A group of German publishers is lobbying for a law that would require search engines to pay copyright fees to websites that are indexed. The general Internet cognoscenti reaction is "cut them off and let those arrogant fossils doom themselves," but it begs the question: How important is search traffic to news sites, anyway?
I don't have any data on national sites (and don't much care) but I have quite a bit on local media sites. Here are a couple of snapshots -- actually screenshots from Chartbeat, a service that provides real-time monitoring of concurrent usage. These are not pageview counts. These are "people looking at pages right now."
The first chart is from a larger site that had a usage spike the morning of Friday, Aug. 24.
During that spike, the blue band (links from other websites) brought in 39% of the users. Search (green) accounted for only 6%, social networking (purple) brought in 11%, and the balance came either directly (such as bookmarking the homepage) or navigating around on the website (such as clicking a link on the homepage).
The hottest item on the site that day was a sports story, which was featured on a number of sports sites and national portals such as Yahoo and AOL.
The second chart is from a smaller site that had a spike of a very different nature Thursday, Aug. 23. You'll see that search referrals soared to 20% -- still behind internal and direct navigation, but really significant on that day, at that moment.
In this case, the traffic was largely going to one specific post by a community blogger who was reacting to a Texas county judge's kooky claim that President Obama was going to invade his territory with UN backing and grab everybody's guns.
The story had hit the national airwaves and people were searching for more on Google. The blogger shrewdly used all the right proper nouns, resulting in high placement on search returns, but also a provocative phrase: "his poor impulse control is a painful embarrassment," resulting in high clickthrough by people who presumably agreed.
But over time, what you see in these graphs, especially in the orange and yellow bands, is that most of the users seem to be site loyalists, not one-hit visitors coming from search.
So what's important?
People who care about your topic. I have to say it again and again: The No. 1 challenge for local media is civic apathy. Everything you do that builds civic engagement and social capital in your community is an investment in your own future. People read about and talk about what they care about.
Having a strong, positive brand. This is something you earn by your performance every single day, not something you automatically get just because the newspaper was the Big Dog in the last century. What you do must be timely and relevant -- at all times. (We should be long past the era when print schedules drove online publication, but if you're still stuck in that rut, get out of it now.)
Effective use of social media. Even loyalists spend a tremendous time elsewhere, and you need to bring them back. This means writing effective summaries and engaging with the public in external contexts (Facebook, Twitter), not just spewing out links. You have to build your community of of social-media followers one user at a time, and you have to give them something they just have to share with their friends.
Search engine optimization. No, it's not the be-all and end-all. Yes, it's still important. It's how people discover your site. No matter how powerful your brand, you always need to invite new users to find you. Yes, much search traffic may be out-of-market and therefore not important to your core local advertising business model, so you need ad geotargeting strategies and ad-network relationships to turn it to your advantage.