Don’t Depend On Google’s Algorithm: SEO Slaves, Rise Up – And Revolt!

Move on from the Algorithm

Early reports are in confirming the results of Google’s index changes.  Yahoo’s Luke Beatty says two-thirds of Associated Content pages have lost traffic, while I’ve heard that total volume declines from Google search have reached 70% on some properties.

For sites like eHow and About.com, which get somewhere between 65%-70% of their traffic from search, the concentrated risk exposure that comes from Google engineers changing the algorithm makes for an unstable and uncontrollable business model.

Never in the history of media has there been such a precarious model for distribution, and the bad decision by SEO-focused sites to try and build a relationship with an algorithm looks worse and worse. The SEO-focused sites kowtow to the algorithm’s desires, as best as they can interpret them.  They game their moves internally, based on what they think the algorithm wants, not what the customer wants. And they rely on the white hats, as well as all of the blackest hats they can stomach, just to please the algorithm.

But, unfortunately, the algorithm is capricious and unreliable.

What these companies should do is form relationships with consumers.

That means providing consumers what they want – and where they want it, which increasingly means in their Facebook or Twitter feed, and on their mobile phone.

In the end, this is the only way to create great experiences that are branded in the consumer’s mind today.

My advice, then, is simple.

SEO slaves, rise up – and revolt!  Throw out the false God of the search algorithm and, in its place, focus on building valuable content and experiences. Win the audience, not the search.

Arianna and Tim – A Media Match Made in Heaven?

Tim Armstrong, AOL’s CEO, has rebooted AOL with a talk-track of branded destinations, A-level journalism and sizzling original content; and early Monday morning, a full week before Valentine’s Day, his romantic media vision was considerably enhanced, when Arianna Huffington announced that she was selling Huffington Post to AOL for $300 million in cash and $15 million in stock.

For the record, that’s quite a premium price – 10 x Huffington Post’s $31 million in revenues.

Despite the cost, however, Armstrong is a very lucky man, and he received a wonderful gift from Huffington, whose hugely successful and much-talked-about Web site is a perfect match that helps “complete” AOL.

Indeed, the relationship between Armstrong and Huffington comes not a minute too soon for AOL, which is finally bringing on real creative assets and talent – including Arianna Huffington, herself, as chief editorial taste-maker.

To be honest, the media industry has been wondering whether Armstrong could actually pull off a deal like this. (True Confession: I’ve been among the doubters.)

And there’s good reason for the skepticism.

The problem, in large part, has been strategic. Since he assumed the CEO’s post, Armstrong has talked with clarity about his vision for an AOL made up of destination media brands, the way Time Inc. and Conde Nast have built their portfolios.  But to date, his build-out of this city on a hill has fallen short. Instead of buildings gilded with leading journalism that attracts fame and eyeballs, his properties have largely been constructed by plumbers and mechanics laying a foundation for search engine rankings.

That’s why AOL’s recently leaked master plan, “The AOL Way,” is heavily oriented toward users’ search queries.  The playbook emphasizes volume of content, page-views per post, and production cost per-piece.  And, while “The AOL Way” is punctuated by periodic reminders like “quality content at scale,” the reader of the plan is left with the distinct impression that quality is a guardrail, not a compass direction for the journey to ROI nirvana.

Indeed, without a voice or a purpose other than page-views, “The AOL Way” comes off as soulless. Instead of emphasizing audience interests, an editorial point of view, or premium differentiation, it’s a volume strategy: the plan calls for the number of stories to jump from 33,000 to 55,000 a month; with median performance to go from 1,512 page-views per article to 7,000 within the quarter; all while gross margins rocket from 35 percent to 50 percent.

This Google-ingratiating strategy, at least from my perspective, is wrong-headed and short-sighted.  It doesn’t do anything to help build a unique and long-lasting brand that is meaningful for audiences.  And, as a result, it does very little to encourage people to eagerly and voluntarily type “AOL.com” into their browser’s destination bar.  With this playbook, consumers don’t go to AOL; they merely end up there.

There’s a solid lesson here for all of us.

AOL – like everybody else in the media business – is clearly jealous of Facebook’s gravity-defying results.  But it takes time for a proper media brand to achieve such stratospheric numbers.  The great brands – The New York Times, ESPN, CNN, Wall Street Journal – have shown us that you build audience loyalty one positive interaction, one ambitious story, and one rich consumer experience at a time.  To be sure, Huffington Post has shown us that, building its audience to a reported 25 million uniques over a well-paced five years.

