Sunday, October 19, 2014

Google Loves Print, This We Know, For Its Guidelines Tell Us So

A leaked internal document reveals Google's predilection for the web sites of print-media publishers. Why? Doesn't it know that print is dead?

Google may be on the cutting edge of technology, but its search engine is going increasingly old school by favoring the web sites of print publications.

The expense of printing and distributing publications has led most publishers to start weaning themselves from dead-tree editions. But those same costs may be a key to Google's love affair with print-media brands.

Google's idea of a highest-quality web page
Google’s preference for print pops up frequently in its guidelines for quality raters, a 160-page document that advises the Google employees who evaluate web sites in order to improve the company's search algorithms.

Publishing Executive magazine has just published my article "9 Lessons Publishers Should Take from Google's Leaked 'Search Quality Rating Guidelines'," which draws lessons and warnings from the leaked document.

But why does Google prefer print – or, more precisely, why do its search results tend to favor web sites associated with printed publications?

The rating guidelines document doesn’t explain the preference explicitly and in fact never mentions the word “print.”

Clues aplenty
But the clues are plenty: Raters are told to give high ratings to pages that “clearly come from a highly authoritative source which is known for original content creation (newspaper, magazine, medical foundation, etc.)”

The Atlantic’s "Secret Fears of the Super-Rich" exemplifies an article deserving the highest rating because it provides “a satisfying or comprehensive amount of very high quality” content “on an award winning magazine website” with “a very positive reputation.”

The guidelines contain eight references to the word “magazine,” 15 to “newspaper,” and six to the Pulitzer Prize – plus additional examples of specific publications. Almost all refer to the publications’ web sites as authoritative, high-quality sources.

Google's clear message 
The message is clear: Search results should give preference to reliable web sites with content that is free of commercial influence -- and that often means the web sites of reputable publications.

Music magazine interview has highest-quality main content
A Google search of “diet pills” will return a myriad of results. If the first page is full of pill merchants and what they say about their own products (“Melt pounds away in minutes!!!”), all but the most gullible will be inclined to look for a new search engine.

But prominent links to trusted brands like Prevention, WebMD, and The New York Times will keep people coming back to Google.

Any idiot can create a web site (even me!) and fill it with useless, biased, or just plain wrong information. And plenty have. But a printed publication can’t rely for long on clickbait and other tricks.

To cover the costs of paper, printing, postage, etc., it has to generate much higher revenue per reader than does a web site. Survival usually depends upon having both subscribers and premium advertisers, which you can't attract and retain without earning a reputation for providing worthwhile content.
The permanence of print gives magazine publishers an incentive to get it right the first time – that is, to edit, rewrite, fact check, etc. And the additional cost of each page naturally leads to weeding out the weakest content. (Many print publishers have content on their web sites that does not meet the standards for their printed publications.)

Nowhere do the Google guidelines recommend checking whether the information on a publication’s web site has actually appeared in a printed publication. The assumption is that a print-media publisher’s standards and the necessity of protecting its hard-earned reputation will spill over to its web site.

How did Google reach that conclusion? Not from the publishing industry’s time-honored BOGSAT (Bunch of Guys Sitting Around Talking) method. And not from making value judgments about which web sites people "should" visit.

Google's motive: profit (Duh!)
Google is just trying to give customers what they want. It uses data from millions of daily searches to determine what kind of results give people the information they want so that they will continue using Google.

Google’s data obviously tell it that internet users believe information on a web site that is associated with a print publication tends to be more trustworthy than information on other web sites.

In the publishing industry's endless discussions of “print versus digital,” we often miss this lesson: Print means credibility, and credibility means more web traffic.

Having a printed publication is a source of sustainable competitive advantage for a web site. Just ask web-native publishers like Style.com, WebMD, and Politico, which have burnished their reputations by starting ink-on-paper magazines.

The Daily Bust 
Too often, the “Print is dead” types – mostly aging Baby Boomers desperate to prove their with-it-ness – have viewed print as a ball and chain on their digital dreams. Following that logic in 2010, Newsweek’s entire web presence was subordinated to sister company The Daily Beast. (WTF is a Daily Beast?)

Contrast that with Newsweek’s new digital-native owners who, recognizing the strength of the Newsweek legacy and brand, relaunched newsweek.com and invested heavily in its editorial content. And then, rather than fleeing print, they did the unthinkable, resurrecting Newsweek as a printed newsweekly.

