I’ve been reading Ryan Chittum’s recent posts at Columbia Journalism Review about the whole Murdoch/WSJ “We’re seceding from Google” flap.
Chittum applauds what he sees as a new appreciation in media circles for the “loyal readership” metric as opposed to the “total monthly visitors” tally, and argues, accurately enough, that the core readership — the fraction of your traffic that represents people who read a lot and keep coming back — is more valuable and important than the drop-ins, the folks who arrive via a search query, read a page, and then vanish. He airily dismisses the transient visitors as “junk traffic.”
This relative valuation of these two kinds of traffic is pretty obvious, and widely understood in the Web industry. Chittum concludes that newspapers shouldn’t be afraid to shut out the search traffic in their effort to convert the loyal readers into paying subscribers (though it’s not clear from his argument whether he means subscribers in print or on a pay-walled-off Web site).
There are two big problems with this analysis.
First, many advertisers, sadly, do not share Chittum’s perspective. When they evaluate a buy, they are often obsessed with “reach.” They want to hit lots of eyeballs. They are far less interested in the repeat visitors. Once they’ve shown you their ad once, they know that you’re probably not going to look at it again, even if they were lucky enough to catch your eye on the first exposure. Transient search traffic helps media sites satisfy these advertisers.
Second, and I think more important, Chittum completely ignores the way “junk traffic” visitors provide “qualified leads” to a Web site: they expose your site to new eyes and give you a shot, admittedly fleeting, and turning some fraction of them into loyal readers. This is the way sites have always built traffic “organically.” In the era of Facebook and Twitter that may be changing, but I’d argue that the principle still holds whether folks are landing on your article page via Google or a retweet. This is a far better way to expand your traffic base than expensive offline advertising.
Chittum’s analysis looks to me like a recipe for stagnation, a method media companies might adopt if they want to harvest cash from their websites to keep their offline products on life support. It’s this sort of thinking — “cash out the potential of the future to prolong the agony of the present” — that has dug so much of the media business such a deep hole already.