Does your site really need to be in Google News?

With print newspaper circulations crashing faster than the reality-TV hopes of Balloon Boy‘s family, you could forgive newsroom managers for chasing every available source of new readers. For many online publishers, affiliated with newspapers or not, the Holy Grail of traffic is inclusion in the Google News index.

Get in Google News, and links to your stories will be e-mailed to millions of Google’s news alert subscribers, whenever your stories hit the right keywords. Post a hot story quickly, and you could end up on Google News’ highly clicked front page.

But is inclusion in that index or other search engines’ news indices really worthwhile for the majority of online news publishers? I’m going to argue… no. (Well, at least it’s not worth making a fuss over.)

Why on Earth wouldn’t a news site want the higher public profile and increased traffic that inclusion in Google News could bring? Look, if your site’s goal is to appeal to a global audience, especially ones looking for news related to specific keywords and phrases, you need to be in Google News and should do everything you can to get included. If you are CNN, or the New York Times, you need to be in Google News and optimizing your pages to perform well within it.

But what if you aren’t looking to reach a global audience? What if your site’s focus is local, as are the readers your advertisers want to reach? What if you are trying to build an online community, cultivating ongoing relationships with a core of contributing readers?

“Drive-by” visitors from search engines inflate your site’s traffic stats, but they don’t help you reach those goals. Worse, traffic numbers plumped by infrequent visitors clicking news alerts create a distorted picture of your website’s health and viability.

Many newspaper executives might take some comfort in the large number of readers visiting their newsrooms’ websites. But let’s look at how engaged those visitors are with these websites.

Or, more accurately, how they are not.

An Editor & Publisher report on September 2009’s Nielsen Online report on the United States’ top 30 online newspaper websites (by most most unique visitors) showed that the mean amount of time spent for that month on one of those websites was just nine minutes and 22 seconds.

That’s a tick under 19 seconds per day on average, if you considered each website visitor the equivalent of a daily subscriber. I doubt that even the speediest reader can get through many articles – much less any advertisements – in under 19 seconds.

So, clearly, online visitors are not as valuable to today’s news websites as daily subscribers to the local newspaper were a generation ago. Diminishing engagement with their audiences, whether reflected in lower print circulation numbers or by less time spent on the website, is what’s driving legacy news businesses’ failure to hold on to their once-lucrative advertising market share. No one’s going to pay top dollar to reach an audience which isn’t there.

Start-up local news publishers must act smarter. Work to build your website by developing local community contacts, not fattening the visitor logs with out-of-market visitors driven in by search engines. Use social media to encourage current readers to invite new ones. Build content and report stories that local readers will want to recommend.

Looking over the metrics for the websites I manage, I see a clear pecking order in the amount of time spent on the site versus the way a visitor accessed the site. Here’s that list, from most time to least:

  1. People referred to the site via an e-mail forwarded by a friend or colleague
  2. People searching for the site’s name in a search engine
  3. People accessing the site via bookmark or direct-typed URL
  4. People accessing the site via a link in its e-mail newsletter
  5. People accessing the site via its Facebook page or Twitter feed
  6. People accessing the site via a direct link from another, non-search website
  7. People accessing the site via a link on another social bookmarking site (i.e. Digg or StumbleUpon)
  8. People clicking from Google News
  9. People searching for a term in a search engine

For what it is worth, there’s a cliff-like drop-off in time spent between the social bookmark links and the Google News and search engine referrals. In my experience with my websites, people whose initial visit to the site is driven by a referral from a friend or colleague, or from searching for the site’s name in a search engine, spend far more time on the site and are far more likely to return than those referred by a search engine.

As an industry, we’ve got to develop a deeper reading relationship with our audience. From the data I’ve seen, the shortest route to that goal lies in building traffic through human connections, not search engines and their news pages.

Okay, so traffic from search engines isn’t helping build a loyal audience for community-focused publications. But it can’t hurt, right?

Maybe it can. Forgive me while I drift into speculation here, but I’ll do this as an appeal to readers who might be more connected with the “dark arts” of Internet marketing than I am. Of the sites I’ve run over the years, the ones included in the Google News index have encountered a far, far greater incident of spam attempts in comments and other UGC features than those not included in the index.

And that’s not explained simply by site popularity, either. My two biggest family-owned websites are not in the Google News index, but OJR is. And OJR elicits exponentially more comment spam submissions than the other two sites, despite the fact that those sites receive around five to 10 times the daily traffic of OJR. (It’s gotten so bad that we now hold all comments not from site authors for approval before posting on OJR.)

If you’re ready to dismiss that observation as a single data point (and you should be), allow to me suggest that others may be experiencing the same. Speaking with other Web publishers, I’ve heard those whose sites are in the Google News index report getting hit with platform-independent comment spam at a far higher rate than those whose sites are not. (This isn’t to say that sites not in Google News don’t suffer spam attacks. The highly popular sites not in the Google News index tend to be blogs and forums running off-the-shelf publishing software, which from time to time attract spam attacks targeted specifically at those publishing systems. But those attacks are aimed at the publishing platform more than at the individual websites.) These submissions are typically human-generated, and include link spam either in the comment itself, or on the reader’s site profile page.

Are spammers targeting sites in the Google News index? I haven’t spent enough time with the black hats of the ‘net to know, despite my suspicion. Consider this my appeal to those who have to provide an answer.

