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, 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 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.

Related articles:

No comments: