How Google collaborates with news outlets to optimize their content

Amy Adams Harding explains why publishers need to act more like e-commerce platforms.

Google has had a long and complicated relationship with news publishers. On the one hand, it sends billions of visitors to their websites every year through its main search engine and Google News. On the other hand, some publishers believe that the Mountain View company has siphoned away ad revenue on the back of their content.

Amy Adams Harding, Google’s director of analytics and revenue optimization for news and publishing, believes the search giant has the potential to provide a net benefit to publishers. Over the past several years, her team has developed a suite of tools aimed at helping media outlets to optimize their content so it reaches a bigger audience and drives more revenue.

In our interview, Amy walked me through these tools and explained how they work. She also talked about why publishers need to adopt many of the strategies that e-commerce platforms developed over a decade ago.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Utilizing e-commerce strategies within news publishing

Amy spent years at Google before she took on a news-focused role. She was originally employed by DoubleClick and stayed on after its acquisition, and over the next half decade she worked on its e-commerce team. Some of what she learned there helps inform her work with publishers, since she thinks news outlets should adopt the best practices that e-commerce websites pioneered years ago. “It's things like making sure that you have search icons in your mobile experience that allow a user to get to your shopping interface. It's testing the color of your ‘buy now’ buttons. It's simplifying the funnel. So we work with a lot of our partners in the news space on simplifying their registration or their subscription funnel, because oftentimes they ask for 15 fields of information when really they don't need that. You want to eliminate any barriers to purchase. We’re teaching a lot of basic e-commerce tactics that the Amazons of the world learned many, many years ago and adapting them for our news partners to run their subscription funnel.”

Amy also worked on Google Consumer Surveys, a tool that she encourages publishers to utilize when attempting to understand their users’ needs. “A publisher can ask survey questions to their own users, and it's a very, very powerful form of subjective feedback. It's a great way to hear from your readers and the consumers of your content.” She thinks outlets can use these surveys to help interpret data they get from Google Analytics. “We were hearing more and more that these publishers were just overwhelmed by the amount of data coming from their Google Analytics and they just didn't know what to do with that tsunami of data. So we realized that there was an opportunity to both help them parse through the data and really focus on the metrics that matter to their business by combining the passively collected, objective information from Google Analytics with the actively collected, subjective research from surveys.”

Delivering targeted insights for publishers

Amy’s team doesn’t just give advice to publishers; it also builds products aimed at helping them with their specific needs. The first it launched was called News Consumer Insights. “It filters Google Analytics data through a user engagement lens. Three or four years ago when we built this, it was revolutionary to the news partners that we talked to. They were not used to thinking about the funnel. Most of them had never worked at an e-commerce company or thought about funnels in the way that e-commerce players had been doing for a long time.” 

The News Consumer Insights dashboard divides users into three categories. “We start with your casual readers. And this, as you might imagine, is the vast majority of most publishers’ visitors, and they represent the top of your funnel. Maybe they saw an article through search or through social, and they came to visit, but these are not habitual readers. The next bucket down in the middle is what we call our loyal readers. So they're visiting between maybe two and 15 times a month. These are people who are starting to grow an emotional bond with your content. Then at the bottom of the funnel we have brand lovers. These are people who are going to bat for you. They are coming to your site more than 15 times a month, so at least every other day. This is usually a very small slice of your readers. However, it's the most important because what we found is the brand lover category has the highest propensity to participate in supporting your site in a direct manner, whether it’s a subscription or a membership.”

The goal of any publisher is to move as many users from the first column over to the second and third columns, and News Consumer Insights produces automated suggestions to help them achieve this goal. “When you page down on the tool, we've actually created what we call a decision engine to surface recommendations to help our partners focus on the improvements that they need to make. It's personalized based on your Google Analytics data. So when you log on with your website, you may see that you have four recommendations to help you improve reader engagement.”

So what kind of suggestions does the tool make? Well, it might push the publisher to better optimize its newsletter signup widgets. “We found time and time again that newsletter readers have the highest propensity to subscribe or contribute or participate in your site's sustainability. It's almost like a gateway drug to a paid subscription or membership to a site.” Another suggestion might be to implement web push notifications. “What we've seen over time and through talking to literally hundreds, if not thousands, of websites is that web push notifications are almost as influential as newsletter traffic. These are people that have said, ‘yes, you may push information to me. I am inviting you to contact me.’ So if resources are available and there's volition, we recommend that our partners implement web push notifications, because it unlocks this new type of audience that is lower down the funnel.”

How Google collaborates with publishers

News Consumer Insights is just one of several tools the company’s launched in recent years. But Google doesn’t just launch a product and move on; Amy’s team works directly with publishers to educate them on how to get the most out of the software. “We have one-to-one engagements with some of our partners. Oftentimes we'll do an audit. We'll walk them through the tools, we'll talk to them about their strategy. We really enjoy being consultative and digging into a partner's business. We also learn a lot in those engagements and it circles back to inform our tools.”

Amy’s team has also developed a more scaled engagement. “It’s called NCI Shift, and it's a four-part workshop that we started a year ago to help reach more publishers that serve underrepresented communities” Google partnered with a philanthropy group that invests in news organizations led by people of color. “We created this workshop just for their fund grantees to help them accelerate the reader engagement and monetization strategies. We performed an audit on all of their sites, and then we brought them together to form deep dive modules around reader engagement and reader revenue, and then we came back in a couple of weeks and we separated them into working groups so they can exchange best practices. We can also offer support to help them implement these changes, but it is so much more powerful when our partners teach each other.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.