the last few weeks has seen plenty of publishers, most notably Rupert Murdoch, criticising Google for the quality of their traffic. there’s a couple of things that I think really need to be understood about Google and it’s benefits
1. Google is central to net users’ experience of the internet – it’s not the enemy. it’s not about casual users lazily trolling around looking for free stuff vs your engaged users coming straight to you. Google is central to the way people use your site, and is in fact a tool of engagement. My favourite news website is guardian.co.uk. To go there I type ‘guardian’ into my search window; if I want to look for something I remember reading on guardian.co.uk I will use Google (rather than guardian.co.uk’s own search tool); if I want to look for guardian.co.uk’s coverage of a news story I will go to Google and type e.g. ‘sarah plain autobiography guardian’ as I know this will be easier than navigating the site for the story. Am I not an ‘engaged’ user?
2. There is no low quality traffic – only low quality content. This is Rupert Murdoch’s whinge about Google:
“If they’re just search people and there are ten, 20, 50 references on that subject and they look through and see an interesting headline and hit that… when they click it, sure, they get a page of a story that’s in my paper. Who knows who they are or where they are? They don’t suddenly become loyal readers of our content.”
So in other words, this is the seemingly-reasonable argument that Google delivers low-quality readers to timesonline.co.uk or theaustralian.com.au, as they’re just casual users who don’t value the content.
This is rubbish: the harsh truth is that this is your fault as a publisher for not producing content people value enough to become loyal to. Probably because it’s been commoditised to such an extent that it is completely undifferentiated from every other news site. There is no low-quality traffic, only low-quality content
(Obviously it’s impossible for publishers to convert more than a fraction of search traffic into loyal readers (or customers), but that’s just one of the realities of the internet. Having said that (a) the more unique and differentiated your content is, the better you will be at doing this, and (b) at some point, most of your most engaged and loyal users likely started off as search traffic)
3. Google follows logic of the mass market – if you’re not a mass-market brand don’t worry as much about Google. Again, the problem is not with Google it’s with publishers bending over backwards to get good Google SRPs. Google is a popularity contest – it doesn’t rank by what the most discerning people read, or what the best content is, or the content that was produced by high-quality paid journalists; it ranks by what most people are searching for.
Publishers realise this, and so over time, thought they were playing a very clever strategy of producing the type of content that they think will pop up in more searches. This garners traffic but produces undifferentiated, samey, generic content with interchangeable headlines and copy (and in some cases, keyword stuffing with and black-hat SEO with high-demand keywords like ‘Britney Spears’).
But if you’re not a mass market brand that produces mass-market copy, why try and compete here? Publishers need to realise that while being a well-optimised site is a great thing (from the point of view of user experience as much as being high in SRPs), it’s absolutely not the only thing.