News Leadership 3.0

March 30, 2011

How search is evolving, and why news orgs must keep up

Chris O’Brien, technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, recently wrote that search is undergoing its biggest disruption since the dawn of Google. In an interview, he elaborated that this fast-moving field offers ample opportunities for news organizations to make their content more discoverable via more channels—but this requires ongoing effort to stay current…

By Amy Gahran

“A lot of things that we aren’t accustomed to thinking of as search tools have become search tools,” says O’Brien.

“For instance, if I want information about local businesses, professionals, or services, I don’t go to Google. I go to Yelp. Other people turn to Foursquare in a similar way. It’s a real challenge for news organizations to figure out what kind of a presence they should have on these services—but they definitely need to stay on top of where people are turning for information and news.

“Search is not what it used to be, not even compared to just a couple of years ago. If you miss a big shift in user behavior for how people are discovering content, ultimately you’ll miss big opportunities to gain users and engagement. News organizations need to build in the capacity to learn and adapt.”

In his article, O’Brien noted: “Indexed search is the way most of us think about search. We sit down at a computer, type some keywords into a box, and are presented with a series of links to other websites. Google did a vastly superior job of organizing this information on the Web. But starting five years ago… search began a series of radical transformations.”

In the last few years, Google introduced some significant new twists to customize the search experience: instant search, real-time search, and personalized search. More recently, Google also introduced search site blocking. And just yesterday, Google unveiled its +1 button—its equivalent of the Facebook “like” button, to add a personal recommendation layer for search results.

The result, O’Brien says, is that “the notion of absolute search rank is obsolete. Now, where your content gets positioned in search results is largely a combination of the user doing the search and the device they’re using.”

Besides Google, other services and channels are starting to play a stronger role in how people discover content—which matters, because the news business model hinges on people actually reading and (increasingly) engaging with news content.

Social media is now a key way that people discover news content via sharing. Therefore, social optimization is becoming important to publishers—but it’s a different animal from search optimization.

“Social optimization is not just about what entices people to read or watch content, but what makes them want to share it,” O’Brien explained. “So finding ways to measure engagement is becoming very important. Metrics is no longer just about measuring traffic to your site.”

For instance, he notes that headlines and stories that have a strong emotional content tend to get shared more via Facebook. “This doesn’t mean that you should over-dramatize every story you write, to get more Facebook traction,” said O’Brien. “But it does let you know which stories it may make more sense to promote there.”

While social media sharing expands the reach of current news, the search limitations of social media present considerable obstacles to people discovering older relevant stories there.

“Facebook has made increasing amounts of its users’ content public, but most of the site is still not searchable by Google,” wrote O’Brien. “Facebook does have a partnership with Bing, but even those results are limited. And one of my biggest complaints in general is that Facebook’s own search remains primitive. I still can’t do basic things like search for something I posted two years ago, for instance. And even with special access to Twitter, [Google and Bing] are able to provide only limited access to things that were tweeted months or years ago.”

Mobile technology is one of the biggest emerging disrupters in the search field. Mobile has two major impacts:

  • Location-based information is now more relevant than ever.
  • Apps that people install and use on mobile devices present a new avenue for content discovery—but it’s complicated by the fact that, so far, each app is its own information silo.


“There are companies that are working to develop ‘meta apps’ that would search all the apps on your phone or tablet and point you toward relevant content stored in those apps,” says O’Brien. In the long term, tools like this could boost the business model for news apps. But for now, web content generally is more easily discoverable on mobile devices than app content.

How can news organizations keep up? First, news orgs should be experimenting with new analytics tools for measuring engagement as well as traffic. “Review your current analytics tools. What are they capturing or not? Try out new tools for monitoring social media and mobile traffic.”

O’Brien recommends training that helps newsroom staff understand how people are discovering content today, as well as training in useful analytics tools. Granting news staff more access to analytics data also can help journalists and editors understand the impact of their work.

“It helps a lot if there’s someone in your organization, maybe in middle management, who has a clear responsibility for keeping up with what’s happening with search and content discovery,” says O’Brien.

O’Brien recommends reading Danny Sullivan’s blog Search Engine Land regularly for a current, succinct, and not-too-geeky overview of what’s changing in search and why.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Comments

Some good insights from Chris O’Brien.

I’d extend and be less equivocal about his advice on “how can news organizations keep up.”

Absolutely newsroom staff should be trained in analytics tools.  But, as this offers no guarantee whatsoever that said staff will actually use said tools, news organizations should put structures in place that utilize analytics data in the news production work flow.  And for organizations of any size, there should be at least one data analyst on staff, both to do things like the experiments suggested, and to make the data that is collected actionable.

And I’d go a lot further than to say that there should be someone who keeps on top of what’s happening with search and content discovery.  Again, for organizations of any size, there should be a search marketing professional (if not more) - at least at the middle management level - who has that responsibility, as well as responsibility for improving traffic from search.  Just “staying on top” of search developments isn’t enough:  news organizations that hope to stay relevant need to actually pursue more traffic, and increase user engagement (certainly the search and social roles being connected but separate for any large organization - that is, both an SEO and community organizer).


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Hi Amy,

Great article. Searching on the internet is really evolving at a tremendous rate. With the advance of Facebook, twitter, web 2.0 sites and so on, there are literally so many ways for people to connect to each other these days.

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