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We need new business models to burst old media filter bubbles

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Access to information in the United States is fragmenting along social lines. This goes beyond the fuzzy, qualitative feeling many of us have that people can’t agree on key issues anymore — data show that people are increasingly breaking into disconnected ideological camps. While this is commonly viewed as a left/right issue, the reality is much more pernicious: It is a rich/poor issue.

Americans today are exposed to fundamentally different facts based on their news sources. Data are often arranged to fit narratives rather than the other way around. This effect spans the political spectrum: It is as relevant to The New York Times as it is to Fox News. One of the contributors to this information split is the rise of site-wide paywalls, which divide access to information along socio-economic lines.

As one magazine editor eloquently puts it, “The truth is paywalled but the lies are free.”

It’s time for us to think critically about how we can build business models that reunite information bubbles, so that people consistently get access to all sides of the story.

Ringing the division bell

Media polarization is not a new phenomenon. Studies have shown for over a decade that, when it comes to news, people have been dividing themselves into information camps. Social media platforms — quickly replacing publishers as the “front end” of news — act as an accelerant, using likes and reads to pattern-match content to readers. However, these studies often address the left-right split; little is said about the more fundamental difference in beliefs driven by a difference in ability and willingness to pay for news.

The pivot by major publishers to erect site-wide paywalls is a recent phenomenon, an answer to the “grand ad-supported content bargain.” These paywalls have grown in popularity, driving people to subscriptions as an alternative to ads revenue. In doing so, they have undoubtedly helped stem (and maybe reverse?) the decline in news revenues driven by the internet.

How bad has this decline been? Just see this OECD visualization of how circulation, titles and revenues have dropped over time.

As Rupert Murdoch said, “… sometimes rivers dry up.” From 2007-2009 alone, the U.S. saw a 30% decline in newspaper publishing. Staff layoffs have become the norm for smaller and midmarket news services, which find themselves driven to consolidate into larger news orgs in order to bring down prices and expand the reach necessary to attract ad spend.

The message is clear: If people want to continue consuming news, they and media companies need to work together to develop a business model that can support it. Yet, as news bookmarking service favor.it notes, “There is now a real cost to the user associated with acquiring accurate, insightful and well-produced news. [ … ] Exacerbating the problem is the fact that there is now serious competition to real news. Free, less-reliable news sources and aggregators that can push articles into a [F]acebook Newstream that go viral in a matter of seconds whether they are completely true, or properly researched, or not.” The data bear this out: an MIT study across 126,000 stories found that fake stories proliferate on average 6x quicker than true ones.

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The new iron curtains

Across six European countries and the United States, the average price for paywalled news is about $15.75 per month. In a time where half of Americans are working low-wage jobs and many are experiencing a severe savings crisis, most don’t have the available funds to shell out for a $15 monthly news subscription — much less a subscription for each outlet they want to access. Free news and clickbait headlines on social media, much like fast food, are the easiest and most freely available options to a swathe of people who have neither the resources nor the energy to do the fact-checking for themselves.

A perennial suggestion is that outlets syndicate their content into a “Netflix for news” bundle. Indeed, aggregator initiatives like Apple News have grown to over 100 million users. Yet this still doesn’t solve a fundamental problem, which is that, in an age of instantly available free online media, most people are not willing to pay even for bundled news.

As Don Richard, senior PM at Shopify, puts it, “I just don’t think the mass appeal for a text-content bundle is as high as many tech folks believe it is [ … ] most people view text content as a less-valuable medium than TV and music  —  valuable being defined as worth paying for based on your personal needs and preferences. And when people have other expenses they have to pay for, paying for a text-content bundle will be hard to justify. Since a text-content bundle doesn’t exist today, the money for a text-content bundle has to come from somewhere else in the monthly budget for most people. That means the bundle price has to take share-of-wallet over something else. Basic needs (food, shelter, utilities) aren’t being reduced for a text-content bundle.”

So we end up with two fundamentally different types of media: On the one hand, free media, supported by independent journalists, freelancers and threadbare content teams; on the other, paywalled media, supported by more robust fact-checking teams and editors. As Robinson puts it, “It costs time and money to access a lot of true and important information, while a lot of bullshit is completely free.”

Coming back to the accelerating polarization of the American public, this media divide is not without consequence. People can always reasonably disagree about beliefs and ideas, so long as they have the shared context of facts. They cannot have productive debates if the facts are in-question.

