World Editors Forum: Mirror’s Kelly: We Must Put Search Engines In Their Place

The Mirror’s associate editor urged the news business to rely less on search engines and more on its journalism, in a World Newspaper Congress World Editors Forum keynote in Hyderabad, India.

Matt Kelly, who first began his public crusade this summer on paidContent:UK, said: “In our great frantic headlong rush to accumulate users at any cost, many of us were all too quick to sacrifice anything that stood in the way of search engine optimisation” (SEO).

“… The game is up. The days of leading the newspaper industry by the hand, down the path of mythic riches, are coming to a rapid close.

Kelly is on-message with Trinity Mirror (LSE: TNI) CEO Sly Bailey, who has both advocated building loyal audiences before paywalls and is a noted Google (NSDQ: GOOG) critic. “Unique users don’t pay wages,” she has said.

Bailey and Kelly are two parts in an emerging industry effort to regain the initiative from search engines, the web or generally the media transformation that newspapers have endured. Kelly, in Hyderabad, said “traffic from search engines is ridiculously low … the vast majority of traffic has either come from bookmarks, or a referral from an informed source”.

He said knocking SEO consultants down a peg or two to “build sites that perform well for humans, not search engines” is one change necessary to “reverse the damage we’ve done to ourselves in the last fifteen years of the internet“.

Kelly’s full speech…

A couple of years ago, at this very conference, I sat among you and listened as Google’s number one global ad salesman gave the World Editors Forum a very slick presentation about where the newspaper industry was going wrong.

He told us what kind of stories we should publish if we wanted to attract a larger online audience. He told us what kind of headlines we should write and what kind of websites we should build. And how, if we got these things right, Google News would deliver us an audience beyond anything we could hope to achieve in print.

If we still hadn’t get the message, there were separate seminars, two a day, laid on free of charge by Google, complete with glossy brochures, on how to do well in Google News. The seminars were full. We all wanted to know the secret. The brochure made it seem so easy.

Of course, as we’re all aware now, it was too easy. In our great frantic headlong rush to accumulate users at any cost, many of us were all too quick to sacrifice anything that stood in the way of search engine optimisation.

We followed the brochure word for word, and we employed the same merry-go-round of SEO consultants to help us build sites that would ping to the top of search engines for a world hungry for our content.

If little things like character, brand…the ingrained values that made the print product a success, got in the way, well … the ends justified the means. Content wasn’t king. Traffic was. Whoever, from wherever, reading whatever. It didn’t matter as long as the audience grew.

And boy, did it grow. In the UK alone, we soon had several newspaper websites attracting in the region of thirty million users a month. Impressive. Think of all the advertising they could sell!

Ah .. well, actually, there was a slight problem there. As any first-year economics student will tell you, massively oversupplying a finite market generally leads to a collapse in value. Great swathes of newspaper website inventory – sometimes as much as 90 percent of page views – went unsold.

Now the very CPM model we’d prostituted our brands for online, began to punish us. The massive oversupply of ad inventory led to a rapid erosion of value and opened a whole new business of network agencies undermining the traditional link between buyer and media owner, and making it cheaper and cheaper to buy our space.

But it gets worse. Much worse, in fact, for our long-term future. In treating SEO as the be-all and end-all of online publishing, we devalued our content in the mind of the users…

What a word! “Users.” Not readers, or viewers. Certainly not customers – not unless we are being deeply ironic. For the fact is the word “user” is, for the vast majority of people consuming our products online, entirely accurate.

We’d never choose such a sterile word to describe the people who buy our newspapers. But online, “users” is about right. They find our content in a search engine, they devour it, then they move back to Google, or wherever, and go looking for more. Often, they have no idea which website it was they found the content on. This was the audience we’ve been chasing all that time. A swarm of locusts.

So, can the process be reversed? Can we begin to rebuild the connection between investment and reward online? I’m here to tell you, yes, absolutely…

We’ve listened to our fair share of SEO experts at Mirror Group, but when we relaunched about eighteen months ago, we fought very hard to put SEO to one side and focus instead on trying to reinject some of the brand values that had served the newspaper so well for more than one hundred years. Some of that bold tabloid panache, the dynamism, the straight-talking, entertaining view of the world so familiar to readers of the Daily Mirror newspaper. And the relaunch was a great success.

Quickly, the new-look was the fastest growing newspaper website in the country; year-on-year growth of 100 percent or more – and importantly, the highest proportion of UK users of any newspaper website in the country.

A good effort indeed. But not, in our eyes, good enough. We wanted to go push further.

So three months ago, we launched two new websites – and actually stripped out from two of our core drivers of traffic; showbiz and football. Creating two new niche websites, built on very different platforms designed especially to show each off in their best light. And the hell with SEO. We we’re chasing passion, here, not page impressions.

