AOL & Yahoo Will Take Those Worthless Search Visitors That Some Newspapers Don’t Want

Connect the dots, see if you can spot the picture. Some news publishers call visitors they get via search from Google worthless. Meanwhile, you’ve got online media companies directly looking at search activity as a way to make money. Who’s not getting it?

My If Newspapers Were Stores, Would Visitors Be “Worthless” Then? post last week covers the latest anti-Google trend, to argue that millions of visitors its sends for free to news sites are nearly worthless. I disagree, as my post explains, as do my comments at Lookie Lou isn’t really a customer from Steve Yelvington.

Today, there’s news that AOL is almost finished with a system to deliver news stories in response to searches. From the Wall Street Journal article about AOL’s plans:

The predictions, it says, are based on a wide swath of data AOL collects, from the Web searches people make on its site to the sites visited by subscribers to its Internet services….

AOL says its new system determined that the most popular topic on the Web last Tuesday was “crib recalls,” following news of a massive recall by Stork Craft Manufacturing of Canada. AOL had only one story on its sites on the recall. But, if the new system had been live, editors would have geared up to supply stories on the subject from a number of angles, the company says.

Now where have I heard this before. Oh, yes — Yahoo does this. As I wrote last year in Yahoo: How Open When You Compete With Others?:

Scott Moore — who’s in charge of Yahoo’s media operations, — started talking about Yahoo News. He described how during the Olympics, Yahoo could watch the query stream coming in real-time and craft articles that matched the most popular requests….

Um, but aren’t those publishers also your partners? I mean, as part of the open mantra of the day, we were told how Yahoo is planning to make it even easier for publishers to put their content on Yahoo News pages. That’s nice, but doesn’t it kind of also backstab those partners if you’re also vying with them for page views?

I talked with Moore after his presentation a bit. He agreed there was competition that was happening. Indeed, he kind of smiled and said it was “coopetition,” smiling I think because on the web, we’ve been kind of used to companies that compete with each other also working with each other….

Moore also got me riled when he talked about how Yahoo’s openness can be seen in terms of the sites it links to. I didn’t get the quote exactly, but it was something like: “There aren’t really many other news organization that will put in links that take you away from their own content.”Except Google, of course — where practically every link takes you away from Google News, with the key exception of some wire content. And in that case, Google does that primarily because the AP was threatening to sue it.

Again, I asked Moore about this later, and he made a good point of explaining that Google News isn’t a news organization — it’s not a news publisher. True, but I guess that brings me back to thinking that Yahoo shouldn’t be a news publisher either.

You get all that? Yahoo rarely takes the same heat as Google does over Yahoo News, despite it having three times the traffic and actually having journalists who work to compete against publishers. Meanwhile you’ve got news publishers who pretend that Google is somehow a news publisher. Moore certainly doesn’t believe that — nor does Moore believe those search visitors are worthless. Instead, they’re a gold mine he was tapping at Yahoo.

Was tapping? Oh, yes — Moore’s now at MSN, as executive producer in the US. You know, the recently redesigned portal owned by Microsoft, the company that is is currently positioned as some type of newspaper savior versus Google because of rumored talks for Microsoft’s Bing to exclusively list News Corporation content (see Thoughts On A “Killer” Bing-News Corp Deal & The Myth Of An “OPEC For News”).

Now in the past, Moore’s not suggested he plans to ramp up MSN’s original content to the degree that he was pushing at Yahoo. But still, he does want MSN to have its own material in addition to being a news aggregator (those terrible creatures as viewed by some news publishers). As he said in a Techflash interview earlier this year:

The thing that worked really well for me at Yahoo was the combination of aggregation — licensed content — and a small amount of original content that you can’t get anywhere else….

I don’t think it would be wise for Microsoft to go into a huge amount of original content creation. They already have some and probably it’s a matter of tuning that programming and seeing if there are some other things that we might want to do that are original that will set us apart and attract people to us as a result of it.

In the same interview, he talked about being interested in local news and information, something that he said again is a key area for MSN after it relaunched.

I’m not saying newspapers should immediately start writing anything to tap into search traffic. In fact, I’ve warned against that. But I do think they need to understand that visitors from search are indeed valuable. Some of Google’s competitors sure think so.