This is where claims of “fake news” originate: Dividing the world into free facts versus paywalled facts means we are increasingly talking past each other. As favor.it puts it, we’re “moving toward a situation where there will be haves and have-nots in the very critical area of having basic, accurate information about what is going on in the world.”

Where do we go from here?

It is clear that the internet media model predicated on paywalls needs to be revisited due to these shortcomings. But what are the alternatives? Targeted ads have been shown to have their own disadvantages and provoke reader ire.

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While this is not a comprehensive answer, here are a few suggestions:

Free facts, upsold details. Pull the key facts out of news stories and make them freely available to people, upselling the deeper and richer storylines. TechCrunch has found an elegant middle-ground of this format: The core news stories on the website are free, while the value-added analysis, investigative deep-dives and richer opinion content are available to subscribers.

The New Paper is another, newer service experimenting with a condensed version of news headlines to combat newsletter and information fatigue (albeit one that still plans to charge $5 monthly). This is something being spearheaded by the rise of platforms like Substack today for independent journalists; content producers with a good following or smart coverage can create self-sustaining businesses.

Could newspapers take a page from Scandinavian ticketing practices and charge based on income? A tiered subscription price adjusted to payroll could allow wealthier readers to create a public good for poorer ones.

Yet, when people pay for news, they should not just be paying for stories — they should be paying for the knowledge that an army of editors, fact-checkers and investigative journalists uncovered the truth behind a story. That is a good that Substack likely cannot provide.

Develop a publicly available, consensus-driven score for fact-based news outlets and prioritize this score in algorithms. The way we access information has changed; aggregators now sit at the top of the news funnel. This has created a significant user surplus — people are able to locate information by story, without being constrained by outlet. However, it has also created an ad-revenue-driven model that prioritizes unique views, which are in turn driven by people’s search for sensationalism and confirmation bias in media. Search engines, social media platforms, and aggregators should come together to develop a public, transparent scoring mechanism for information quality in news and implement that to drive more viewers to more trustworthy sources. An independent rating for factuality that becomes a key input into search and social rankings could significantly help curb the virality of fake news stories, but it would need to take into account the sometimes long half-life of the truth.

Public initiatives. The government needs to re-enter the business of protecting the quality of journalism.

One step is for the FCC to reintroduce the Fairness Doctrine, which required journalists to represent both sides of a given story.

Another is to increase funding for public news sources of all stripes: liberal, conservative, etc., and for those sources to submit to routine information quality audits. Every area in which we’ve taken public institutions and allowed people to pay their way out of the default option — healthcare, education — has led to wild underinvestment in the public option; news is no different.

The library model is surprisingly effective for those who select it as an option: well-funded and maintained public libraries still provide an amazing, information-rich resource to those who avail of their services. Digitizing library resources and allocating partial budget to make information not just available, but also surfaced at the right contextual moment could combat misinformation.

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A last option would be to implement information quality scores, similar to public health and safety standards. A score could be as simple as an A-F grade on a restaurant or a calorie count on a fast food menu.

Micropayments and stories a la carte. As long as news media has been dealing with internet-related pressure, technologists have proposed micropayments as the answer. The desire to read an individual news story is stochastic, while media subscriptions are continuous. Few people, myself included, have the willingness to submit to a monthly or annual news subscription just to access the content in one article. Publishers should offer individual stories, sold in exchange for micropayments of, for example, $0.10 per story (10x the payout of some publishers to their content creators). Digital wallets embedded into browsers (see Metamask and Brave Browser as examples) can support these micropayments fluidly, either with opt-ins for each story or working in the background, to allow readers to move seamlessly around the internet, so that readers aren’t asked to pay for each story. As futurist Jaron Lanier noted 10 years ago, “Digital technology … unsettled the so-called ‘creative class’ — journalists, musicians, photographers” when access to information became free; micropayments (and royalties) could help rebuild that class of jobs. With that said, there’s a discrepancy between the amount that periodicals spend to publish a story (e.g., $100) and people’s propensity to pay (e.g., $0.10); unlike songs and movies, people only consume news stories once.

Alternative revenue streams. Media companies should again explore whether events, classifieds, paid editorials, in-depth research and other information-related services could allow them to offer “just the facts” as a loss leader. The New York Times, famously, launched The Daily podcast and spun off its cooking and crossword products into standalones. Publications should reinvest in hyperlocal journalism with local sponsorship.

The truth is that, as site-wide paywalls continue to be erected, there will be a real divide of news into haves and have-nots. There is no silver bullet solution to this problem. The public benefits from open news; factual reporting creates positive externalities. Yet we have not found a commercial structure to support these organizations. The answer is probably a combination of the above along with other revenue streams (including, yes, ads). But it is paramount to the strength of our social fabric that we continue to search for that answer.

We should ask ourselves what surplus is created by good news coverage, by deep investigative research and honest reporting? Who benefits? At this critical juncture when the stress fractures in our fragile democracy are beginning to show, it is obvious that all of us benefit from that surplus as a society. So let’s work together to support it, for the sake of society.

Thank you to Danny Crichton, Danny Zuckerman, Jason Wardy and Orion de Nevers for reviewing this piece.

TechCrunch

NEWS

Google December Product Reviews Update Affects More Than English Language Sites? via @sejournal, @martinibuster

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Google’s Product Reviews update was announced to be rolling out to the English language. No mention was made as to if or when it would roll out to other languages. Mueller answered a question as to whether it is rolling out to other languages.

Google December 2021 Product Reviews Update

On December 1, 2021, Google announced on Twitter that a Product Review update would be rolling out that would focus on English language web pages.

The focus of the update was for improving the quality of reviews shown in Google search, specifically targeting review sites.

A Googler tweeted a description of the kinds of sites that would be targeted for demotion in the search rankings:

“Mainly relevant to sites that post articles reviewing products.

Think of sites like “best TVs under $200″.com.

Goal is to improve the quality and usefulness of reviews we show users.”

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Google also published a blog post with more guidance on the product review update that introduced two new best practices that Google’s algorithm would be looking for.

The first best practice was a requirement of evidence that a product was actually handled and reviewed.

The second best practice was to provide links to more than one place that a user could purchase the product.

The Twitter announcement stated that it was rolling out to English language websites. The blog post did not mention what languages it was rolling out to nor did the blog post specify that the product review update was limited to the English language.

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Google’s Mueller Thinking About Product Reviews Update

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Product Review Update Targets More Languages?

The person asking the question was rightly under the impression that the product review update only affected English language search results.

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But he asserted that he was seeing search volatility in the German language that appears to be related to Google’s December 2021 Product Review Update.

This is his question:

“I was seeing some movements in German search as well.

So I was wondering if there could also be an effect on websites in other languages by this product reviews update… because we had lots of movement and volatility in the last weeks.

…My question is, is it possible that the product reviews update affects other sites as well?”

John Mueller answered:

“I don’t know… like other languages?

My assumption was this was global and and across all languages.

But I don’t know what we announced in the blog post specifically.

But usually we try to push the engineering team to make a decision on that so that we can document it properly in the blog post.

I don’t know if that happened with the product reviews update. I don’t recall the complete blog post.

But it’s… from my point of view it seems like something that we could be doing in multiple languages and wouldn’t be tied to English.

And even if it were English initially, it feels like something that is relevant across the board, and we should try to find ways to roll that out to other languages over time as well.

So I’m not particularly surprised that you see changes in Germany.

But I also don’t know what we actually announced with regards to the locations and languages that are involved.”

Does Product Reviews Update Affect More Languages?

While the tweeted announcement specified that the product reviews update was limited to the English language the official blog post did not mention any such limitations.

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Google’s John Mueller offered his opinion that the product reviews update is something that Google could do in multiple languages.

One must wonder if the tweet was meant to communicate that the update was rolling out first in English and subsequently to other languages.

It’s unclear if the product reviews update was rolled out globally to more languages. Hopefully Google will clarify this soon.

Citations

Google Blog Post About Product Reviews Update

Product reviews update and your site

Google’s New Product Reviews Guidelines

Write high quality product reviews

John Mueller Discusses If Product Reviews Update Is Global

Watch Mueller answer the question at the 14:00 Minute Mark

[embedded content]

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Survey says: Amazon, Google more trusted with your personal data than Apple is

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survey-says:-amazon,-google-more-trusted-with-your-personal-data-than-apple-is-–-phonearena
 

MacRumors reveals that more people feel better with their personal data in the hands of Amazon and Google than Apple’s. Companies that the public really doesn’t trust when it comes to their personal data include Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram.

The survey asked over 1,000 internet users in the U.S. how much they trusted certain companies such as Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon to handle their user data and browsing activity responsibly.

