Google News: Friend or Foe for Local News Services?

Research suggests news aggregators like Google drive more traffic to local sites—but not their home pages.

Google has long been a favorite scapegoat of the troubled news industry. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch famously accused the search titan of stealing from media outlets by drawing users to its aggregation service, Google News, and away from those sites’ home pages. New sites often dismiss Google’s claims that it helps them by driving traffic to their articles.

Now, early results from Microsoft Research New England suggest that news aggregators like Google News increase visits to local news sites—providing they highlight local news stories. The issue is particularly important at a time when many newspapers are trying to end the practice of giving away news for free.

Like it or not, aggregators play a significant role. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, Google News is responsible for as much as 30 percent of the traffic that goes to the top 25 news sites. As such, it’s a force that can’t be ignored, and the Microsoft researchers wanted to assess how aggregators actually affect local news sites.

Local news outlets have struggled, particularly online, an environment that’s increasingly oriented toward a global audience. For every local news experiment, such as Steven Berlin Johnson’s blog service Outside.in or AOL’s Patch network, there seems to be another closed newspaper, such as the Honolulu Advertiser, or signs of trouble such as those that inspired the Christian Science Monitor to move to a mostly online format. Those local news experiments online haven’t done very well to date. Johnson sold Outside.in to AOL for less than $10 million. Local news sites covered by Technology Review in the past, including YourStreet and Platial, have folded or suffered long-term financial difficulties.

While many have theorized that the Internet ought to help local sites by making it easier to get their voices heard, in practice, sites have struggled to find a place—and business model—for themselves. But the Microsoft results suggest there is a hunger for local news online, according to senior researcher Markus Mobius, who was involved with the project.

The researchers studied data going back to 2009, when Google gave French users the ability to enter geographic information to refine the results of searches done on Google News. The Microsoft researchers got their data from Microsoft’s Bing toolbar, which asks users for permission to track data about online activity. The researchers used this information to study two groups—those who added location information and those who didn’t. Besides this difference, the subjects lived in the same regions and had similar news habits before the change.

For the group that added local results, the researchers found a huge initial spike in local news consumption, both in terms of page views and in time spent on local sites. Perhaps more interesting, once the spike stabilized, there was a lasting effect, Mobius notes. Eight weeks after the change, the researchers found there was a 16 percent increase in the number of unique local outlets that users visited. Their overall news consumption also went up, so the new interest in local news came as an addition to previous habits.

While that all sounds encouraging for the news industry, the researchers noted a significant downside—users visited the home pages of local sites less than before, meaning that local sites lost their role as curators of news. News sites carefully structure their pages to highlight stories they believe are important, but the Microsoft researchers found that aggregators degraded the value of this arrangement.

The researchers say they’re continuing the study, and are interested in looking at how news aggregators affect other types of news consumption. For example, they want to look at whether exposure to left- or right-leaning media through an aggregator can influence a person to read a broader variety of news. They also plan to study how social media habits affect news consumption.

But the researchers’ results—even the ones that sound encouraging—serve to highlight long-standing problems that news outlets are facing, says Scott Karp, cofounder and CEO of Publish2, a content distribution platform that aims to help news organizations make better use of the coverage they produce. “The home page, for national, niche, and local news alike, has been on a long slide into irrelevance,” Karp says. This is particularly a problem because the home page is often where sites concentrate their efforts to monetize. “Even worse,” he adds, “local news sites have a glut of poorly monetized page views, which means more page views from aggregators have little business value.”

Karp hopes that local news outlets can convince people to follow them to formats that will serve both outlet and reader better. On tablets and in apps, he says, publishers might be able to regain their power to provide a consistent user experience (rather than being a pit stop as users bounce from one site to another through an aggregator). In the process, he believes, they may find a better return on investment than has so far been the norm online. 

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