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People are looking for people

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

It’s an obvious rule of thumb: Journalists should be creating information that’s scarce. Some information is scarce because it just popped into existence.

That information is called news. It’s quite scarce and it’s very useful.

But news isn’t the only kind of scarce, useful information. Ever since the local wiki I manage started pulling in search traffic, I’ve noticed something pretty interesting: about 30 percent of our search traffic comes from people’s names.

We’re not talking about Britney Spears here. We’re talking about Patricia McCaig, a political aide to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, and Ted Buehler, a bicycle safety activist. They aren’t boring; they’re just not at all famous. They’re the most interesting hand you shook at the church picnic. They’re people who make it happen (whatever it is) without talking to the press or keeping a website of their own.

They’re people people are looking for.

Check out this chart of the 110 most popular Google searches leading to PortlandAfoot.org in the last 60 days:

Thirty-seven of those, or 34 percent (marked in red), were searches for people’s names. (For visibility’s sake, the vertical axis is a log scale.) If you don’t count Portland Afoot’s #1 search phrase, which is just the name of the site, people’s names accounted for 30 percent of Google-driven visits, too.

It turns out that people are looking for people quite a lot.

And – especially on the local level, I suspect – people are scarce.

(Extremely clever photo by an unknown photographer.)

Closing the software gap

Friday, September 29th, 2006

Can newspapers maintain competitive software on a smaller, less Soviet scale than Tom Mohr would have us believe? Here are two signs that a few folks still think it’s worth a try.

1) Reviewing the API’s Newspaper Next study, Susan Mernit name-checks the two bits of software small newspapers probably need most:

- a self-serve ad platform
- a simple local listings service

And she wants it done in open source, so we can all share & improve. Right on, sister. (Tx Will Sullivan.)

2) The Des Moines Register is searching for a local search editor. Bully. A dozen such “editors” won’t do squat until the software is in place, but once it is, no set of editorial duties need more attention at mid-size metros, I think. (And nobody is better poised to see the benefits of that software than Gannett. Let’s cross our fingers, k?)

Reinventing news for a search-based world

Sunday, February 26th, 2006

On OJR, Robert Niles has a fascinating suggestion for completely rethinking online news: replace inverted-pyramid newspaper articles with staff-written wikis. (For which he suggests the delightful nickname “stikis.” You heard it here first, dear reader.) Why? To attract search-engine traffic.

I’m suggesting that — instead of distinct daily takes — news stories could be covered with encyclopedia-style articles that staffers would update with new information whenever available. How many more inbound links would such an approach get?

Inbound links, of course, being the current currency of the search-driven Web.

I see two obvious problems with the suggestion:

1) the writing required would be so different from that used in the print product that editorial resources would be taxed, and
2) the lede would be perpetually buried; that is, readers would have trouble figuring out what parts of the news are new.

Though the second problem might be avoided with constant rewriting and clever formatting, my hunch is that self-contained news stories will remain the dominant delivery device for news. They’re simply easier to pluck relevant details out of. This isn’t to say that local papers couldn’t launch parallel stiki or wiki services for their coverage area. But I doubt extensive stikis are likely to be worth their while.

A vertical search for national news

Sunday, February 5th, 2006

The Associated Press’s CEO “can’t imagine” why national news outlets haven’t teamed up to wall off their news content within their own search engine. I’m skeptical about such a plan, but it’s related to my earlier post about walling off local news content.

Walling off the local news garden: A-OK

Sunday, February 5th, 2006

Unlike national news outlets, local papers have good reason to be tempted by last week’s talk about withholding news content from search engines.

The story stirred up a predictable tizzy among futurists. Newspapers’ job is “to inform the public to what’s going on,” wrote Chris Tolles in an intelligent but presumptuous post (not pegged to the search engine story, but quite applicable). Search engines, wrote one Techdirt contributor, are merely “making that content more valuable by making it easier to find.”

Alas, these generalizations don’t fit small markets.

What Tolles describes is the job he thinks newspapers should do . . . in the future. But don’t mistake his prediction for a sustainable business model. Today, newspapers do much more than provide news content: they sort, prioritize and distribute it; they pair advertisers with content that fits their needs; and in small markets they even design the damn ads.

