There are easy answers for news publishers who complain that Google and Facebook unfairly profit from the publishers’ online articles, photos and videos.
Block Google from crawling your sites. Dismantle your Facebook pages. Simple.
For publishers, though, choosing between restricting or allowing search engines to crawl their websites is like asking whether they’d like to be stabbed in the left eye or the right. Google and social media are huge sources of traffic to news websites.
In Australia, the government is allowing publishers to take their complaints to a new level. In Canberra, Parliament is preparing to pass a law that requires Google and Facebook to pay for links to news articles. There are similar movements afoot in Europe and Canada, but Australia is closest to approving legislation.
(Update: The new law, called the News Media Bargaining Code, passed on Thursday, Feb. 25, after several amendments. Facebook and Google are negotiating or have already made deals with publishers to show their news in Facebook News and Google News Showcase, respectively. The online giants are not required in the law to pay for all news links that appear on the platforms.)
Who’s the Bully?
To protest, Facebook on Feb. 17 stripped its Australian version of the platform of all links to news. Facebook is reversing the news ban, but the government has effectively bullied Facebook and Google into negotiating some form of compensation for the “privilege” of linking to publishers’ websites.
Google and Facebook have both built multi-billion dollar businesses by delivering advertising around all kinds of content, including links to news websites.
But let’s not forget publishers already benefit from those links. Google News and Google Search send more than 24 billion visits a month to news publishers’ websites worldwide.
Traffic Gold Mine for News Sites
According to statistics published by Alexa in early 2020, news sites get 35 percent of their traffic from search engines and another 12.2 percent from social media. Eliminating search engine and social media traffic would cut visits to news websites by almost half.
And even though publishers don’t make enough from their website traffic, they do generate revenue by showing ads. Fewer website visits mean few ad impressions to deliver and less revenue.
The debate over “using our news for free” is almost as old as the oldest news websites, which launched in the early 1980s. I was in those debates as the editorial leader of a Pittsburgh newspaper website in the first few years of this century.
PittsburghLIVE: News vs. Web
It was a heady time at PittsburghLIVE. The site operated autonomously, and we were allowed to use newspaper content pretty much as we saw fit. We were experimenting, learning and even earning awards for our efforts. At the same time, we understood how important it was to generate revenue through advertising and any other way we could imagine (We even built websites for businesses).
In addition to PittsburghLIVE, we operated several sports-related domains including SteelersLIVE. The newspaper’s Steelers coverage, for example, was published under SteelersLIVE, the most popular section of the entire website family.
To generate extra revenue, we created a subscription-only email, SteelersLIVE ‘Xtra. Believe it or not, it was a pioneering effort in those days. We built a process for collecting email and credit card information, planned promotion and designed the email. And we got agreement — grudgingly — from the sports department to write some unique articles just for the email.
Making a Profit with Content
We came up with our own content, too. Chris Kucharski, one of the most innovative thinkers I’ve ever worked with, came up with surveys, power rankings and other content you could only find in the email newsletter. We were proud of that thing, and it even made a profit.
Eventually, we lost the support of the sports department, partly because they weren’t paid any extra for their efforts, and partly because they wanted their articles to be read by a wider audience. At the same time, bloggers, other news media and even the Steelers themselves began generating “content” about the team, and it became almost impossible to create something “unique” that was worth a paid subscription.
The Steelers email episode was not an isolated story. Tension constantly hummed between the newsroom and the website team. The news folks wrote all the articles, took all the photos and created all the graphics, and the web team, put all that hard work on the internet “for free,” while others were paying a quarter or 35 cents for the same information in print. (Let’s see. I could buy a newspaper for 25 cents or buy … almost nothing else, even in 2005.)
Publishers: Modern Buggy-Whip Makers?
So you see, the Australian conflict is really nothing new. It’s a decades-old struggle that continues because the news industry has refused to understand how internet technology has changed the world. And asking Google and Facebook to pay for their internet injuries is like buggy-whip makers asking Ford to pay for every horse-drawn carriage replaced by a car.
There’s another side, too. By serving up links to news articles, Google and Facebook are driving visitors (readers) to the publishers’ websites. And publishers and journalists love it when people read their stuff. Don’t kid yourself, publishers benefit from the traffic sent to them by online platforms. Those visitors are exposed to advertising, which absolutely generates revenue, although not enough to recoup the cost of producing the articles.
There’s a simple — not easy — answer for publishers. They could prevent Google search bots from crawling their sites. They can — and many have — create paywalls that only allow subscribers to see content. Nobody’s forcing publishers to create Facebook pages and post their articles there. But of course, there’s a cost to all of that, too. Less traffic. Fewer eyeballs on ads.
What Marketers Would Do with Free Traffic
Think for a moment about the number of visitors Google sends to news websites — 24 billion a month (for free.) Any marketer would give up Facebook for a year just to have a tiny fraction of that kind of website traffic.
When you’ve got that many people visiting a website you can collect email addresses and names. And when you have those, you can learn about your visitors, watch what pages they visit, ask questions in surveys, and find out what they need, what they want and they’re willing to pay for. How has Facebook succeeded? It knows everything about its members, and thus it knows what ads will be most interesting to them.
Marketers work ridiculously hard to grab website visitors and build email lists. They are figuring out how to funnel potential customers into buying journeys that lead them to becoming paying customers. Thanks to Google and Facebook, news publishers don’t have to worry much about the first part.
Google and Facebook know the value of traffic and have been taking the publishers’ prolific straw and spinning it into gold. It’s high time publishers figured out how to do that for themselves by learning how valuable their readers really are.
(The first version of this article said Google sends 10 billion monthly visits to news websites. Google’s most recent statements say the number is 24 billion.)
Mark Whittaker, a Pittsburgh-based online marketer, helps small businesses and start-ups find customers with search and social media advertising, content development and digital marketing strategy. Write to him at mark (at) markwhittaker.com and subscribe to his bi-weekly email.