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Google drives a tenth of news traffic? That's bull-doodie, to use the technical term
Veep backtracks on figure – and here's why
Comment Google has been forced to retract a claim that it only delivers 10 per cent of traffic to news sites after one of those cited – The Guardian – said the figure was "nonsense."
The 10 per cent figure was supposed to act as a counter-argument to the European Commission's decision to formally accuse Google of illegally abusing its dominance in the web search market.
In a lengthy blog post titled "The Search for Harm", Google's senior search veep, Amit Singhal, argues that although Google is the most-used search engine, it is not abusing its dominant position. He then provides a number of graphs that he claims show competition is actually increasing.
One of those claims was that "when it comes to news, users often go directly to their favourite sites. For example Bild and The Guardian get up to 85 per cent of their traffic directly. Less than 10 per cent comes from Google."
The claim was noticed by The Guardian's audience editor Chris Moran, who tweeted: "Just to be absolutely clear … this is nonsense."
That tweet sparked a series of responses from webmasters and editors, all of whom confirmed that the idea of Google only supplying 10 per cent of online traffic to articles was, at best, fanciful.
The truth is that online news sites need Google for traffic, with Facebook often second. At The Register, looking over the past 30 days, Google brought in about 47 per cent of our readers, with Google News making up a further 12 per cent; more than half, in other words.
The Guardian did not release its figures, but Moran did highlight in a second tweet that traffic from Google is roughly equal to traffic that comes directly to the website. It also notes that the website where Google derived its figures – SimilarWeb – gives a 30/30/30 Google/direct/social media traffic split. (SimilarWeb estimates sites' traffic, for what it's worth. The numbers aren't exact, and in some cases, way off.)
But how did Google come up with the 10 per cent figure? It used the paper's guardian.co.uk domain rather than theguardian.com, which is its main site, when gathering data from SimilarWeb. When The Guardian highlighted the problem, Singhal revised the post, and noted the change at the bottom of it, alongside a similar correction about Yelp's traffic.
Why this matters
There are two reasons why this is more than just a stat snafu, however.
Firstly, although news sites were not included in Europe's investigation into Google's "abuse of dominance," the fact that the California giant has so much control over traffic is troubling.
Despite increasing experimentation with paywalls, online news is still largely funded by ads, which are delivered by traffic. That means there is a direct and significant connection between what Google does or does not do, and the immediate financial welfare of journalists.
Google makes a decision whether to include a website as a news source – and that process, which is largely opaque, can mean the difference between success and failure for a fledgling outlet. For most sites, Google's decisions on which stories to highlight in its search results will have a noticeable impact on traffic. (The ad giant insists "the selection and placement of stories" is "determined automatically by a computer program.")
This is a tremendous amount of soft power that can easily be turned to commercial advantage – which is the issue at the heart of Europe's probe – as well as serve as a very effective censorship-tool-in-waiting.
Lil' ole me?
Second, and more troubling, is Google's willingness to downplay its impact on news. It is possible, although unlikely, that Singhal doesn't spend much time looking at the news side of Google's search, and honestly believed that the online giant only accounts for 10 per cent of traffic.
It is possible he couldn't believe his luck when SimilarWeb came out with such a low figure for the Guardian, and then ran with it to make his case.
There have been several high-profile run-ins with news organizations and Google. In Spain, Google decided to simply scrap its news search after a law was passed requiring it to pay license fees to the newspapers whose content it aggregated.
It did the same thing in Germany when publishers sued Google for running their headlines without paying licensing fees. The publishers in question found that their images and headlines were simply removed from its service, prompting them to accuse Google of blackmail. ®