So, it doesn’t happen overnight, and it certainly doesn’t happen if you’re just playing for quick search engine results.

Looking forward, it will be interesting to see whether Huffington – a savvy and independent thought leader who has always leaned forward – chooses to embrace “The AOL Way.”

My sense is that she will continue to follow her well-honed consumer-focused instincts instead.  She brings a strong point of view, a decidedly human nose for news, and a variety of social strategies for distribution – not to mention her considerable star power.  And that’s a good thing for AOL.

It’s important to recognize Armstrong’s considerable achievements.  He saw that AOL’s subscription model was a non-starter; he chose areas of core content concentration for AOL; and, unlike Yahoo!, for example, he pared AOL’s portfolio quite dramatically.

But the pre-Valentine’s Day courtship and consummation with Huffington will mean very little in the consumer marketplace if Armstrong doesn’t get rid of his seemingly unshakable Google obsession – and very soon.

Here’s hoping that Arianna can help nurture Tim’s AOL, and turn it into a true media destination.

Why Rupert Murdoch Is Right About The Daily

This article was published as a guest post on paidContent.org

There are plenty of naysayers who point out that Rupert Murdoch’s new initiative The Daily — the first major-media publication created expressly for tablet computers like the iPad — is an expensive and risky bet.

But here are four reasons why Rupert is right:

1) Rupert knows the ad model of publishing is doomed. Print and broadcast command the heftiest premiums, and both are at risk of price and volume erosion as consumers cut their ties to offline media. In the digital environment, online advertising is highly commoditized: the explosion of content publishers is outpacing the shift in demand, while technologies target audience ever more efficiently. Advertisers have plentiful ways to reach a consumer.

For his part, Rupert knows that his offline publications are at risk from decreasing ad revenues, and web-advertising models are hardly an adequate solution. Whether it’s out of desperation or vision, Rupert is willing to break through — and lose money in the short term — in pursuit of a better model.

2) Rupert can afford a long-shot bet — and can’t afford not to make one. He’s leveraging his considerable influence by putting something out there that can be truly cutting-edge. A $30 million investment may seem ridiculous for a new publication — and it is. But even with that hefty price tag, this is an insignificant bet relative to the industry and consumer behavior Rupert is trying to move. Throwing money at this is OK, because the possibilities are so great; if The Daily succeeds — or even provides the key insights so his next venture can succeed — it will be worth billions.

3) Rupert has influence to change consumer and industry behavior. He beat his drum loudly last year to get paywalls on the agendas of other publishers’ boardrooms. And it’s worked; just look at The New York Times’ pending move to a metered system. This is what I love about Rupert: Unlike other leaders in publishing, he uses his voice — and his treasury — to influence the industry and consumer behavior. He’s all about trying to get to a more successful model.

4) Rupert has a friend in Steve. Steve Jobs has a lot riding on this, too. Is Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) in the device business or the media business? To date, the lion’s share of its revenue and growth has come from the sales of ever-more-advanced devices. But as device categories mature, Jobs knows growth will get harder to come by: iPod sales grew at just 2% for Apple in 2010, as the venerable device line nears saturation.

In a world where mobile devices are ubiquitous and fiercely competitive, the fat margins of media revenue-share arrangements can powerfully fuel profits. But even more attractive is the tremendous expanse of the pool:  Apple’s media revenues are currently around $5 billion — a paltry sum compared to the global media and entertainment market that PricewaterhouseCoopers pegs at $1.3 trillion.

Apple has already proven that in its remarkably successful closed media ecosystem, the company’s store can earn an estimated 30% of the top-line for media sales — without having to produce any media. This happens when Apple creates compelling devices, exciting user-experience platforms, and fresh marketplaces. For Steve, the upside here is huge. And so he should be happy to tie that upside with anyone who is as crazy-aggressive as he is about getting legions of consumers in the habit of paying for media. And that list has just one name on it: Rupert Murdoch.

A fresh start and a new division — with a new concept and a new design for a new platform — is the only way someone like Rupert can have the freedom he needs to reinvent media for a new age. And only Rupert can do this — without falling into the ruts of compatibility with existing businesses or holdover assumptions from old models.

Kudos to Mr. Murdoch for summoning up the courage, and putting up the money.

New Analysis: Old Media Magazines Losing Share Online Despite Their Great Brands

Despite their coveted value, the great brands of old media aren’t proving out to be much of an asset online.  And to the extent old media is relying on the value of their brands to ensure a digital future, they are headed in the wrong direction.

For this new analysis for Digital Quarters, we measured audience and visits (from comScore) for sites across the major media categories, comparing the metrics of sites operated under old media brands (e.g. ABC, Entertainment Weekly) in each category to those of new upstarts.  Over the past year old media brands lost share of online audience to new media in nearly all of the traditional magazine categories (TV, entertainment, business, fashion, tech, and teens), while the offline brands in the News category grew share during that same period.    Although total visits were up 5% for old media, new media visits grew far faster — 10% — from April 2009 to April 2010, leading to share loss for old media in six out of the eight categories that we tracked.

Old Media Share Online

Overall visit growth was positive in all media categories other than TV, but despite this, old media brands experienced an absolute visit decline in Entertainment News and Teens which are rapidly shifting towards new media sources.

Conventional wisdom has held that building a brand is a momentous challenge in developed spaces such as media; and that disproportionate returns accrue to the most established brands. But my new analysis shows that legacy brands are on the defensive, far more threatened by new entrants than the other way around.  The upshot appears to be that upstarts’ execution is earning new audiences (and building their new brands), drawing audience on average away from more established players.

The reason for this shift, and the dominance of new media in categories such as Tech News is simply that the old media magazine model is ill equipped to compete with more nimble online competitors.  For the most part, weekly and monthly publications are struggling to keep up with the new pace of information exchange and social interaction demanded on the web.  Understandably, the value to consumers of days, weeks, or months-old “news” on fashion trends, celebrity gossip, and technology is far lower in the presence of up-to-the-minute coverage from new sites.

comScore April YOY Visits Growth

However, the success of offline brands in the News category offers hope for other old media brands.  Companies such as The New York Times, BBC, and ABCNews have grown their online presence and are clearly investing in digital as core to their business.    They are actively experimenting with rich media, social marketing, and engaging their audience.    But while news outlets have always operated on a fast pace, magazines are at a particular disadvantage in that they are not structured to turn information around quickly.  For old media magazine brands to maintain or grow share, they’ll need to go further by transforming their organizations, incentives, and sources and embracing the new definitions of publishing quality to provide the experiences that consumers are now seeking online.  With online share falling — in some cases dramatically — now is the time for offline legacy publishers to take action and get their brands working harder before it’s too late.

Methodology

Source: comScore panel-only visit data for April 2009, July 2009, September 2009 (panel only was unavailable for October), January 2010, and April 2010, including only properties with more than 500,000 monthly unique users.   Properties were manually categorized into old media if they originated offline, and new media if they are entirely online or originated online (e.g. TMZ and MSNBC are considered new media).  comScore category names: Business News/Research (Bus News); Entertainment – News (Ent News); Beauty/Fashion/Style (Fashion); Lifestyles;  News/Information (News); and Technology – News (Tech News); Teens; Entertainment  TV (TV).

Missed Opportunity: New York Times Losing Its Pulse Again

It’s been a week of dancing for Apple and The New York Times as they played hokey pokey with an app that offers a new, fun way for consumers to experience media:  First, Steve Jobs put the acclaimed Pulse News app into his Worldwide Developers Conference talk, then took it out of  the app store, and then put it back in again, but only after the developers took The New York Times out of it.

But as fun as it is to watch them dance, I can’t help but notice that The New York Times missed the opportunity right in front of Sr. VP Martin Nisenholtz’s eyes:  the Pulse team is exactly the kind of talent that the company should be acquiring, not shunting.  The Pulse founders made an app with a great consumer experience for media,  did it in just a few weeks,  managed to get the attention of the premier technology tastemaker in the world, Steve Jobs, and even made some money.

Message to Martin:  Instead of cutting them down and pushing them into someone else’s arms, make nice and go hire (or acquire) the Pulse team. Or, as my mother once said to my older brother when he was dating someone she actually liked, “There are better men out there than you:  You better marry her before someone else does!”