Amazon and Google are considered by survey respondents to be more trustworthy than Apple

Those surveyed were asked whether they trusted these firms with their personal data “a great deal,” “a good amount,” “not much,” or “not at all.” Respondents could also answer that they had no opinion about a particular company. 18% of those polled said that they trust Apple “a great deal” which topped the 14% received by Google and Amazon.

However, 39% said that they trust Amazon  by “a good amount” with Google picking up 34% of the votes in that same category. Only 26% of those answering said that they trust Apple by “a good amount.” The first two responses, “a great deal” and “a good amount,” are considered positive replies for a company. “Not much” and “not at all” are considered negative responses.

By adding up the scores in the positive categories,

Apple tallied a score of 44% (18% said it trusted Apple with its personal data “a great deal” while 26% said it trusted Apple “a good amount”). But that placed the tech giant third after Amazon’s 53% and Google’s 48%. After Apple, Microsoft finished fourth with 43%, YouTube (which is owned by Google) was fifth with 35%, and Facebook was sixth at 20%.

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Rounding out the remainder of the nine firms in the survey, Instagram placed seventh with a positive score of 19%, WhatsApp was eighth with a score of 15%, and TikTok was last at 12%.

Looking at the scoring for the two negative responses (“not much,” or “not at all”), Facebook had a combined negative score of 72% making it the least trusted company in the survey. TikTok was next at 63% with Instagram following at 60%. WhatsApp and YouTube were both in the middle of the pact at 53% followed next by Google and Microsoft at 47% and 42% respectively. Apple and Amazon each had the lowest combined negative scores at 40% each.

74% of those surveyed called targeted online ads invasive

The survey also found that a whopping 82% of respondents found targeted online ads annoying and 74% called them invasive. Just 27% found such ads helpful. This response doesn’t exactly track the 62% of iOS users who have used Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature to opt-out of being tracked while browsing websites and using apps. The tracking allows third-party firms to send users targeted ads online which is something that they cannot do to users who have opted out.

The 38% of iOS users who decided not to opt out of being tracked might have done so because they find it convenient to receive targeted ads about a certain product that they looked up online. But is ATT actually doing anything?

Marketing strategy consultant Eric Seufert said last summer, “Anyone opting out of tracking right now is basically having the same level of data collected as they were before. Apple hasn’t actually deterred the behavior that they have called out as being so reprehensible, so they are kind of complicit in it happening.”

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The Financial Times says that iPhone users are being lumped together by certain behaviors instead of unique ID numbers in order to send targeted ads. Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg says that the company is working to rebuild its ad infrastructure “using more aggregate or anonymized data.”

Aggregated data is a collection of individual data that is used to create high-level data. Anonymized data is data that removes any information that can be used to identify the people in a group.

When consumers were asked how often do they think that their phones or other tech devices are listening in to them in ways that they didn’t agree to, 72% answered “very often” or “somewhat often.” 28% responded by saying “rarely” or “never.”

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Google’s John Mueller on Brand Mentions via @sejournal, @martinibuster

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Google’s John Mueller was asked if “brand mentions” helped with SEO and rankings. John Mueller explained, in detail, how brand mentions are not anything used at Google.

What’s A Brand Mention?

A brand mention is when one website mentions another website. There is an idea in the SEO community that when a website mentions another website’s domain name or URL that Google will see this and count it the same as a link.

Brand Mentions are also known as an implied link. Much was written about this ten years ago after a Google patent that mentions “implied links” surfaced.

There has never been a solid review of why the idea of “brand mentions” has nothing to do with this patent, but I’ll provide a shortened version later in this article.

John Mueller Discussing Brand Mentions

John Mueller Brand Mentions

John Mueller Brand Mentions

Do Brand Mentions Help With Rankings?

The person asking the question wanted to know about brand mentions for the purpose of ranking. The person asking the question has good reason to ask it because the idea of “brand mentions” has never been definitively reviewed.

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The person asked the question:

“Do brand mentions without a link help with SEO rankings?”

Google Does Not Use Brand Mentions

Google’s John Mueller answered that Google does not use the “brand mentions” for any link related purpose.

Mueller explained:

“From my point of view, I don’t think we use those at all for things like PageRank or understanding the link graph of a website.

And just a plain mention is sometimes kind of tricky to figure out anyway.”

That part about it being tricky is interesting.

He didn’t elaborate on why it’s tricky until later in the video where he says it’s hard to understand the subjective context of a website mentioning another website.