Someday, maybe, a model will arise to support pure newsgathering operations of decent quality. But until then, mere reporting simply doesn’t pay for itself, especially at the local level, where there aren’t enough rich people to support philanthropic drives like NPR’s or enough outlets to support economies of scale like the AP’s.

Moreover, whatever Techdirt may assume, local newspapers have a very different relationship with Google News than Agence France Presse does. Unlike national outlets, local newspapers have little use for non-local traffic. Non-local readers who stumble in from national aggregators don’t fit a local newspaper’s niche; visitors won’t be buying locally, so they only dilute the value of the paper’s pageviews.

As I wrote yesterday, local papers need to become the dominant information-and-connection brand within their communities. They won’t do that with news alone, and they certainly won’t do it with news outside their niche.

So what’s the harm in opening local news content to search engines and news aggregators? Don’t laugh: competition. Unlike national outlets, local papers retain near-monopolies on original reporting within their niche. This eliminates a major value aggregators and search engines provide consumers: diversity. Until local papers no longer have the dominant local news brand, small papers who hand their headlines to a local aggregator are asking people to start turning to another brand for the news.

As Carl Howe argues, newspapers provide the increasingly valuable service of cutting through all the crap. (Several of these links, by the way, come courtesy of Howe’s own post on this subject.) Newspapers judge what’s important to their audiences, and arrange it accessibly. This is as important as newsgathering itself. But aggregators like Newsvine aim to do the same thing better and cheaper. If they succeed, they’ll use that advantage to demolish the brands of local papers. And when that happens, Newsvine won’t be paying for the level of newsgathering that newspapers now do.

If, however, local papers can quickly co-opt the innovations of aggregators and search engines and tweak that technology for local use, they have a fighting chance at remaining the dominant local information brands. That should be their goal.

The local future of vertical search

Saturday, February 4th, 2006

There’s a key difference between local and national news outlets that has so far insulated small newspapers from online competition but which will eventually leave them even more vulnerable than their bigger brethren.

Unlike national and regional papers, local papers are niche media. They cater to the tiny number of people who care about, for example, Gadsden, Alabama. Nobody else in the world keeps as many boots on the ground in a small- to mid-size community as the local newspaper.

That’s why many newspaper corporations are urging their editors to emphasize local news on their Web sites even more than in their print products. Simply: on the Web, we have competitors for our national and global content. But in small towns, local news content is still back in the happily monopolistic 20th century.

This brings us to search. Search engines let you keep a few big brands in your head, and rely on them to find content from lots of other brands. But Google and the other general-interest search kings don’t target niches well. Yes, googling “gadsden auto sales” is easier than tracking down the Gadsden Times’ classifieds, but the quality is inferior: anyone with an ad in the paper has their information up to date and tells you exactly what they’re selling. And a Google Local search is good at tracking down retailers, not connecting you with local peers.

Local news is even harder to get from a general-interest search engine. (Aggregators like Newsvine may one day have enough users to work in smaller markets, but they’re not very useful when there aren’t very many news outlets to grab from.)

So search is a great way to find things, but general-interest searches are too imprecise to seriously compete with local newspapers. What will threaten local papers–or, phrased differently, what people want but aren’t getting–are “vertical” local search engines, which are engineered to turn up local results for given searches. Search engines that users visit in order to find local results.

Vertical search is hot in niche media, and rightly so. “If Google is going to be CBS, I want to be Turner Broadcasting,” says LookSmart CEO Dave Hills, whose company offers engines for subjects like sports, food, and fashion as well as a few big metro areas. Existing vertical services like LookSmart, Oodle, the still-primitive Google Base and even the ugly, user-unfriendly Craigslist are all quite scalable. They will take over small markets eventually if local brands don’t own those markets first.

And if they do move in, small papers will be devastated, because local advertising, unlike national or regional advertising, is seldom about brand-building, which can occur through accidental encounters with display ads on a news page. Local advertising is about connecting people with stuff they’re looking for. Someday soon, somebody will build a better Craigslist, and the bottom will really fall out of classifieds. But major metro papers can weather that collapse more easily than small-town papers.

For now, those small newspapers have the dominant online mindshare in their communities. There’s no reason they can’t use this–quickly–to dominate local vertical search.