“The Sell Sider” is a column written by the sell side of the digital media community.
Today's column is written by Christian Baesler, president at Bauer Xcel Media.
Time Inc., Thrillist and other publishers recently announced important hires for a hot growth strategy they’re betting on: search engine optimization. Is this 2006 or 2016?
It wasn’t so long ago when businesses such as Demand Media built their entire model around Google’s algorithm and took a big hit when it changed. More recently, Facebook became the largest driver of traffic to publisher sites, and click-bait-focused companies like BuzzFeed seemed untouchable. Then Facebook tweaked its algorithm in favor of friends’ posts, drastically lowering referral traffic for many publishers.
Media companies feeling the pinch are once again investing in Google search. In the past few years, publishers have resembled a swarm of bees, willing to fly back and forth between these two platform giants for a small taste of consumer engagement.
It can be hard to resist peer pressure – just look at the volume of publishers trying to drive traffic on Facebook by posting everything Donald Trump has said during the past few months. This is not the way to succeed. The right publisher strategy requires a commitment to a core content identity and some clever search and social media maneuvers to move flexibly across the two platforms to create stability.
A balanced traffic strategy can act like a shelter in a storm when one platform makes a change. What’s more, if a trend doesn’t work for a strategy blessed by the executives, you’ll have an easier time avoiding it. Looking past the Demand Media and BuzzFeed outliers, some successful publishers that have done a great job sticking to their core identity, breaking their content into smaller pieces for a Facebook audience while also making their content as searchable as possible for Google.
One good strategy is to find a differentiator and double down on it. National Geographic, for example, sticks to science, nature and animals. Scripps focuses on home and decorating content. Both are everywhere on Facebook, but neither has had to sacrifice their core brand to do so. As an executive from Thrillist said recently, “There are a lot of people out there with a lot of different questions. So we focus on the ones where we have something distinctive to say. There are only so many tricks.”
A few months ago, Google made a few mysterious changes to its algorithm and suddenly publishers with a lot of rich, evergreen content found their results tanking. Google supposedly has a strategy called EAT – expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness – that guides its tweaks to content rankings, but freshness recently has become much more important.
Repurposing, updating or repackaging the content that used to get the most traffic might be worth it to regain lost status. The New York Times recently announced a major project to convert big old documents into a format that is friendlier for Google’s search engine.
A core brand identity can also help publishers determine what channels matter most for them. Some companies will care a lot more about Google News than organic search rankings, for example. These two elements of the platform have different guiding principles.
Publishers should do a cost-benefit analysis before investing in any new traffic driver that pops up. Instant page loads might be very important for Google and Facebook, which recently announced AMP and Instant Articles, respectively, but betting on both early might be too expensive and not yield immediate monetization at previous levels. Looking at mobile trends for a core audience and content category is a good way to determine which should be focused on first.
Not only does it pay to balance a strategy across both Facebook and Google, but also to make bets that fall completely outside of these two platforms’ domains. Publishers are eyeing everything from Snapchat to Pinterest for this purpose even as these companies tweak their advertising and content strategies.
It’s also necessary that publishers get their acts together to drive traffic and find revenue streams outside of the platform juggernauts. With the recent Panama Papers leak, The Washington Post got a boost to its subscriber affiliate network when many local news sites provided free access to relevant Post articles, generating traffic that doesn’t include a platform middleman. The benefit of The Washington Post’s network approach is that it creates a broad and stable foundation that doesn’t rely too heavily on a single partner.
The one thing a publisher can count on is change. Individual platforms change their rules, consumers change their usage patterns and new platforms emerge. Smart publishers will do all they can to stay nimble, diversify traffic sources accordingly and approach new opportunities with both short- and long-term goals in mind.