Concerned about your news organization’s plummeting search traffic? - Editor and Publisher (2024)

Concerned about your news organization’s plummeting search traffic? - Editor and Publisher (1)

Concerned about your news organization’s plummeting search traffic? - Editor and Publisher (2)

Instead of chasing traffic on Google, Apple News or Facebook, publishers need to double down on their own platforms and refocus on building direct relationships with readers in their community. It also means being flexible with the type of content your newsroom is creating.”

Rob Tornoe, digital editor and writer, The Philadelphia Inquirer & contributing columnist for E&P Magazine

Rob Tornoe | for E&P Magazine

In recent months, the amount of organic search traffic Google has been sending to publishers has fallen off a cliff. Newsrooms nationwide — from Boston to Seattle, from the Jersey Shore to Southern California — have watched their formerly reliable search traffic numbers and page rankings plummet.

The big question is — why? Well, it’s complicated.

For starters, Google has made pretty big changes to its search algorithm recently. That includes core changes in October, November and March, as well as a recent change last month that penalized legacy websites using their site reputation to artificially boost content like coupons and discount codes from third-party providers.

There has also been a feature rollout where Google plucks out an answer to a question from a publisher’s content and displays it at the top of search results, which the company calls “featured snippets.” Google does include a prominent link, but once a reader has an answer to a question such as “What time does the Eagles game start?” or “What time do the polls close in New Jersey?”, there’s little reason to click through to the publisher’s content.

The most-discussed change in media circles is Google’s rollout of artificial intelligence (which remains unintelligent) to summarize specific search results instead of simply presenting a direct link to a publisher’s content. Despite the inherent problems with large language models like ChatGPT and Google’s Gemini (a successor to its first chatbot, Bard) frequently presenting false information — often referred to as a “hallucination” — Google rushed to expand what it calls “AI Overviews” to more users in May.

The results were predictable. It took just a week for Google to roll back the initiative after sharing a wealth of false information, such as a pizza recipe featuring glue to prevent the cheese from sliding off the crust and the suggestion it’s nutritious to eat at least one rock a day — information it reportedly pulled from the satirical website The Onion.

In a blog post, Google’s head of search, Liz Reid, wrote that despite the temporary pullback, “We’ll keep improving when and how we show AI Overviews and strengthening our protections.” A Google spokesperson told The New York Times last month that the company would not be pulling back from the feature for the long term.

It also appears fewer people are simply looking for news, especially following large spikes of interest during and after the 2016 presidential election and the COVID pandemic in 2020. According to the annual Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, about 36% of adults simply avoid news because they find the current events of any given day either politically frustrating or deeply depressing.

“American politics are pretty toxic these days. I find sometimes that I have to disconnect from stories that just make me angry,” one female respondent in the U.S. told researchers. Another respondent in the UK said turning her back on the news was “the only way I feel I can cope sometimes.”

Despite the reason for the pullback, search traffic remains down across the board at newsrooms large and small. That includes the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, which is suffering the same search traffic woes as other newspapers while transitioning from print to a digital news environment.

Aron Pilhofer, the chief product officer at the Star-Tribune, said their focus is a little different. While both search and traffic remain important, their attention is currently centered around converting readers into paid subscribers. Pilhofer said they haven’t sold many digital subscriptions to drive-by readers from Google and other search engines.

“Visits from search don’t tend to convert particularly well and never have,” Pilhofer said. “So while we’re seeing the same impact as everyone else, I don't think we are looking at it in any way as an existential crisis.

“We started to look at search traffic as a nice to have more than anything else,” Pilhofer added.

Pilhofer said the number of readers local to the Star-Tribune finding the site in organic searches is relatively small. Outside of major local breaking news stories, the vast majority of the organization’s search traffic comes from what Pilhofer refers to as “search with intent,” meaning readers include the keyword “Star-Tribune” in their queries. Think of searches like “Star-Tribune obits” or “Star-Tribune Vikings.”

That’s also probably the case at your news organization if you work for a legacy brand. At The Philadelphia Inquirer, our top search term is simply our name, remarkably spelled correctly.

“That search traffic is effectively direct traffic. That’s search as navigation,” Pilhofer said.

Instead of chasing traffic on Google, Apple News or Facebook, publishers need to double down on their own platforms and refocus on building direct relationships with readers in their community. It also means being flexible with the type of content your newsroom is creating. For example, authors of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s annual report points to “user needs” models of journalism, writing that news consumers “want more stories that provide more personal utility, help them connect with others, and give people a sense of hope.”

In a way, that’s the silver lining for legacy news organizations. In an era of spammy search results and robot-fueled misinformation, newsrooms like the Star-Tribune and others have built a level of generation trust among readers — and could fuel the next generation of digital subscribers. As frightening as the decline of search and social referral traffic can be, there is a future for newsrooms that make themselves relevant and indispensable to their community, especially as the internet becomes flooded with low-quality garbage.

“The best ‘what’s working’ answer is not being in a position where your business is entirely dependent on a certain third-party platform,” Pilhofer said. “If that is the business you’re in at this point, and search is fueling that engine, I fear for you. That’s not the case for the Star-Tribune.”

While Pilhofer isn’t as worried as some about the decline in search traffic results, he is haunted by one fear — a well-documented generational shift in reading habits among younger adults creeping up on news organizations.

“18- to 24-year-olds today consume news less traditionally than 18- to 24-year-olds did 10 years ago, and we’ve seen that gap increase year after year,” Pilhofer said. “That is the coming tsunami that we as an industry need to be worried about.”

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist forEditor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at robtornoe@gmail.com.

Concerned about your news organization’s plummeting search traffic? - Editor and Publisher (2024)

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