Newspapers Shouldn’t Own Local Search

15 Jan ’07

Don Dodge says newspapers should own local search. He says they’re ideally positioned to reclaim the revenue they’ve lost from classified competition. I’m cranky today, so just to be obstreperous I’ll disagree.

I get the benefit for newspapers of their being the one-stop shopping destination for local information, but what I don’t understand is why that information ought to be silo’d and disaggregated across presumably (just how “local” is local?) hundreds (thousands? tens of thousands?) of local search sites. Imagine a matrix with one dimension being geography and the other being the particular vertical (cars for sale; restaurant reviews; movie reviews; listings of dentists; and so on). One can think of good reasons for both aggregating and disaggregating both dimensions, with the equilibrium aggregation for any particular cell on the matrix depending on the drivers for that particular case. (Ok, Ok, damn you multi-dimensionalists, imagine a third dimension, too, with that dimension being the nature of the technology used to provide the local search capability – for example, pure search tool, social media site, and so on).

To me this doesn’t sound promising for newspapers, because all of this seems utterly beyond their control. After all, do I want to go to my newspaper’s local search site for information about pet stores or dog-walkers, or do I want to go to Dogster, where I can plug into a technology-created community that will give me local search, but also deep context as well? Or do I just want to Google it, because Google’s my home page and it’s so easy, and ooh, plugged into Google Maps also and hey, cool! I can then download the contact info to my PDA’s address book and see what people are saying about the thing I’m searching for? And what about houses for sale? My local MLS site or a national site like Zillow (when it gets around to it) or a local site at AmericanTowns or my newspaper’s site? And do I particularly care what my newspaper says about local restaurants, or will I prefer what my friends at Chowhound have to say? (Completely gratuitous aside: I recently used an old column by a Toronto restaurant reviewer to help me find lunch in Paris, but I would never use her advice to pick a restaurant in Toronto. How ’bout them apples?)

The problem for newspapers, obviously, is that what used to be an information issue (“what’s going on / where is this thing for sale / what’s a good Italian restaurant / where is the nearest hardware store?”) is becoming a technology issue, and they’re not technologists. It’s not hard to get the data – it’s hard to figure out how to use it. More to the point, if it’s a technology issue, then it presumably – increasingly like everything else that the internet has touched – transcends geography. Which, of course, newspapers don’t. Or if they do, do so while losing any local relevance. And while I’m at it, even if this is an information issue, when were newspapers ever experts about local information? Yes, they publish information, but that makes them publishers / broadcasters of information – not cataloguers / users / deployers of it. And that’s a different skill set, isn’t it? It’s one thing to know how to reach many people with information about a restaurant / home for sale / car for sale / hardware store, but it’s quite another thing to understand how people would like to relate to any particular type of information, and then design a system that brings that particular utility to the market. Fundamentally, at the end of the day publishing / broadcasting is a pretty narrow skill set / utility, and I’m just not sure how it maintains its relevance going forward. One is tempted to say “how quaint – how positively 20th century … and how sad”.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Rob Hyndman January 17, 2007 at 07:18

I just don’t agree with you Damon. They don’t have the reviewers, and they don’t have the site. Why have thousands of chowhounds, when there needs to be only one for the entire country, and when one can provide the network benefits that many single sites can’t? And if it’s about getting the data, I’d much prefer to read what patrons have to say than what a paper’s reviewer has to say.

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Damon January 17, 2007 at 07:14

>>I suspect that there are not too many worthwhile restaurants in Toronto that aren’t in Chowhound

Yes – this is my point. As in the U.S. there are probably 200(?)newspapers that are in markets large enough to attract the business of aggregator/specialty sites. The other 1200 daily newspapers in small towns and cities are still the best position to leverage local vertical information such as restaurant reviews and listings. They should still be involving reader reviews/ratings/comments – but this effort is something smaller local newspapers can still build a niche business around.

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Rob Hyndman January 16, 2007 at 22:24

I suspect that there are not too many worthwhile restaurants in Toronto that aren’t in Chowhound – that’s my source for reliable info in that department. I would put the paper at the bottom of the list, and its readers at the top.

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Damon Kiesow January 16, 2007 at 19:36

>>It’s not hard to get the data – it’s hard to figure out how to use it.

Maybe a bit off your main point – but in fact YES isn’t it hard to get the data?

There are 300 restaurants in our city, and a huge percentage have not yet been reviewed by the paper, and even fewer have been made more than a line of text in any national search engines. Sure newspapers can buy or use that same directory information, but the real value at the local level is detailed information, professional reviews, reader comments and etc.

Is there anyone that can do this work and make it profitable in terms of ad revenue or readership in small towns and cities other than the local paper?

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Rob Hyndman January 15, 2007 at 21:09

It’s a very good point, Mark. In this context, search isn’t really “search”, or at least it’s very focussed.

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Mark January 15, 2007 at 20:28

As GM of a newspaper with P & L responsibility for our online newspaper, I made the conscious choice not to worry about our Google ranking.

We are a small (some might say tiny) newspaper that derives 95% of our revenues from local advertisers. So if someone is looking for something from our community, they at least know enough to search “bowling green newspaper.”

So we put our archives behind a firewall after 24 hours that makes linking to them difficult (not impossible) and after 14 days behind a subscription firewall that makes them impossible to link to.

We’re here to serve local folks. If you can’t find Bowling Green, KY, on a map, our advertisers aren’t interested in your traffic to our website. I think the same applies for any newspaper.

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Rob Hyndman January 15, 2007 at 13:09

I thought so, Don, but I frankly doubt it really matters (by which I mean that the answer is the same in either case), and I suspect at the end of the day that it’s not really that much money – on both counts because I suspect that regardless of what they do with SEO they will never be able to really compete with other sources for that information – per my post. Whether they optimize their data for search by others or develop themselves as portals to that information, it seems to me that they will still have to compete toe to toe with others who are already optimized and who also provide more compelling contexts for the information. More compelling contexts for the content than newspapers provide or can provide, I suspect. More money? Sure, some. Big difference? Doubtful, IMO. At best, delaying the inevitable.

Even though the Globe (our “local”) is likely not at all optimized (I suspect – sorry, Mathew), it routinely returns hits on my local searches. It’s just that I don’t really care – the alternatives provide a more useful context. If I want news, I’ll check out a Globe hit. Otherwise, not so much.

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Don Dodge January 15, 2007 at 12:26

Rob, my point was that newspapers local content should be the first search result on any search engine…not that the newspapers should create their own local search sites.

The newspaper content is high quality and relevent, but it often doesn’t show up in search results because it is poorly formatted for search engines.

Compare a web page to a newspaper article. The web page is built with an HTML page generator that automatically generates meta tags, headlines, bold text, and a URL that includes the title.

A newspaper article lists the reporters name, city and date first. The URL usually is 3 or 4 layers deep and doesn’t include anything descriptive about the article. They don’t have good meta data or tags. Most importantly, newspapers don’t attract a lot of links from other sites. Google uses links to determine what is most important and ranks it higher.

Simple to fix, but the newspapers don’t seem to care. They are losing lots of money as a result. http://dondodge.typepad.com/the_next_big_thing/2007/01/newspapers_shou.html

Don Dodge

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