When Heath Ledger died in January, the online version of The Sydney Morning Herald, where the headline writers have been thoroughly drilled on search engine optimisation (SEO) came up with "Heath Ledger dies". Dull and unimaginative, but effective in attracting traffic from search engines. Much more so than The Age's "Dead in Bed".
These dull headlines are more important than you might think. They are a glimpse into the world of the multi-billion dollar SEO industry which is reshaping our news as media companies around the world struggle to find sustainable business models for their online offerings.
Advertising provides most of the revenue for online media sites and traffic is critical for maximising those advertising dollars. No news there. Audience size, measured by ratings and readership surveys, has always been a key factor in determining advertising revenues.
The difference now is that the revenue generating capacity of individual stories, and the journalists who create them, can be measured precisely and in real time. Editors can publish, promote and remove stories depending on the traffic they are drawing - and the advertising dollars they are earning.
The temptation to choose and shape stories to maximise ad revenue may be overwhelming, especially when most online media sites are still losing money or surviving on wafer-thin profit margins.
Search dominates the Internet
It provides the structure we all use to sort and find information. As each year goes by, more people are using this new structure to find their news.
While Australian media sites average about 20 per cent of traffic from search engines, the Times Online in Britain says it gets anywhere from 30 per cent to 60 per cent.
Across the Atlantic, Boston.com, home to The Boston Globe, has used SEO-friendly headlines to become the fourth most visited newspaper site in the country, despite having a daily paper circulation ranked about 15th.
Search engines bring a different audience. They are casual consumers of news attracted by particular topics, often involving celebrities and lifestyle. They don’t care about mastheads and bylines. They are fickle. But they are the only growth market available to online publishers.
David Higgins, Editor of news.com.au, points to one of the most expensive Google search terms, "mesothelioma", to demonstrate the potential distorting effect of these new commercial realities.
In a world where advertisers pay more than fifty bucks for a click on the phrase "mesothelioma law firms", Higgins asks, in the latest issue of The Walkley Magazine, "How tempting might it be to commission a few extra James Hardie stories a week or simply add a few pars about mesothelioma into existing stories?"
Reflecting the power of search, news stories are now marketed individually and urgently.
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