Online Experience for Publishers: Innovate or Die

We need an experience revolution.Revolution Fist

Each week, we hear of major publications and traditional broadcasters who are struggling to stay afloat in a digital age with new economics and new expectations.  Despite the promise of interactivity made with the internet revolution over the last 15 years, most publishers have done little more than replicate dead trees online, with zero innovation beyond the hyperlink, the slideshow, and an embedded video now and then.

And yet we can see from the rising successes of the last decade like Facebook, Google, Zynga, YouTube, and others that what catches audience attention is interactivity.

To earn loyal audiences today, publishers need to go beyond content creation:  they need to produce compelling experiences that distinguish them and get the consumer coming back for more.  The Pew Internet & American Life Project concluded that “when asked whether they have a favorite online news source, the majority of online news users (65%) say they do not.”  In an era where the consumer’s cost to switch is the flick of a click, publishers must offer compelling, differentiated experiences to earn loyalty.  Choices abound consumers:  there are scads of publishers online in every category; content suggestions offered constantly via social networks; and blue links proffered by search engines dozens of times per day per reader.  In an environment of choice, as brand experts have known for years, nothing builds loyalty like a great experience.

And now is the perfect time to create those breakthrough experiences.  The enabling technologies for the digital customer experience have improved considerably in recent years: we now have ubiquitous broadband, flash and other streaming video, plus HTML5 and maturing mobile application platforms.   Add to that personalization, targeting and social graph access, and there are some amazing opportunities to innovate.

It’s not just consumers that are thirsty for upgraded experiences.  Advertisers are showing that they will pay more for immersive interaction over basic display ads next to text.   Video ads during full TV episodes on ABC.com, Hulu, and others, or mid-day live sporting broadcasts command many times the CPM of typical display ads. Indeed, according to Michael Learmonth at AdAge, The Wall Street Journal’s online video content is bringing in envy-inspiring CPMs at $75 – $100.

But video is not the only way to create an immersive customer experience online.  Online sites of traditional publishers like Better Homes and Gardens are experience train wrecks (to be fair, they’re not alone in that regard).   Contrast that with the much more successful (certainly from an ad rate perspective) MarthaStewart.com which has many of the same elements – a top stories slideshow, cross-promotions for the print magazine, etc., and it’s a substantially better experience due to the focus on design and usability that is expected of the Martha Stewart Omnimedia (MSO) brand.

Even still, much more can be done with today’s technology to put the consumer’s needs and interests first.  The latest example I’ve seen of true creativity in user experience design is Microsoft’s (MSFT) Glo.    There are additional signs of greatness in the tablet demo that Time Warner (TWX) built for its Sports Illustrated brand.   And The New York Times (NYT) continues to excel in their applications and interactive graphics which enjoy significant pass around (bit.ly shows over 5,000 social media clicks to a recent budget infographic and today’s “A Moment in Time” project has already generated over 100 tweets in the first 15 hours).  But too few companies are making similar efforts to distinguish themselves.  The opportunities are there, and we need to step up.

Consumers will decide which brands deserve their loyalty and content alone won’t cut it.  We are on the brink of a total revolution of experience.  For publishers, it’s reinvent or fail.

Do you know additional examples of publishers innovating?

The New Rules For Judging ‘Quality’ In Published Content

This article by Ben Elowitz originally appeared as a guest post on paidContentEngaging Readers Online

Last week, I explained why the traditional ways of judging “quality” in published content are useless in the digital age. Judging by readers response to that piece, those dated values (which I labeled credential, correctness, objectivity and craftsmanship) are still sacred to many people. But here’s the problem: They simply aren’t enough to win audiences, drive financial success, or, for that matter, ensure viability. The demise of institutions like Newsweek proves that—and shows that publishers that don’t move beyond these anachronistic measures of success will perish.

So this week, I’m offering part two of my take on the changing definition of quality in published content. Here are the four new rules of quality that publishers must obey to flourish. The biggest difference between the old and new definitions of quality are who’s doing the judging. In the era of Publishing 1.0, when production costs were high, alternatives low and time ample, the editor deemed something quality or not. But today, content isn’t scarce at all—in fact, it is in oversupply. And it is the audience that judges quality directly, dozens of times per day.

So, according to the audience, what is quality?  It comes down to these four characteristics:

Relevance. Continue reading