Sure, neo-Newsweek is a niche publication with a tiny fraction of the multi-million circulation numbers of the glory years. But how many people look up circulation numbers when deciding whether a web site is credible? (And maybe a magazine with a few thousand high-paying customers has the same credibility as one with millions of bargain-basement subscribers.)

Laugh at Newsweek’s new strategy if you like; many pundits already have. But for the first time in years, Newsweek recently became profitable.

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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Third Bush on the Right, Please: USPS Grocery Deliveries Would Need Lots of TLC from Carriers

Mail carrier was recently named the most endangered job in the U.S., but the U.S. Postal Service seems to have other ideas. Its plan to deliver groceries to households in major metropolitan areas is the latest among several strategic moves that would mean more work for employees who handle the "last mile" of delivery.

Please, Mr. Postman, look and see,
Are there some groceries in a tote for me?

The Postal Service’s proposed market test of same-day grocery deliveries, apparently in partnership with Amazon, would require even more TLC on the part of USPS’s carrier force than normal deliveries, the agency revealed this week in filings with the Postal Regulatory Commission.

“All Customized Delivery items will be transported directly to a customer’s door and will be delivered [between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m.] without disturbing the recipient,” USPS revealed to the PRC. “Customized Delivery also will allow recipients to provide specific delivery instructions.”

Back door man
“Carriers would need to go to each delivery door and manage customer specific delivery instructions.” To avoid theft of the early-morning deliveries, such “special delivery instructions” could conceivably include placing the special grocery-filled totes at back doors, in hallways, into parked cars, or even behind bushes. Undeliverable totes would be returned to the shipper.

“Participants will pay a fee for the Customized Delivery Service,” USPS wrote. UPS is reportedly close to rolling out a service that, for a $5 fee or a $40 annual membership, would deliver someone’s packages to a nearby store instead of to the home.

The Postal Service has recently been encouraged to enter a wide variety of new ventures, most notably providing banking services to the poor and to rural residents. But postal executives’ new-revenue plans are all focused on leveraging the agency’s massive, every-address delivery network: not only by serving the grocery business but also with Sunday deliveries for Amazon, aggressive price cuts on lightweight packages sent by large mailers, and seeking legislative approval to deliver wine and beer.

All of those growth efforts are far more labor intensive – and higher priced – than USPS’s traditional job of delivering letters. The Postal Service is also adding thousands of new delivery points every day, requiring more travel time for carriers even if mail volumes don't grow. So it's premature to assume that letter carriers will soon go the way of buggy-whip makers.

Market disruption? 
To gain the PRC’s approval for its proposed two-year “Customized Delivery” market test of grocery delivery, USPS must show that the venture would not disrupt existing markets or rely on “unfair” competitive advantages over private businesses.

Starting later this month, USPS wants “to test and develop a long-term, scalable solution to enable expansion of customized delivery to additional major metropolitan markets across the nation.” It might also test other delivery times during the day.

“The Postal Service will negotiate price with each customer [presumably the grocer, not the consumer], in part, based on the pickup schedules specific to each customer.” USPS also hopes the test will determine “the optimal pricing structure for this type of service.”

San Francisco test  
The agency recently conducted a smaller-scale test of grocery delivery in the San Francisco area. City carrier assistants – non-career postal employees – delivered about 160 totes per day to 38 ZIP codes, according to postal officials.

“In the current process,” USPS told the PRC, “the retailer brings groceries already packed into retailer-branded totes, some of which are chilled or include freezer packs, directly into Postal Service destination delivery units (DDUs) between 1:30 a.m. and 2:30 a.m."

“The totes are all the same size and color, and have a QR code on the outside. The Postal Service receives a manifest file from the retailer containing the address and QR code number for each tote. This file is used by the Postal Service to dynamically route totes and create a line of travel for each route.”

“These deliveries are unattended — the CCA will not ring the doorbell or knock on the door. The carrier places the totes in a location designated by the consumer for delivery.

“Totes are scanned [sometimes with an iPhone] at key steps in the process to provide tracking and visibility through to delivery. CCAs wear postal uniforms and lighted caps as a safety measure and for easy recognition by the public.”

[Editor’s note: Perhaps such lighted caps should also be provided to carriers who have to make normal deliveries after sunset during the winter months.]

