Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Portals Passe?: Publishers Adjust to Metrics that Reward Contextual Content

CNET News covers the first major ratings results from its revised audience ratings methodology at comScore's Media Metrix unit and the results are not altogether rosy for major portal providers. According to CNET under ComScore's new qSearch 2.0, Yahoo lost market share from a year ago and is now at 23.5 percent for July, while Google gained share, reaching 55.2 percent market share. The New York Times notes also a fall in Forbes.com's audience measurement from 15.3 million in its original February data to a revised figure of 13.2 million.

One of the key factors aiding Google in the new measurement system is comScore's inclusion of search queries initiated via Google's infrastructure through search partners, as well as queries into "universal search" categories such as news or images from a search engine's home page initiated off of an initial query.

All of this builds audience share, which despite protests from other portal providers about quality audiences is still a major factor. The difference now, though, is that ratings companies are recognizing that in a world of embedded content, OEM relationships and mashups the "here" of content is less about who comes to your site and more about how your content gets in front of audiences in many venues. Jeff Jarvis notes in a "portals are past" rant that it doesn't matter if you get 10,000 impressions on a site with an audience of 100 million impressions or from multiple sites with smaller audiences, which is somewhat to the point but misleading.

With advertisers focusing increasingly on conversational marketing and contextual ad placement the new audience metrics are rewarding publishers whose content can engage those audiences in as many finely defined contexts as possible. The issue is less the total size of a portal's audience and more the ability of a portal to define the right audiences for advertisers. It isn't so much a matter of "big is bad and small is good" as it is getting the right context for your audience no matter where they congregate.

This is where Google has done itself an enormous favor over the past several years in encouraging the use of its content via mashups, Google Co-Op and other tools that make it easy for both professionals and amateurs to use Google content in so many different contexts.
There is a lot to be said for the strategies of portals such as Yahoo! and Ask.com to engage audiences more deeply at their own destination sites to build quality audience engagement but they have lagged behind Google in defining unique contexts for content beyond their portals that may be less heavily branded but of equal value to advertisers. At publisher sites such as Forbes.com the problems are not so different, with a preponderance of traditionally syndicated content building up clicks but failing to produce enough unique content that can make a dent through their own syndication strategies to take advantage of new audience metrics.

In all of these instances Google gained an advantage by focusing on syndicating context rather than content, avoiding the expenses and lethargic pace of traditional content licensing deals in favor of making it easy for people to find anyone's content in the right context and to build additional and unique content around it. This can happen on large portals or small portals - it matters not to Google, as long as it keeps growing.

We've long held that portal strategies were topping out, so none of this comes as a terrible surprise, but it's interesting to see how advertisers in search of meaningful metrics are now one of the key drivers that are showing the way to online publishers who may have doubted the value of Google's strategies to advertisers. Traditional portals will continue to be important as branding mechanisms for content producers and marketers but the highly portable value of context is beginning to to carve away at the bottom line of portal producers.
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