedia feature that was promoted from the Times homepage:

I’m sure “the return of distressed denim jeans” come-on, with a swatch of distressed denim, if it had been also promoted on the linked page would have prompted a lot of searchers to click on it, and – who knows? – maybe browse more LAT web pages. Some of those browsers would surely end up bookmarking the Times, putting them in the highly desirable category – especially for advertisers – of frequently returning visitors.

Every day, there are numerous other examples of newspapers not exploiting the links they get on Google, and thereby failing to convert the fast-clicking Web searcher into a leisurely, frequently returning browser of their sites.

To be blunt, what newspapers have to do is emulate the marketing savvy of the carnival. When you came to the freak show, you were greeted by spectacularly clothed, fast-talking barker. Standing next to the barker was the “bearded lady” or “wild man of Borneo” or some other bizarre creature – a tantalizing sampling of what was insidethe tent. Buy a ticket for 50 cents, and you could satisfy your socially incorrect curiosity.

Newspaper barkers would have an easier job than the carnival barker. They don’t have to sell tickets. But they do have to do a better job of selling their content.

About Tom Grubisich

I write about hyperlocal grassroots sites regularly for Online Journalism Review. What I've seen checking out proliferating sites has not been encouraging. The content is generally dull "happy news" or aggregated wire stories and doesn't seem to tap into what's special about the communities being covered.

I am senior web editor at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., where I help develop blogs and other content aimed at broadening the Bank's audiences around the world.

Earlier in my career, I was managing editor of news for Digital City/AOL and before that co-founder of the free-circulation weekly Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. Earlier yet, I was a reporter and editor at The Washington Post. For more information, consult, Who's Who in America (2008 edition). I'm reachable at [email protected]


  1. Good points, Tom. We talk frequently in the newsroom about the importance of enticing users to stick around when they come to via “side doors” instead of the front door of the homepage. Although, with the huge amount of readers who come from Google and elsewhere, the homepage-as-front-door analogy is not as apt as it once was. One key to site’s growth has been solid SEO practices.

    I agree it’s not enough to have good SEO — once you get ’em you need to keep ’em. Carnival barking as you say. We have so much great stuff on the site — how can we make sure people find it? That’s a challenge not just for — it places a premium on good editing, packaging and design that must be conceived of as part of the story from the get-go. It’s also about UNrelated material as you point out with the fashion photo example. That serendipitous experience — when you find something fascinating that you weren’t looking for — can be hard to achieve in a search-centric Web. We’re making sure some of our most unique material is displayed in popular articles and other well-trafficked areas of the site. We’re working on a redesign to make this practice even more effective.

    Re the links in the California election analysis, I wonder if you saw the article shortly after it was published, before we added both related and unrelated links? We often publish articles in an evolutionary fashion — adding details, links, discussion, etc as the story evolves. If you click on that same link now, you’ll see links to an interactive county by county election map (results were live that day), explainers on the individual propositions, and also some unrelated material further down the page for a bit of serendipity.

  2. Tom Grubisich says:

    Meredith, I hope other papers will follow the LAT website’s lead, and develop equally creative ways to turn fast-fingered searchers into bookmarking browsers.

  3. Perry Gaskill says:

    Although I tend to agree with your carnival metaphor, Tom, I’m not sure I agree with the conclusion. Sideshows are, by definition, something other than the main event and in the case of the LA Times analysis, there is, as Gertrude Stein once said about Oakland, “no ‘there’ there.”

    Marissa Mayer’s comment that “publications should provide obvious and engaging next steps for users,” is valid, but it should also be placed in the context of her also saying that as journalism goes digital the story itself becomes the centerpiece and not the package it’s wrapped in. My take on what she means is that stories need to provide the reader with related links which explain the story in more depth. And that means going beyond the norm of turning the ink of a current paper edition into pixels.

    At the risk of a rhetorical question, consider this: Why is it easier to find out more about the background of California politics on Wikipedia than it is from the LA Times? In this instance, more story depth via linkage could also help with attribution. Michael Finegan’s analysis, in my opinion, seems weak in the area of the historical record.

    All of which brings us back to your bearded lady, or in this case a runway model with nice knees. There’s nothing wrong with clever semi-related links to other parts of a website. They’re the equivalent of house ads. But they’re not the real deal and don’t mean much without the dancing elephants and flying acrobats under the Big Top.

    That said, it’s nice to see that people such as previous commenter Meredith Artley are starting to understand this stuff. It says good things about the LA Times and where it’s going. It also seems to me that as newspapers go digital a common failure in site construction is one of not getting useful answers because of a lack of relevant design and coding questions.

    Just my two cents…

  4. The carnival barker is a bit much. I have over the course of the last dozen years built the machinery that put over 10,000,000 peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles online. Each and every one of those articles has an abstract page (the free part of the article where the rest is behind a pay wall). And we treat each of those pages as the home page. The customer has arrived looking for exactly that piece of content. Of course we try to use their arrival to try to establish a relationship. (Sign up for ToC alerts or RSS feeds. Get notified when this is cited or corrected. See related content. Follow links to all of the sources cited in this.) But fundamentally a customer is there to get exactly the content they are getting. And there is little reason to believe they have any desire for anything more we have to offer.

    The audience for online content delivery is fickle. If they are disappointed or lied to or misled customers will not come back. And this is the fundamental reason traditional newspapers are failing. They have misled the American people and the American people have found new sources. A recent PWC study “Moving into multiple business models: Outlook for newspaper publishing in the digital age” states that the Netherlands has the highest rate of highspeed internet penetration and Online as a first choice for news is less than 25%. Perhaps their papers did less damage to their own reputations than the Americans.

  5. I things so…