It looks like the age of the free lunch for online visitors could be over. Certain news organisations are busy implementing online the same model they use in print, a model based on the idea that content needs to be paid for by those who view it, as well as those who advertise next to it. On the face of things, it would appear that we have finally come to our senses, realised that a business model based on free content is never going to work and that information, as Stewart Brand so famously said at the first Hacker's Conference more than a quarter of a century ago, really does "want to be expensive, because it's so valuable".
But, Brand went on to say: "On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time." In this other hand we have the rise of citizen journalism, user-generated content, and the fact that many newspapers and magazines, in a knee-jerk reaction to falling paper advertising revenues and dropping circulation, simply made their content available for free online and worried about the consequences later. There is no need for me to argue that journalists and newspapers have invited trouble by letting the beast of free content out of its cage. I will argue instead that, broadly speaking, it is now too late to try and get it back in.
End-user expectation as a vital ingredient of any online business model
There is an expectation now in the eyes of news consumers that online content ought to be free. Online visitors expect a website to find other ways to make money from their presence - enough money to produce quality content. The performance of the free-content model widely in use online demonstrates the problems with this state of affairs.
There are three distinct, but overlapping issues here, the examination of which may pave the way to a solution at a time when news sites are finding it increasingly difficult to make the model work. First, the challenge for any newspaper or news-orientated website is to find ways to make money from free content (Rupert Murdoch may be screaming about copyright and the quality of his newspapers' content but The Huffington Post is reportedly making millions without charging readers a single penny). Secondly, it is difficult to put a monetary value on information in a world where free services such as Twitter, Facebook, and blogs break news stories ahead of newspapers. Third, newspapers and those who run them have not understood that online visitors to generalised news sites will pay not for the quality of the news, but for its convenience.
An ebook worth £20 can get a thousand downloads in an hour if those who buy it are convinced that what it contains will help them in a practical way and address a pressing need they have. The FT understands that, which is why, in these financially strapped times, its subscription model for content has been helping it make money. The solution to the three issues posed above brings us, neatly, to SEO.
Search engine optimisation, used correctly, is the friend, not the enemy, of online content (paid-for or otherwise). The truth is that what creates value first, as Facebook and Twitter have so visibly proved, is traffic. The moment your content becomes invisible you lose traffic and then, whatever value you may have arbitrarily placed on the information you provide, is worth about as much as Monopoly money.
The judicious use of SEO in creating headlines which address specific potential visitor needs, and creating content summaries that do the same, has the ability to take a story which has niche value and make it a major global player just by leveraging the niche at a global level. It is this approach which provides opportunities which can bring in the profit required to keep things afloat.
In order for this to happen two other things have to happen: first, as journalists we need to understand SEO in terms of search terms and potential visitor searches; and second, newspaper owners must understand that SEO-savvy journalists are capable of increasing the traffic and revenue of a newspaper website and reward this accordingly.
This requires us to move with the times, to forget the restrictions imposed upon us by the past and the vertical, paper-based model of the 20th century, and enter a 21st-century world where information is valued, not for its immediacy or quality, but for the convenience it gives the end user and the specific needs it addresses. By the same token, journalists should become responsible not just for providing content that is high in quality and journalistic integrity, but that also addresses specific online audience needs.
In the traditional journalistic model, journalists provide content and the newspaper, magazine or website is the vessel that carries it. That's too cumbersome and it leads to the paid-for content debacle. Today we have the technology to precisely measure the effectiveness of each individual item of content posted on a news website. We can see, today, how many readers it attracted, what led them there and whether it became viral afterwards or not. We need to be brave enough to want to become accountable for the appeal of the specific content we produce, and be willing to be rewarded on a performance-based model. By becoming aware of the search engine optimisation elements of our job we also, as content producers, become aware of the effectiveness of our content in terms of the online model. If we are not willing to take this step we will find ourselves locked in an industry which reacts to falling circulation numbers in print editions by placing further restrictions on the appeal of its online product, a response which will inevitably lead to its collapse.
David Amerland is a journalist with 15 years' experience in SEO. He is active in helping companies and individuals develop winning online strategies. His book 'SEO Help: 20 steps to take your site to Google's #1 page' is available to buy from Amazon and any quality offline or online bookshop for $29.99. It is also available as an eBook from most reputable online eBook stores for $19.99 and can be purchased directly from David Amerland's website: www.helpmyseo.com.
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