WSJ: Paid Content Painful in Google's World

Does publishing subscription-based online content hinder search?

NEW YORK -- Listening to a keynote about how the The Wall Street Journal has adapted to the onset of a Google-driven Internet leaves the impression of a reluctantly evolving hominid marching into the future, dragging behind it a formula from another century.

Speaking here at the Search Engine Strategies conference, Gordon McLeod, president of The Wall Street Journal Digital Network, described the gradual emergence of a Web strategy. It began with an earnest debate over whether Google should even be allowed to crawl the Journal's pages, and has today found some resolution with a burgeoning family of freely available content sites, but with the old-line subscription model still very much intact.

"Clearly a lot of this is about us catching up," McLeod said, striking a note of better-late-than-never candor that he returned to often. "It's taken a little while for us to realize that our content can be in other places."

The Wall Street Journal has a dilemma that many other content publishers have already resolved: how to strike a balance between free and pay content. Adjusting to the realities of Web search, the Journal has settled on a hybrid model, where some of its content is reserved for paying subscribers, but much of it is now freely available and pushed out to the search engines.

Until recently, much of the discussion turned on an all-or-nothing proposition, fueled by the expectation that Rupert Murdoch would follow the path beaten by nearly all other newspaper publishers and make the entirety of the Journal's content freely available.

That did not happen. Instead, McLeod said that the Journal is happy with the balance it has struck in the pay-vs.-free debate, with 1.1 million paying subscribers who have the run of the Journal's site, and 14.7 million monthly visitors who access the growing body of non-premium content.

A subscription-only access model is not friendly to search engines. The Journal's initial method of overcoming this obstacle was to spin out free sites, such as classified listings and sites focusing on small businesses, to boost its visibility in search.

The great leap forward began in 2003 and 2004, McLeod said. That was when the Journal got serious about search: Executives began talking in earnest with Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO); the Journal bought MarketWatch and rolled out Barron's Online, which previously had been a part of the walled garden of the Journal site.

Essentially, McLeod said, they realized that without content available outside the subscription firewall, the Journal was torpedoing its search visibility; it didn't matter how good its content was or even how early it was posted -- no one would find it through the search engines.

Then, last year, the Journal developed a dynamic site map and a permanent home for its articles. It started freeing more content and pushing it out to its family of sites where they can be seen in search engines.

"Again, slowly -- but relatively quickly for us," McLeod said.

Its premium financial coverage has put the Journal in something of a unique position among newspaper publishers of being able to sustain a paid-subscription model even after it has made most of its political, international, sports and lifestyle content available for free.

But the biggest problem the Journal faced in trying to get its content to the top of the search-engine pages was common to most newspaper sites: It was built in a pre-Google world.

When the Google bomb went off, newspaper editors suddenly found that the stories their reporters had burned up shoe leather to report were losing out to bloggers and other new-media folks operating on Web platforms built with search engine optimization, or SEO (define), at their core. Frustrating as it was, it seemed that content quality was becoming subordinated to search visibility.

As the Journal -- and to a greater extent other papers – learned, search realities demand that editors loosen their grip on their content.

Viral distribution is one of the essences of the Web 2.0 world, and it was in that spirit the Journal rolled out a Facebook application for members to post and link to its articles on their profiles.

Quite simply, sharing content with free sites within the Wall Street Journal Digital Network and courting links from external blogs and other new-media outlets have propelled the Journal's conversion from a destination site to a more search-friendly Internet magnet, though McLeod admits that he and his colleagues are still learning as they go.

To his audience, McLeod's message couldn't have been plainer: "In 2008, there are no excuses if you're not being aggressive about search."

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