It seems that Google is falling prey to the ugly sort of herd mentality that can give journalism a bad name when it happens among the press pool covering a candidate or those chasing after the latest octomom rumors. In this case, journalists are doing it in defense of our profession and the benefits it brings to society, but that still doesn’t make it defensible.
Unfortunately, this requires getting out a calculator (for those journalists who don’t have one, see if your cellphone offers the capability). This is, after all, just a math problem.
Consider the language used by Maureen Dowd when she fell victim to the group think among journalists and suggested that Google is profiting “profligately from newspaper content.” Really?
Since no information is available in Google’s financial statements on the extent to which news content drives its revenues (perhaps because it’s so inconsequential), we have to make our own assumptions.
One argument goes that Google should turn Google News into a money maker by adding advertising to its page – or perhaps pages, though most of the traffic is probably only on the main page. Then, this argument goes, it should return a share of this new revenue to the publishers whose news content – in the form of headlines and snippets – makes up Google News.
Did anyone who makes this argument stop to run the numbers?
For the sake of argument, let’s say Google News has 1 billion page views a month. I don’t have access to the measurement services that could tell if I’m too high or too low on that number, but as you’ll see in a second, even if the figure should be two, three, even ten times larger it isn’t sufficient.
For the sake of this exercise, it really doesn’t matter if Google were to put display ads (from it DoubeClick unit) or AdSense text ads on the pages of Google News. Nor does it matter if Google put only a few ads or went nuts like some news sites and cluttered up the page with numerous ads (lowering the value of each in the process). The likely revenue per page (or RPM) will still be about $2, perhaps as much as $3. Again, you can argue this number should be higher, but even a doubling or tripling isn’t significant.
So, here’s the math: 1 billion page views a month at $3 RPM will yield (drumroll, please) about $3 million. Let’s divide that up among the 6,000 or so news sites included in Google News and generously pay it ALL out. That means the typical news site included in Google News will get $500 a month, not even enough to fly Maureen Dowd out to interview Eric Schmidt.
Of course, better targeting could get the RPM up, especially for some news categories like technology or health or travel. But keep in mind that we assume most of the traffic is on the top-level general news page, not down in high-value categories.
Google could target ads contextually based on what’s in the news, until the journalistic group think started piling on the worst examples of bad contextual targeting (trot out the old saw about Samsonite luggage ads on news about a body cut up and stuffed in a suitcase).
Or Google could track user behavior and target advertising based on what subjects a user showed interest in. This would improve RPM, until enough journalists jumped on the group thinking about the alleged privacy threat of such usage tracking, and Congress felt compelled to act to prevent it.
In short, any way you play with the numbers, it’s unlikely that Google News will generate a ton of revenue with a site that is only a page or so deep and then links off to the news source. And that leaves some journalists scratching their heads.
If journalists looked closer at Google, they’d understand that Google makes most of its money off searches and helping direct users to content that is not journalism
This truism was staring Maureen Dowd in the face as she waited in the lobby at Google looking at what she describe as the “vaguely ominous Big Brother wall” where Google displays real-time search queries. (I must admit I was transfixed by the experience the first time I saw it.) Dowd writes: “In one minute of watching, I saw the Washington association where my sister works, the Delaware beach town where my brother vacations, some Dave Matthews lyrics, calories Panera, females feet, soaps in depth and Douglas Mangum, whoever he is.”
This is the kind of stuff people search for. What does it tell you? People are posing questions that generally don’t get answered by news articles. It’s also the kind of search queries that advertisers want to target. It’s not a business model destined to support journalism.
Of course, even when news organizations have the articles and reviews that would seem natural answers to some queries, their web pages don’t show up because for too long they locked their archival content away and didn’t get the links so critical to search ranking or didn’t make their pages search engine friendly. (And now some are contemplating putting up subscription walls that could have the same effects.)
Newspapers aren’t hurting because Google News is stealing their content and their readers or Google isn’t linking to their high-quality content on other topics. Unfortunately they are suffering from so many problems that it truly is a perfect storm. But you can’t find a way to sail out of a perfect storm if you’re focusing on the wrong blip on the radar screen.