Morning Keynote: Search Has Changed Everything... And So Can You

Mar 19, 2008 - 9:38 am 1 by

Search engines have forced an entirely new dynamic in how connected humans access information. Successful traditional brands along with new entries into the space learn to roll with the changes... even if that means a transformation in how they do business. The death of traditional information sources is often grossly exaggerated. In other words, winning in the Interactive world means combining the best of the old and the new. Mr. McLeod will discuss how a world renowned and highly respected publication changed how they do business in a search driven world. You'll walk away with a better understanding of making the right moves can help you make the most of our dynamic universe.

* Gordon McLeod, President, The Wall Street Journal Digital Network

The theme, Gordon says, is about "old content guys catching up to search," specifically about how traditional media has approached search.

He talks about the Wall Street Journal Network which includes MarketWatch, FiLife, All Things Digital, and Barron's Online. 25million unique visitors. "Financial news with some tech put in there." They are aiming to build the individual brands within the network.

A brief history: in 1996, Google was a glimmer in Sergey and Larry's eyes, we had no idea what we were doing. There were 50k subscribers and paid pages were prevalent. There were 4 firewalls around the site so you HAD to pay to access the content.

In the early years, they got a sense that while search was not part of the conversation, they needed to grow. They spun out classified sites and other real estate sites. Some of the content was outside the wal to drive sales. Relatively small efforts were made. They got serious in 2003-2004 when people started talking about search. They spoke with Google/Yahoo and SEO became part of the language. The initial reaction, however, was not so much about search; it was more about acquisitions and they acquired MarketWatch at that time. The Journal was a paid site; MarketWatch was free. They also filled out the network. Barron's is a paid/free site which was rolled out during the time. eFinancialNews in London was also rolled out. Most of what was launched was free content as well during this time. There were 800k subscribers.

Last year was "our big year, but then again, we're a content company first." Dynamic sitemaps were implemented. URL structure changed. There were proper redirects especially since they kept changing headlines on some articles. They realized that they didn't know exactly what they were doing so they got a consulting expertise. Search was not part of the sweet spot.

Last year: was also launched on a WordPress platform. It's a free site on an SEO-friendly platform. Again, we're thinking more about search and free content especially where it can be found and indexed. For Barrons, it wasn't growing that much - it was a relatively specialized journal. It's a weekend publication for investors. Their model is that everything on Monday at 3 gets free, but subscribers will get a 2-day head start. MarketWatch community looks for high quality links. They still get nervous about user generated content but are getting over it.

Also, last year, free content on the Wall Street Journal became more prevalent. "Business of Life" was offered as free content. "Snippet" page has 2 free paragaphs. There's one click free access from Google and Digg: you'd get the article for free before getting the subscription wall. Slowly, and relatively quickly, we rolled out new approaches to drive subscriptions. It's not a bad businesses because there are 900K paid subscribers at a market price of $99/year with a 77% renewal rate.

Essentially, it's working. Content companies often say that WSJ is the best but it doesn't rank as high. Things are getting better, however. He shows a search engine traffic graph of organic growth but says "we don't do any SEM." REferral traffic from search engines has more than doubled since October 2006.

2008 and beyond: There are no excuses; you need to be really aggressive with search. In the last year, there has been a lot of talk about making the WSJ free. It isn't quite playing out that way; they like ad sales growth, but the traffic grows more than the sales. They are building a hybrid model. There's a greatly expanded sports section and other expanded free content. They attribute growth to being smarter of servicing content and enabling it through growth.

The other big change is that they have been rethinking site search. They are selling subscriptions, but that's really it. "People are not on our sites to buy. In terms of our environment ... how can we think about the site ... to drive a better user experience?" The site search feature is being rethought. In MarketWatch, they call it "universal search" with blog content, videos, articles, articles from other sites in the network, and the goal is to drive a strong user experience.

He talks about his competitor, CNN, which combines web search with site search. It's very user friendly with sponsored links. He shows us the NYC crane collapse search which combines results from other sites, like NYTimes. As we all get a little more flexible, not only are we letting our content show up on other places but we also let other people's content show up on our site. We know that we don't have the best stories on every subject so we are open to that exposure for other mediums.

If Google or Yahoo or Ask are in the search box, people may use it more often. He's thinking about that. He wants people to stay on the site to perform search. He thinks that the Google branding of the search box may improve search loyalty within the site.

The reality of search, especially for site search, is that you only use it when you fail -- like when you hit a brick wall. It's a notion of using search as a key platform. It's a smart way to go - rethinking the way we deal with our content.

What lessons have been learned? A lot of it had to do with catching up. We don't use SEM on the content side of the business (at least). Our most recent lessons: It's taken us a little bit longer to realize that our content can be in other places. They have RSS feeds. "We do very well with Yahoo." We use this content to reach new audiences. There's a Lumia application with Facebook that helps expose the network to different users. Cell phone usage is expanding as well. Most of this new distributed content isn't search friendly but it helps reach other audiences. Video is great because you can put it on your blog (he calls this UDC = user distributed content).

"SEO is not a project" - all developers are going through SEO training and it's starting to become a way of life. It's an evolution of what the content companies are going into.

There's a debate still about "free is good." There are 1.1 million subscribers (paid) and 14.7 million monthly visitors (as per Omniture, not subscriber). He likes those numbers and wants them to grow. The Journal publishes over 1000 pieces of content a day. Serving that content is such an upside for us, he says. "Yes, I want some paid content, and yes, we want free content."

Do you hire SEO staff or do you do it internally? Do you build your community or does someone else do it for you? There are about 100 people on the engineering and technology team, but "a lot of things we don't do very well - and some things we do very well." They had to talk to a lot of vendors and realized that it's better to build internally. When Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg wanted to do this (for AllThingsD and MarketWatch), they wanted it to be light and flexible. They went right to WordPress with a loosely aligned team and it took less than 6 months to get it up and running.

He is showing a graph from Hitwise that indicates that content is back. Great content is important. I think we're catching up. I think the journal has by far the best business content. I think we want to be ranked high on search engines and I think that they want us to be ranked up there. It's really up to us to catch up. We've changed the way we process content and we need to serve the CMS in a way we've never thought of before. We're far more aggressive and are far more open about seeing our content in other places. We're not growing fast enough to pay for that expensive content but we're confident that it's growing in the right direction.


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