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January 24, 2024updated 25 Jan 2024 9:45am

Publishers: Ditch Google search addiction or die

Google's switch to generative AI-written search results could send many publishers out of business.

By Matthew Scott Goldstein

Publishers, brace yourselves, it’s going to be a wild ride and I am very nervous for your future.

At the seasoned age of 57, with three and a half decades immersed in the publishing realm, my 15-year consulting escapade has been nothing short of an adventure, helping almost 100 clients. From Daily Mail to NYT, Forbes to Conde Nast, Hearst to Arena/SI, to Time – I’ve had the privilege of contributing to these renowned publishers. Gratitude fills me for the highs of my career where dreams exceeded expectations.

However, a shadow looms — a grave concern for the digital publishing landscape. Despite my inherently positive demeanour, I’m compelled to address an industry-wide predicament. A potential extinction-level event is imminent for publishers, foreboding potential 30-50% layoffs in the coming years. IBM’s Weather (aka Watson), recently under private equity’s wing, could emulate Elon Musk’s drastic staff reduction, setting a precedent for others to follow suit.

The publisher industry’s zenith in 2021 now seems a distant memory, as a downward trajectory marks the last two years and foretells the future. Generative AI-wielding rewriting capabilities threaten content integrity, pushing the boundaries of copyright norms. Google’s decision to halt traffic to publishers will be a pivotal blow, potentially propelling the industry into a downturn.

Established brands with robust front-door traffic braced for impact have a distinct advantage, think Yahoo!, WSJ, NYT, Daily Mail, CNN, WaPo and Fox News as some examples.

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Others, like Vox Media, Conde Nast, Hearst, Dotdash/Meredith, Arena, and Penske Media contemplate drastic measures, possibly halving their brand portfolios and only focusing on those brands that have front door traffic, not the Google search drug we are all addicted to.

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Too bad publishers spent so much time hacking SEO over the past ten years and not driving homepage traffic.

Recognising the transformative power of generative AI, publishers are looking for efficiency, but its implementation is a time-consuming endeavour.

In this chaos, survival for smaller publishers lies in essential functions, potentially outsourcing non-core operations, and emphasising editorial content in this evolving landscape.

How to survive Google search oblivion

So, what’s the playbook for publishers in 2024? The answer is straightforward, but the execution will be challenging.

Every publisher must single-mindedly focus on obtaining and growing front-door direct traffic. Imagine Google, the malevolent (yes, I used that word) monopoly, ceases to send you traffic. Like the banks – please conduct this stress test immediately – publishers are not too big to fail. Though Google is currently risk-averse and doesn’t need to blow up publishing right now so there may be a stay of execution.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you still have a business if Google ceases to send you traffic?
  • How do you make your homepage a machine for getting users to come back more often?
  • How do you get users to visit more pages once they arrive?
  • How is your desktop versus mobile homepage differentiated?
  • How do you use generative AI to adjust your homepage?
  • Will community/comments help to grow your front door traffic, getting users to come back more often?
  • What content do you need to bring in more direct traffic?
  • How do you work with Google and Open AI/Microsoft and other LLMs allowing them to train the model in return for traffic guarantees or start/join a lawsuit?

The most important metric/KPI for publishers going forward is maintaining and attracting direct homepage users.

Of note, 2024 is a presidential election year and depending on the outcome my extinction prediction may be pushed back to 2025. As generative AI evolves and in-page summarisation progresses, Google might keep publishers on life support, but just barely. Additionally, Google SGE [search generative experience] might not roll out in 2024 – I think it depends on what Open AI, Amazon and Facebook do. Google doesn’t want to blow up their search monopoly unless they are forced to do so by the competition.

There is hope. These publishers need to reinvent themselves and focus on homepage traffic. It will not be easy, but it is doable. Get users to come to the homepage and come back more often. In fact, the goal of this message is to get publishers to proactively make the changes to stay relevant and reinvent the business.

Publishers, it’s time to prepare for the storm. Good luck.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
  • Business owner/co-owner
  • CEO
  • COO
  • CFO
  • CTO
  • Chairperson
  • Non-Exec Director
  • Other C-Suite
  • Managing Director
  • President/Partner
  • Senior Executive/SVP or Corporate VP or equivalent
  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
  • Non-manager
  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
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