Brand Mentions Are Useful For Building Awareness

Mueller next says that brand mentions may be useful for helping to get the word out about a site, which is about building popularity.

Mueller continued:

“But it can be something that makes people aware of your brand, and from that point of view, could be something where indirectly you might have some kind of an effect from that in that they search for your brand and then …obviously, if they’re searching for your brand then hopefully they find you right away and then they can go to your website.

And if they like what they see there, then again, they can go off and recommend that to other people as well.”

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“Brand Mentions” Are Problematic

Later on at the 58 minute mark another person brings the topic back up and asks how Google could handle spam sites that are mentioning a brand in a negative way.

The person said that one can disavow links but one cannot disavow a “brand mention.”

Mueller agreed and said that’s one of things that makes brand mentions difficult to use for ranking purposes.

John Mueller explained:

“Kind of understanding the almost the subjective context of the mention is really hard.

Is it like a positive mention or a negative mention?

Is it a sarcastic positive mention or a sarcastic negative mention? How can you even tell?

And all of that, together with the fact that there are lots of spammy sites out there and sometimes they just spin content, sometimes they’re malicious with regards to the content that they create…

All of that, I think, makes it really hard to say we can just use that as the same as a link.

…It’s just, I think, too confusing to use as a clear signal.”

Where “Brand Mentions” Come From

The idea of “brand mentions” has bounced around for over ten years.

There were no research papers or patents to support it. “Brand mentions” is literally an idea that someone invented out of thin air.

However the “brand mention” idea took off in 2012 when a patent surfaced that seemed to confirm the idea of brand mentions.

There’s a whole long story to this so I’m just going to condense it.

There’s a patent from 2012 that was misinterpreted in several different ways because most people at the time, myself included, did not read the entire patent from beginning to end.

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The patent itself is about ranking web pages.

The structure of most Google patents consist of introductory paragraphs that discuss what the patent is about and those paragraphs are followed by pages of in-depth description of the details.

The introductory paragraphs that explain what it’s about states:

“Methods, systems, and apparatus, including computer programs… for ranking search results.”

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Pretty much nobody read that beginning part of the patent.

Everyone focused on a single paragraph in the middle of the patent (page 9 out of 16 pages).

In that paragraph there is a mention of something called “implied links.”

The word “implied” is only mentioned four times in the entire patent and all four times are contained within that single paragraph.

So when this patent was discovered, the SEO industry focused on that single paragraph as proof that Google uses brand mentions.

In order to understand what an “implied link” is, you have to scroll all the way back up to the opening paragraphs where the Google patent authors describe something called a “reference query” that is not a link but is nevertheless used for ranking purposes just like a link.

What Is A Reference Query?

A reference query is a search query that contains a reference to a URL or a domain name.

The patent states:

“A reference query for a particular group of resources can be a previously submitted search query that has been categorized as referring to a resource in the particular group of resources.”

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Elsewhere the patent provides a more specific explanation:

“A query can be classified as referring to a particular resource if the query includes a term that is recognized by the system as referring to the particular resource.

…search queries including the term “example.com” can be classified as referring to that home page.”

The summary of the patent, which comes at the beginning of the document, states that it’s about establishing which links to a website are independent and also counting reference queries and with that information creating a “modification factor” which is used to rank web pages.

“…determining, for each of the plurality of groups of resources, a respective count of reference queries; determining, for each of the plurality of groups of resources, a respective group-specific modification factor, wherein the group-specific modification factor for each group is based on the count of independent links and the count of reference queries for the group;”

The entire patent largely rests on those two very important factors, a count of independent inbound links and the count of reference queries. The phrases reference query and reference queries are used 39 times in the patent.

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As noted above, the reference query is used for ranking purposes like a link, but it’s not a link.

The patent states:

“An implied link is a reference to a target resource…”

It’s clear that in this patent, when it mentions the implied link, it’s talking about reference queries, which as explained above simply means when people search using keywords and the domain name of a website.

Idea of Brand Mentions Is False

The whole idea of “brand mentions” became a part of SEO belief systems because of how that patent was misinterpreted.

But now you have the facts and know why “brand mentions” is not real thing.

Plus John Mueller confirmed it.

“Brand mentions” is something completely random that someone in the SEO community invented out of thin air.

Citations

Ranking Search Results Patent

Watch John Mueller discuss “brand mentions” at 44:10 Minute Mark and the brand Mentions second part begins at the 58:12 minute mark

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