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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Ten Ways to Celebrate International Print Day

Today is the first International Print Day, when lovers of ink on paper are taking to social media to share cool printed projects, success stories, and helpful information.

It's very early morning (U.S. Pacific time), and I'm already seeing more than one "#IPD14" tweet per minute, most of them with relevant links.

But we here at Dead Tree Edition headquarters have our own way of celebrating special days (like wearing all-natural condom to celebrate Earth Day). So here are our 10 suggestions for making this day really special:
Nice Frisbee you've got there.
  1. Moon the next bank that sends you a "Go Green, Go Paperless" message.

  2. Hand someone’s tablet to her three-year-old child. (“No, Mr. iPad does not like to be dropped. Can you say “ouch”? Can you say “cracked screen”?)

  3. Calculate the percentage of emails received today that you don't read; be sure to check your spam folder. Now compare that to the percentage of mail pieces you receive today that you don't look at. 

  4. Tell the IT department you want to include a scratch-and-sniff promotion in your next email blast. “C’mon, I saw something like this in a dead-tree magazine. If those geezers can do it, you can too, right?”

  5. Mail a handwritten note to someone you are trying to impress. And have the rescue squad on standby in case the recipient can’t take the shock of receiving personal mail.

  6. Visit your "Print is dead" friend, go into his pantry, and tear the labels off all the cans and packages. Just think, you'll be helping him realize his dream of going paperless. (While you're at it, maybe you should remove all the paper from his bathroom as well.)

  7. To the tune of “YMCA,” sing “C-M-Y-K,” and make up new, print-friendly lyrics. Don’t forget the arm motions. Take a selfie when you’re doing the “K” and post it to your Facebook page.

  8. Use your Kindle as a Frisbee.

  9. Watch the Viagra-in-a-printing-plant TV ad and think of the suggestive, print-related sweet nothings he’ll whisper to his wife when he gets home. (“Hey, baby, let me get rid of your PMS by converting it to process colors.”)  

  10. Buy a book. Not an e-book, which can only be rented (regardless of what the sellers say). A real ink-on-paper book. And read it.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Postal Service Giveth, and the Paper Market Taketh Away

October began with both good news and bad news on the cost front for publishers of magazines and catalogs.

Because of announcements made on Wednesday, publishers can scratch the usual January postage rate increase from their 2015 budgets but should probably count on price increases for coated paper.

The U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors announced it would not raises prices on "market-dominant" mail classes early next year, contrary to its usual practice of implementing inflation-based price hikes in January. They have the authority to raise rates 1.58%, which could have led to a 1-cent increase for Forever Stamps as well as higher postage for direct mail, catalogs, newspapers, and retail flyers.

"The governors decided not to seek a change for mailing and shipping products and services in January in part because of the uncertainty regarding the exigent price increase.The Postal Service will continue to evaluate pricing strategies and will communicate about any potential price change filings in early 2015, including advance notice to customers of any price changes."

As noted in Postal Rates in 2015 Could Rise or Fall -- or Do Both, USPS is currently slated to reduce market-dominant rates by 4.3% in the second half of next year when the exigent surcharge expires. But postal officials have gone to court in hopes of increasing or extending the surcharge. And they hope to avoid a price cut when the surcharge expires by implementing an inflation-based price hike at the same time.

The bad news came from Verso Paper, which is closing its Bucksport, Maine coated paper mill. That, coupled with the recent closure of the FutureMark mill in Illinois, could mean an end to rock-bottom prices for magazine-quality paper in 2015.

Verso revealed that Bucksport has been unprofitable for years. Paper industry insiders say the same is true of FutureMark. As the old saying goes, the best way to make a small fortune in the paper business is to start with a large fortune.

Verso, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, says the Bucksport closure will not affect its proposed merger with NewPage, which is under extended antitrust review by the U.S. Department of Justice. By the time Justice gets done, there may not be anything left of Verso to merge.

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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Forever Stamps: Not a Sexy Investment

Sales of Forever Stamps spiked shortly before the 3-cent price increase in January, dropped slightly for a few months, and have now returned almost to normal.

Some people stocked up to beat the price increase but not many bought more than a few extra months' worth of stamps, numbers released Friday by the U.S. Postal Service suggest.