In the case of MirrorFootball, it is the ideal platform to combine our brilliant coverage of the British football with a unique collection of photographs and pages stretching back to 1903 – definitively the greatest British football archive in the world. With 3am, it is taking a unique brand and attitude of showbiz gossip and giving it the best possible platform online.

With these two new websites, I believe we have taken a very important first step – a very difficult first step – to put that sense of brand and value and character back.
How? By putting SEO in its rightful place as a tool to be used when appropriate, but focusing our main attention on what is unique and brilliant about each of these properties respresents.

Both sites have their critics – 3am in particular has been the subject of quite intense argument concerning it’s navigation. You’ll notice we ignored the SEO brigade here.

Instead of a navigation that would perform well in Google – something like “music news”, “celebrity news”, “film news”, “TV news” etc etc… – we decided to follow a more emotional methodology… “Gasp!”, “Tee-hee”, “Phwoar”… I hope the translators are able to cope with making sense of this – but phrases that better reflect the experience we hope our users will enjoy when they come to 3am. To be shocked, amused, titillated…

Yes, it’s different. And it means the audience may grow more slowly. But it will grow meaningfully. Because its audience will care.

The SEO fraternity have been outraged by our blind stupidity. Dumbstruck by how much we don’t get the web. Interestingly, I sense a touch of foreboding in their mockery. As though they realise the game is up. The days of leading the newspaper industry by the hand, down the path of mythic riches, are coming to a rapid close.

Certainly both sites have rewarded our belief by reconnecting us to both readers and advertisers. In terms of audience, MirrorFootball has achieved two million monthly unique users. 800,000. Both sites are growing steadily month by month.

Crucially, traffic from search engines is ridiculously low for a newspaper website. Around 15 percent for MirrorFootball and less than 10 for 3am.
That means the vast majority of traffic has either come from bookmarks, or a referral from an informed source. We get a lot of traffic to both sites from social networks like Twitter and Facebook.

Not recommendations from a search engine, but from a friend. That’s how to grow a meaningful audience. Counter to our expectation, audience on has also continued to grow, meaning that across our portfolio of websites in the last three months our audience has increased by three million.

We’re very proud of the new-found connection with both users and advertisers. I’ll give you a couple of examples in each case…

With MirrorFootball, we possess a unique asset, our archive, which we are, for the first time in one hundred years, actively putting to work. Last month, we began retailing in earnest, using both print and web to market a collection of books and merchandise based on our unique photographs. I’m not able to tell you how much we’ve merchandise we’ve sold, but suffice to say it has exceeded expectations and we are confident we have the beginnings of a thriving retail business with MirrorFootball.

We’ve also used our content and our engaged audience to re-cement links with key advertisers. Vauxhall Commercial Vehicles joined us as launch sponsors and we’ve created a number of unique pieces of content for them that entertain our users, exploit of history and provide the client with a tailored solution; in this case reinforcing Vauxhall’s positioning as a vanmaker with decades of history behind them.

In the case of, we’ve been able to leverage the sense of community and brand engagement by building a bespoke bingo game for our fans to play. It’s twice as popular, head for head, than our game on

And Samsung are big fans of brand 3am. Together we ran a “be a 3am girl for the day” competition to launch a new mobile phone. The competition winner – a bloke! – gathered an army of nearly 2,000 supporters on Facebook to promote his entry. The power of social networking in action.

So we have to work harder. Explore new revenue streams. Ten years ago, Mirror Group had four or five revenue streams. At last count, we had 28.
Not all of them will turn out to be the big businesses we hope, but we’re working them all, hard, in the knowledge that our future depends on it.

These three sites, with their disparate approaches to SEO, and their varied revenue streams, are a big step in the right direction. But they’re a drop in the ocean of change we need to make as an industry if we’re going to reverse the damage we’ve done to ourselves in the last fifteen years of the internet.

There will always be free stuff out there on the internet. But if we want any hope of moving to a position where people will happily hand over their cold, hard, cash for our content online, the very first step we need to take is to re-establish in our online businesses that sense of value, brand, and uniqueness that we take so much trouble to do in print.

If that means It means putting journalism first, and SEO second, then, as a journalist, I welcome that.

Not because we have some romantic view of what good journalism means. But because we have a very pragmatic view of what good business means. But I welcome it as a journalist who believes the true value of our content is, ultimately, measured in commercial terms.

It means not letting SEO wag the dog, but instead focusing on creating the most engaging, entertaining, informative content possible. It means building sites that perform well for humans, not search engines. It means we have to stop thinking about users, but start thinking of readers, listeners, viewers. One day, even customers.