Guardian defends marketing tactics

A national newspaper journalist this week questioned rival papers’ use of paid-for search engine advertising, but new data suggests that it only accounts for a small fraction of traffic from search engines to newspapers’ websites.

Pay-per-click (PPC) search engine advertising – where website operators pay for links to their sites to be associated with specific keywords on search engines – has become a routine part of the arsenal of marketing tactics publishers use to drive traffic to news websites over the last two years.

Newspapers’ use of search engine marketing came under the spotlight this week as Telegraph assistant editor Justin Williams published posts on his personal blog to suggest the Guardian and Times were overusing pay-per-click marketing in an effort to bolster their ABCe figures.

Williams criticised The Guardian for bidding on the Google search term ‘Madeleine McCann’despite having been critical of other papers’ coverage of the missing girl.

Guardian marketing director Marc Sands this week said the paper was reviewing the list of words against which it has bought PPC advertising.

‘It was an error on our behalf, which is why we took it down,’Sands said.

‘The Guardian has been vocal about the manner in which the McCann story has been written about and the evidence that journalists have written their stuff on is flimsy at best.’He said that buying the search term ‘Madeleine McCann’was therefore not ‘in keeping with our journalistic standards”.

Sands said the external search marketing firm that the Guardian employs would be briefed about certain subject areas to avoid in its campaigns.

Research suggests paid-for search listings remain a relatively small proportion of newspaper web traffic.

‘We haven’t seen a huge increase in the amount of traffic that the papers are getting as a proportion of their total traffic,’said Robin Goad, research director at web analytics firm Hitwise, which has been tracking news sites’ use of paid search since 2006.

The Sun Online is one of the heaviest users of the paid search technique, with 8.65 per cent of its search traffic in July coming from paid search, according to Hitwise data. FT.com is also a major user, with 7.21 per cent of its search traffic coming from paid listings.

‘People do it a little bit, and they do it tactically, but it’s not really at the core of anyone’s strategy in terms of picking up traffic,’said Goad.

Goad said several national newspapers had used paid search listings to promote their online coverage of the McCann case. The practice peaked in September 2007, when the McCanns were declared ‘arguidos’by Portuguese police.

News websites tend to used search marketing tactically. Some online publishers use paid-for search advertising to boost traffic to underperforming content in order to meet page view targets agreed with more valuable online display advertisers.

Because Google’s AdWords service is refreshed more quickly than the Google News index, they are also used to promote breaking stories in the first few minutes.

‘Paid search is like a firehose of traffic that you can turn on and off at will. There’s very little underlying growth from traffic gained this way,’said one digital publishing executive at a major magazine publisher.

But Sands insisted that it is an efficient way of marketing a news site. ‘Some have described it as the equivalent of CDs or DVDs, that people come once and never come again, but I don’t think that’s true. If you look at the data, they frequently go to another page.”

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