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.


  1. Sam Scenea says

    It is called poisoning the well. I just finished reading the book “Wired for Thought” which compares the Internet to the brain. The author specifically points to these types of games as serious problems online. If the Internet is a brain, and websites are neurons, then pushing bad traffic through is ultimately counter-productive and will destroy the network as a whole. In the brain, Wired for Thought shows how this happens, when bad ideas, or corrupt neurons gain control of someone’s neural networks. On the Internet, this happens as well.

  2. says

    “Some of Google’s competitors sure think so. …”

    And those competitors are search engines. Not news companies.

    But telling news companies to turn into search engines would be nonsense.

    There’s plenty of cases where someone in business X can use something that’s not valuable to business Y. In a simple example, some people are entertainers where “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”, but that is not true for everyone.

  3. says

    I didn’t say they should become search engines, Seth. I said those suggesting that people coming to them via search engines are somehow worthless need to think again.

    And AOL and Yahoo aren’t search engines. They’re media companies. Same as Google, except they own properties while Google tends to earn off ads put on other people’s sites.

  4. says

    “I didn’t say they should become search engines, Seth.”

    Well, no, I meant that part pre-emptively. The idea is again that if something is valuable to some other business, that says very little about whether it’s valuable to your own business – this is the reasoning flaw that I’d contend needs to be examined.

    I was using “search engines” as a gloss for the sort of overall aggregator/portal type of business of AOL or Yahoo or in its way Google. There’s been a general idea that newspapers should try to transform into this business, and I was anticipating that.

    “I said those suggesting that people coming to them via search engines are somehow worthless need to think again.”

    To step back for a moment, is there anything that would cause you to question your reasoning? That is, in terms of falsifiability, would any realistic tests or experiments establish to some basis “We tried it your way, and it didn’t work”. Or would there always be something they didn’t do right, some more they should have done, etc.

  5. says

    Seth, of course I’d question my reasoning. I don’t think I’m unreasonable. I get the impression you think I’m just going to be like anti-news executive no matter what. Not at all.

    The problem is, I just haven’t seen enough facts out there. Saying people are worthless without having demonstrated any real attempt to earn off of them raises questions.

    Hey, if the answer is well, we could try this, but we think it would only earn pennies and isn’t worth our time, OK. But it would be sure better if they had tried something.

  6. says

    “I get the impression you think I’m just going to be like anti-news executive no matter what.”

    Well, let me put it this way – in my experience with a certain … perspective … there’s a phenomena of unfalsifiability – the advisee never does enough, or the payoff is in the far-future, or some other reason why the advice-giver isn’t wrong.

    There’s plenty of approximate data on how well one can monetize traffic – it’s the Great Game of the Web. Everything from Huffington Post to blog networks can be used to get some rough idea even if one doesn’t have proprietary details. I would have thought it a rather uncontroversial statement that generic search traffic is overall pretty worthless to a content site.

  7. Ravi says

    Content sites and search engines are in the same Great Game of getting visitors. Content sites want them to stay once they come in, search engines want them to go their way. Depends on what content sites are pulling in from search engines (relevant vs irrelevant) and the share in volume (% of traffic overall, if google is 90% of your traffic, then it is rather controversial). Without numbers it is just a ‘generic’ statement