Within this complex ecosystem, search technologies become an inextricable force in the evolution of print news and its expansion to digital. Rupert Murdoch's recent speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors echoed this notion: "The trends are against us. Fast search engines and targeted advertising as well as editorial, all increase the electronic attractions by a factor of three or four. And at least $4 billion a year is going into R&D to further improve this process."
This means search is much more than a direct-response marketing tactic and publishers must strategically leverage it throughout their digital, content, and marketing strategies. To be sure, the impact of search extends beyond the domain of legacy print publishers, but the stakes are perhaps highest for print. Search's exact future in shaping the news publishing business is unclear, but major trends have emerged and more are inevitable. Here are four of the most important ones:
Contextual Targeting First, consider the pressure search is exerting on publishers to become more accountable and deliver clear return on investment (ROI) to advertisers. Contextual advertising technologies like AdSense and Overture have been coming out of the search companies and permeating the infrastructure of online publishers, especially newspaper Web sites with their vast content and desire to monetize impressions. This is perhaps the greatest impact search has had on the competitive landscape of online publishing thus far.
Martin Niseholtz, senior vice president, digital operations of The New York Times Company, and one of his industry's frontiersmen, said, "Advertisers' ability to specifically target the very niche part of the tail and achieve advantage is now a very large business. That puts pressure on the entire advertising business to be more performance oriented, and that will only increase."
Some newspapers, such as Newsday, are even instituting such programs in-house with search and contextual technologies from companies like Quigo. While Google AdSense and Yahoo's Overture have been a boon to many news Web sites, the reality is they have become intermediaries between the publisher and the advertiser. This is a dichotomy that has yet to play out.
Enhancing the Marketplace Experience Second, news Web sites - especially those from local and regional newspapers - are starting to apply more sophisticated search technologies within their own online networks. Why? To aggregate content and optimize the services that historically have lured people to the original print formats: relevant editorial content and advertisements to figure out what to purchase.
Melinda Gipson, electronic media director of the Newspaper Association of America, said, "Research shows that advertisements are a major reason people subscribe, and we must revitalize that habit on the Web by giving people something worth shopping on."
She noted that the aggregation of advertising and editorial - essentially search-driven databases - toward a quality marketplace experience is becoming a critical link in newspapers' overall efforts to drive advertising revenues with merchants. "Search is the plankton on the food chain of marketing, and publishers have an opportunity to use it to lure these new advertisers and gradually introduce them to more sophisticated services," she said.
Customer Acquisition Third, search plays a major role in reader acquisition and Web site impressions. I contributed to a recent Hitwise report that indicated 19 percent of visitors to print-affiliated news sites come directly from search engines. While publishers are probably best served by focusing on their brands and striving to be unique destinations, they cannot disregard customers who slip in through the side door. Therefore, a top priority is ensuring that editorial and advertising content is search friendly.
Another priority is evaluating paid-search strategies to build readership for editorial sections and individual stories, as well as to market subscriptions and other services. A Google search for "tsunami" or "pope" reveals how some of the major news publishers are jockeying for readers around those major topics. A few publishers have become so savvy as to make instantaneous keyword purchases on niche brands, subjects, and sources featured in the editorial of both their print and online editions.
Search-Driven News Aggregators Finally, automated news aggregation is having a major impact on news distribution, publisher control, and the very experience readers have with content. Rooted in search technologies, sites like Topix.net (majority-owned by newspaper companies Gannett Co., Knight Ridder Inc., and Tribune Co.) search, collect, and sort news stories from thousands of sources and deliver it to consumers in a variety of ways. It's the notion of exposing the long tail. This manifests not only consumer choice, but individual control over how, if, and when news content is discovered and consumed.
Publishers have mixed feelings over news aggregators, but the reality is they've arrived and appear permanent. Why? Chris Tolles, vice president of sales and marketing at Topix.net, said: "First, consumers love them because they are great at finding relevant content amidst a plethora of choices. Second, aggregators are a boon to advertisers because they amplify the power to make targeted, correlative media buys, not unlike search keyword buys."
As for publishers, Tolles agrees aggregators change the landscape, but argues they actually broaden online publishers' audience reach and value. To maximize this new dynamic, he recommends publishers ensure a heavy presence of searchable content and take advantage of formal partnerships with aggregators to optimize placement of their content.
Of course, any discussion of news aggregation also mandates mention of RSS. Publishers are increasingly experimenting and delivering content via RSS to news readers and aggregators like Feedster and Bloglines (owned by Ask Jeeves) - and search is a critical enabler.
Simon Waldman, director of digital publishing for Guardian Newspapers, said in a speech at the recent World Editor's Forum in Seoul, Korea, "The intersection of the search and media industries which RSS helps drive, is going to be a fascinating battle, and companies that specialize in the various technologies which contribute to analytics, RSS ad serving, enterprise versions, and small business RSS enablement have a strong future indeed."
The content-rich news industry - particularly the traditional print variety - is undergoing a pivotal transition amidst the rise of digital. How does search fit into the game? That's a large and abstract question, and I only mentioned a few of the issues. But we already see impact, and more significant implications continue to emerge. The bottom line is that publishers who embrace these digital and search-driven trends will achieve competitive advantage and have greater control over their destinies. Those who don't will become evermore defined by the negative storm accentuated by the Audit Bureau of Circulations' periodic release of print circulation figures.