Thanks to the temporary "exigent" surcharge, January's increase to 49 cents was the largest since Forever Stamps went on sale in 2007. That led to speculation about people hoarding or even investing in Forever Stamps.
 
First Class Forever Stamp revenues were up 10% in December 2013 and 35% in January 2014 over the previous year, temporarily netting USPS more than $300 million in additional cash. Then came the drought: The number of stamps sold was down 18% in February, 17% in March, and 12% in April.

By comparison, the 1-cent increase in January 2013 caused hardly a blip -- a 5% increase that month and then a 9% decrease the next.

In the past three months, revenue from Forever Stamp sales has been essentially flat versus the previous year. With the price increase, that means fewer stamps were sold.

But the decrease wasn't much more than would be expected  from the long-term trend of declining First Class letter mail.

If the surcharge expires next summer, as currently scheduled, the price of Forever Stamps will probably decrease for the first time, most likely by a penny or two. But those who own 49-cent stamps will not receive rebates.

Despite email and online billing, people are still mailing plenty of letters: In the 12-month period from September 2013 to August 2014, the Postal Service sold more than 13 billion Forever Stamps, worth more than $6 billion.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

Postal Rates in 2015 Could Rise or Fall -- or Do Both

The outlook for changes in postal rates for the next 12 months is murkier than it's been in years.

A rate hike, a decrease, an extension of the temporary “exigent” increase, and even an increase and decrease a few months apart are all plausible 2015 scenarios for First Class, Standard, and Periodicals mailers. That uncertainty is a far cry from the past few years, when "market-dominant" postal rates inched up each January based on the rate of inflation.

The 4.3% exigent increase that was implemented in January is the source of the unusual uncertainty. That surcharge is supposed to disappear after it yields the U.S. Postal Service an additional $3.2 billion, presumably in mid-2015.

The three-judge panel considering an appeal of the exigency case seems unlikely either to eliminate the rate hike or to make it permanent, according to Stephen Kearney, executive director of the Alliance for Nonprofit Mailers. But based on the judges’ comments and questions during recent oral arguments, his reading of the tea leaves foresees a decent chance the judges will remand the case to the Postal Regulatory Commission with orders to revise it.

Big risk to mailers
“The big risk to mailers in the remand outcome would be a possible determination by the PRC that the exigent rates would need to raise more than the $3.2 billion in their original order,” Kearney wrote in a summary of the oral arguments. That could result in hiking the surcharge or in extending it.

The main issue in the case is how much revenue USPS lost as a result of the recent recession, as opposed to revenue it would have lost anyway from increased usage of email, online billing, and other digital media.

“The judges seemed to agree that the PRC was right to accept the recession as an extraordinary event under the statute as well as the need for a special rate increase to cover the recession-caused losses,” Kearney said.

However, the judges indicated that the PRC’s decision was unclear regarding how the Postal Service’s recession-related losses were calculated, Kearney wrote. And they questioned whether the PRC’s methodology fell short of counting all the losses.

Two choices
"The judges likely will decide between two choices: to defer to the expert regulating agency and let the PRC order stand, or to remand the case back to the PRC and tell them to do a better job determining and implementing methods to quantify the revenue that the USPS lost as a result of the 2007-2009 recession.”

With the judges taking one to three months to issue their order and the PRC possibly needing additional time to reconsider the case, it could be well into next year before we know the outcome. And even an order upholding the PRC decision would not completely clear up what will happen to postal rates next year.

Mailers and postal officials are still arguing over how to decide when the $3.2 billion target has been reached. One issue, for example, is whether to count the surcharge on all Forever Stamps sold during the exigency period or only on those that are actually used.

USPS officials could implement the usual inflation-based price increase – probably in the 1%-2% range -- in January. But that could mean a 4.3% decrease a few months later if the exigent surcharge expires as currently planned.

Postal officials have indicated they might postpone a January rate increase in hopes of building up enough rate-increase authority to keep rates level when the surcharge expires. However, if the PRC order is upheld and inflation continues at a tortoise’s pace, USPS's rate authority would probably fall a couple of percentage points short, leading to price decreases.

But remember that, in Washington, “temporary” measures to increase government revenue have a way of becoming permanent. For mailers, there’s a danger that Congress will let the Postal Service keep the extra surcharge in place to keep the agency solvent, to preserve Saturday delivery, to stop some postal facilities from closing, or to finance new delivery vehicles.

Or just because.

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