The myth of multiple gateways into a news site

If you run a small town, local community newspaper site, the most important page on your server is your home page.

Take a look at your stats: More than 50 percent, and maybe as much 70 percent of your Web traffic flows to your home page.

Now, some people who think they understand SEO might step forward and say, "Well, you’re just not correctly optimizing your content for Google."

I say, those people don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

It takes a little thought, but if you look at the typical small town newspaper web site, you’ll understand that the content of such sites serves a narrowly focused audience — people who live in that town (and a few stragglers who once lived there).

Now, the occasional story might arise that generates global interest, but on a day-in, day-out basis the content a local newsroom produces is of merely parochial interest.

No matter how well your site is optimized, if few people are searching for Joe Bubba’s DUI arrest, that story isn’t going to show up in Google. It’s the "tree falling in the forest problem." Even if your story is indexed and highly optimized, if nobody ever enters search terms that brings the story to the surface, the story might as well not exist in Google.

And being a small town site, there are likely few if any bloggers who are likely to link to the Joe Bubba story.  I’m sorry, but unless Joe Bubba is somehow tied to Newt Gingrich, neither Instapundit nor Daily Kos is going to link to his arrest, no matter how shocking it is back home.

SEO has its place, but it doesn’t negate the importance of a newspaper.com’s home page.

I don’t have the documents in front of me (and it’s not online as far as I know), but Greg Harmon of Belden once showed me research that indicated about 70 percent of the traffic of a small-circ newspaper.com came from visitors within that paper’s DMA.  In my own observations of traffic patterns in Ventura, Bakersfield, with GateHouse Media and running The Batavian, I would say that’s roughly true.

And it makes sense. Again, the vast majority of content produced by a local newspaper is of purely parochial interest. If your in Los Angeles, you are not going to have much cause to visit the Web site for the Freeport Journal-Standard, unless you were from Freeport, Ill. or had family there.

Local news sites live or die on how well they meet the needs of a local audience.

The same cannot be said for major metro sites, and perhaps this is where some of the confusion comes from on this topic. The bigger the newspaper, the more bloggers there are who follow it’s content, the more often it covers stories of a googable interest, and the bigger its global audience.

This is certainly true of sites such as the New York Times, CNN, Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune, for example. I’ve heard, but have not seen the actual stats, that as much as 70 percent of a major metro’s traffic flows to interior pages.

Expecting that much interior traffic for a small town site is like hoping a banker will turn down his bonus. It’s just not going to happen.

This is why small-circ newspaper publishers need to protect their home pages like Obama clings to his Blackberry.  It is the key to revenue and audience growth. 

Most local publishers have piss-poor home pages, but that’s an issue for another blog post.  But even the worst newspaper.com home page is more valuable than the aggregate of all the internal story pages.  In part, that’s true, because the home page is the only page most of that 70 percent local audience will typically visit. But, again, that’s a topic for another blog post.

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  • dkennedy

    In the case of the Christian Science Monitor, 84 percent of links go to interior pages. Not a typical example, since the Monitor doesn’t cover a geographic community. But it goes along with your point.

  • William M. Hartnett

    Not to be weirdly pedantic or anything, but I’m guessing the lack of links to the NYT and Boston Globe in your fourth-to-last paragraph points to a forthcoming post that directly addresses the GateHouse-NYT Co. flap.

  • Howard Owens

    Funny, I just did a tweet along the lines of … wonder if anybody has guessed yet what I’m leading up to. And yes, that was a hint. Good catch.