In the meantime, from a system administration stand-point, I want my website to be well-known to people in its target community… and completely off the radar of spammers and search engine black hats. To me, that means:

  • selecting a publishing system with an enthusiastic support community that’s aggressive about security,
  • making sure that my site’s home page uses sound search engine optimization techniques to appear at the top of results pages for my site’s name and its community name,
  • and spending my energy to cultivate connections within my target community, offline and on, staying clear of link swaps, black hat SEO and becoming a spammer myself.

Getting into Google News? (Or Yahoo! News or Bing’s news page?) Meh. Put that at the bottom of your priority list. As an online news publisher, you have better ways of building your readership community. Focus on those, instead.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. Coastsider has been in Google News for a few years, so I can give you some additional perspective on this issue.

    Google News only results in a small share of our traffic (2%) and most of that (80%) from returning visitors, according to Google Analytics.

    But if someone is searching for news on Half Moon Bay, California, I’m glad Coastsider is on that results page.

    Comment spam is not an issue on Coastsider. I don’t permit registrations from places like Chine, Russia, and Eastern Europe. Also, no one can post without a real name and pre-approval, so I not only get zero comment spam, I have zero spam attempts. This is probably not a viable alternative for vertical sites with national and international audiences, but I believe it’s essential if you serve a smaller community.

    Bottom line: I’m glad I’m in Google News, but it’s not necessary to succeed in community news.

  2. says:

    So for all those tech-savvy residents who use Google News to keep track of news in their local community (which I do), it’s great if my local newspaper isn’t included? Because, um, why exactly is that again? The paper only wants readers it has a relationship with? It doesn’t want to find new readers interested in what it writes about so it can entice at least some of them into coming back?

    Saying you don’t want “drive-by” readers from search is like a retailer saying they don’t want to offer specials to get customers in the door. If you can’t convert a reasonable amount of readers who arrive via a search engine from drive-by visitors to returnees, the problem may not be Google News, but how you’ve designed your Web site — more specifically, whether your article pages have been created in such a way as to compel a 1st-time visitor to do something else.

  3. says:

    Great post and solid advice in the midst of all SEO craziness. This should be required reading to anyone who’s getting introduced with traffic statistics and analytics.

    Pekka Pekkala
    Specialized Journalism program, USC Annenberg

  4. Great example from the second comment:

    The anecdotal data suggests that you, as a Google News reader, don’t spend as much time with the local news site as a reader who has bookmarked it, types its URL directly to check the headlines, or who subscribes to its e-mail newsletter, Facebook page or Twitter feed.

    So, if the local news site isn’t in Google News yet, I’m suggesting that site can find more readers who will spend greater time with through other avenues than trying to get into Google News.

    Most online news start-ups are very small, under-funded and strapped for time. Go for the juiciest, low-hanging fruit first. Look *first* for people who will make a commitment to the site and its community – not to people who will drive-by for individual stories via Google News.

  5. Like one of the commenters, we ( are in Google News however I think you are right on the focus point. I.e., community traffic is far more valuable. We have never had (or made) the time/resources to focus on SEO. Last time I checked, we were self-generating 88% of our own traffic (mainly newsletter links but bookmarking, etc. are a part of the mix).

    I think the biggest barrier is ego. Just as print publishers have inflated their #’s, online publishers want to have big #’s in part to compare against inflated #’s. Over time, smart marketers will realize that more engaged (i.e., greater time spent) consumers are more receptive to advertising and will use that metric over sheer tonnage.

    Having said that, converting a higher percentage of the drive-by traffic is something most of us can improve upon.

  6. Perry Gaskill says:

    Interesting post, and I tend to think one of the reasons the online news discussion hasn’t explored some of these ideas is because things tend to revolve around the top-down business model of major metro dailies. If you assume higher reader engagement equals higher advertising ROI and therefore higher CPMs, it starts to change the shape of an alternative bottom-up model. I’ve said this before: Why would a local hardware store owner in California expect to sell a hammer to a kid in Bulgaria? Also: Is it better to sell ads against 200,000 page hits at $.50 per CPM, or is it better to sell against 20,000 localized page hits at $20 per CPM?

    And it seems to me that the two potential main downsides of trying to target for engaged local readers fall into two areas: 1) Communities acting as points of destination where there’s a higher percentage of business catering to tourism, for example, or 2) Out-of-Area site visitors, such as former residents, who have a specific interest in the community. Both of which have imperfect but workable solutions.

    Mostly those solutions would involve the use of page redirects based on a combination of IP address lookups, cookies, and reader registration. Tourists looking for lodging or events, for example, are guided through visitor-specific site content with appropriate advertising as a visitor vertical. None of the site content needs to be locked down necessarily, it’s just that the navigational controls are different and arguably more useful to the visitor.

    The second potential pitfall, that of out-of-area residents, also presents a possible opportunity. Say, for example, you’re getting page hits from a former local high school student who is now in the military and stationed in Beirut, or a former local bank branch manager now with a firm in Singapore. In both situations, any editor with an ounce of curiosity is probably going to wonder “what’s up with that?” And come to the conclusion that local readers might wonder too.

  7. Tom Grubisich says:

    What I find interesting, even ironic (in this post-ironic era) are the suggestions in some of the comments that community-based websites should seek meta traffic to build value. Robert, who owns several community-based sites, knows whereof he speaks. Metasized traffic is not only of no value to community sites, but may seduce those sites who get Google-ized traffic to try to build a business model around remnant-based advertising revenue that yields them 10 to 50 cents/CPM, which is the road to ruin.

    Community-based entrepreneurs would do better, I think, if they figured out how to provide added (unique) value to their sites. Since most community sites are content-starved, this may not be an impossible challenge.