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Could Newspapers Own Local Search Through Better SEO?

Don Dodge, Director of BizDev for Microsoft’s Emerging Business Team, just wrote an article on how “Newspapers should own local search results [1]“.  I wasn’t entirely sure from his column if he meant they “should” own local as in “they are traditional experts at local info, and therefore should own local search due so it’s surprising they don’t”, or if he meant that “they should own local because I think they’re the ideal owners of it.”  I think he meant that it’s just surprising they aren’t bigger contenders in local search, and if that’s what he was driving at — I tend to agree.

Online Newspapers

I also think he’s right — they don’t own local search in great part because they don’t think globally and they are crappy at the SEO side of the game. But, I’d go so far as to say that they should NOT think they can own local anymore — that kind of mindset is just what’s hampering them now. Yeah, they’d be better off if they improved their SEO, but that’s just going to be a bandaid for them at this point.


I’d opine that newspapers were slower to adopt technological change, and so they were slower to dive into the internet ways of doing business. Many newspaper publishers began building their internet sites on a shoestring, initially considering it a fairly unimportant sideline, and their technical equipment/capability was just behind. It’s a bit ironic that the internet side is now growing to the point of threatening the print business altogether. 

There are online newspapers that have built and optimized their own yellow pages, I believe, but they are few in number. (Disclosure: I work for Superpages.com.) And, when I’m out there sampling who comes up highest in the major SERPs for local search queries, their pages are never ranked alongside those of the Superpages sites. This means if they have YP on their sites, most traffic going into it must be mostly from people who just happen to notice it when they are reading an article, or from the dedicated fans for their site. So, they’re missing out on all the referral traffic they could’ve been getting over time – in the realm of advertising media, they’re just not competing with the rest of us.  Don’s right on that score.

I also know from newspaper/classifieds industry analysts that newspapers have been running scared of online YP for a while now — they’ve considered us to be a large and growing threat to their bottom lines. It’s interesting and kinda funny, because newspaper sites really don’t show up on my personal competition radar screen. Sure, my local newspaper site may’ve once commanded my trust for local info, but now I only would look to them first for local news stories, and not much else. I’d rather go to other locations for Classifieds types of stuff — I’d go to eBay if I’m looking for a resale item, or Craigslist. I’d go to Monster for employment info.  I’d go to Match.com for personal ads.  And, I go to nationwide providers for information on local businesses.

If I’m traveling to another city and want to look up accommodations, my first thought isn’t “I wonder what is the top newspaper of that city, so I can look up their site for more info.”  Nah!  I go to search engines and online yellow pages to find what I’m looking for — be it the cool B&B I want to stay the night in, or the cheapest French restaurant that has moderately good user ratings.

One error that I see with many online newspaper sites is that they seem a bit control-freakish about this. Why aren’t they partnering with online YPs to provide this info on their sites?  They’d save in development/maintenance costs, have better information, and they could be making a revenue share out of it. Instead, the publishers seem to have an old-fashioned business mentality about it, and they’re more concerned about ceding control of part of their territory over to another company, and they’re losing out on the partnership value proposition that’s been very popular and successful in the internet space.

But, what can you tell an industry that’s still trying to force users to subscribe, or at very least, register, in order to read the news stories?  The big publishers are still being struck with a thousand cuts through the millions of blogs and free news sites which have moved to the contextual advertising model for revenue. The erosion to their subscriber base will continue unless they can learn that they’ll need to adapt to the internet models which have been more successful.

The internet models they need are pretty clear. Free access without requiring irritating registrations or fees.  Loads of useful local content.  Engage to get user participation in content building.  Developer APIs to share some content.  And of course, reliable local news.

To get these things rapidly with less cost, most news publishers need to partner up.  There’s no quicker way to get the needed speed-to-market than partnering with various content/service experts. They should focus on what they’re good at, and partner for the areas where they’re so far behind in the curve.

So, I think Don’s right in the sense that Newspapers could own a bigger share in Local if they had a more global view of online business.  But, I don’t think their biggest problem is their lack of skill with SEO.  Sure, they could do a lot better in that respect — heck, they’re not even appearing on my radar screen for various types of local searches!  But, improving on their optimizations may be a little late now, and I bet most of them don’t have as rich a data set as others of us in the industry — they could have an uphill battle in store if they go head-to-head with the likes of us.  Instead, they should partner with companies that are expert in local directory info and leverage their advertisers and advertising systems.  On the flip side of the coin, they should also be eager to distribute their news articles along with contextual advertising so that they can get the widest distribution possible.

Partnering is a great way to achieve success in an ecosystem. Some of the Complexity [2] theorists I’m fond of reading at the Santa Fe Institute [3] have found that organisms (be they businesses, plants, animals, cities, economies, etc) have a much higher chance of long-term survival and success if they are highly cooperative with their environments and with other species. Newspapers are now confronted with a paradigm that’s quite different from their past methodologies — they really need to learn to partner up.  They need to learn to cooperate with other businesses in order to embed themselves more symbiotically with the contemporary online business world.

If you don’t believe me, read what Greg Sterling’s written about newspapers’s online mindsets [4].

Newspapers shouldn’t “own” local search — they’re not likely to accomplish that at this point. There is too much fragmentation in local online info, and too many other contenders who have greater market share than Newspapers in too many of the prime local verticals.  Newspapers should adapt to more cooperative models if they wish to continue to be major players in Local. The old-world business mentality, inspired in part by Darwinism, is hampering their ability to evolve to the modern age.  The “survival of the fittest” credo has made newspapers obsessively focus so much on trying to dominate their local markets in near-monopolistic fanaticism that they cannot clearly see the advantages to collaborating.