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Driving traffic: the route constantly changes

Audience development teams spend much time assessing the implications of each announcement and update from Google et al. Carly Steven, head of SEO at The Sun and co-chair of the AOP Audience Development steering group, looks at how the task of driving traffic to our sites is evolving.

By Carly Steven

Driving traffic: the route constantly changes

Q: What is the main item on the AOP Audience Development Group's agenda at the moment and why is it important?

A: There are several issues that regularly come up in the AOP Audience Development Group meetings but generally the theme we always start with is traffic. Whether we’re discussing Google, Facebook, Instagram or TikTok, as a group whose main focus is growing audiences and reach for our respective brands, there is always an interest in hearing from counterparts across the industry and sharing experiences and insights.

From a search perspective, in particular, there is a focus on how different publishers and brands are impacted by algorithm updates and we also regularly compare how our brands are winning or losing on Google Discover which, for some of us, can be a significant if volatile referrer.

Any new features or products released by any of the platforms are also obviously of interest to this group – for example Google Showcase and Facebook’s News tab.

Both Facebook and Google engage in semi-regular group discussions which are very worthwhile.

Q: What is the opportunity for publishers in finding a successful resolution to this?

A: One of the greatest strengths of being part of the Audience Development steering group is that we are able to build relationships and draw on each other’s experiences to help inform our own strategies.

More transparency and improved channels of communication with the platforms at a group level would be invaluable to this steering group. For example, as a group of peers working in online publishing across a range of news and lifestyle brands, we are at the coal face when it comes to questions arounds Google’s AMP project so there could be a valuable opportunity for us to work more collaboratively with Google on how publishers are impacted.

In summer 2021, Google dropped the requirement for publishers to adopt the AMP format to appear in Google’s Top Stories (a significant source of mobile traffic for many news sites). Being able to learn from counterparts in different markets about their experiences of moving away from AMP and the impact this has had on traffic and revenue has helped educate the rest of the group.

Q: What are the challenges & hurdles to a successful resolution?

A: The obvious challenge with a group like this is establishing the boundaries. Some of the publishers who participate are competing for the same audiences and there is clearly pressure on everyone not to over-share. However, in order for the group to be productive, the insights each publisher brings need to be useful.

Turning off AMP has been a good example. It’s a standard almost every publisher adopted when it was originally introduced but one which has associated costs and technical support requirements – so it’s something all publishers will be considering moving away from now that it has been de-prioritised by Google.

Those group members who have experimented with turning AMP off have been willing to share their experiences.

Q: The recently announced AOP Link Attribution Protocol came out of your steering group. What was the significance of that and what results do you expect to see?

A: The Link Attribution Protocol came out of a shared desire within the group to see more of our original content promoted fairly in Google search results.

As publishers, we work hard to produce original content in the form of investigations, analysis or showbiz exclusives and of course we all want as many people as possible to read our stories.

We know that linking is one of the main ways that Google determines ‘authoritativeness’ and that this to some degree contributes to how well a website ranks for a particular topic. But what became clear from discussions within the group is that not all publishers adopt the same standard when linking to the original source of a story.

It was obvious that there was a mutual interest in helping each other and so the Link Attribution Protocol was born.

Being able to work collaboratively on an important initiative like this was a significant milestone for our part of the industry. It has demonstrated that, where there is a common goal and a shared vision of how things should be, we are capable of pulling together for the greater good.

Ultimately, we would like the protocol to become an industry standard which every publisher follows – so there’s still a long way to go.

Q: What projects / challenges do you expect to come to the fore in future meetings of your steering group?

A: I think discussions around the challenges and opportunities of growing loyalty and engagement – and the metrics we use to measure them – are likely to feature in future meetings.

The titles represented by the members of the Audience Development group employ a variety of different subscription models – from full paywalls to completely free. As competition increases and audience growth strategies respond and adapt, being able to draw on this reservoir of knowledge and experience will be hugely valuable for all of us.

Q: Looking more widely at audience development within publishers, where do you suggest publishers should be focusing their resources?

A: I think what we’ve seen with the introduction of Google’s Core Web Vitals experience update becoming a ranking factor is that traditional forms of on-page SEO are becoming less and less significant and that, from an editorial perspective, the degree of control we have as audience development managers over how our content features in search results, is going to continue to diminish.

It is therefore vital that publishers look to invest in and develop technical SEO skills and knowledge within their organisations and establish strong relationships with performance teams and commercial departments to ensure all aspects of the business are aligned and working together.

In a time when user experience and page speed is becoming just as important as a good headline and best practice on-page optimisation, establishing these open and honest channels of communication has never been more important.

About us

Formed in 2002, the Association of Online Publishers [AOP] is a UK industry body representing digital publishing companies. We champion the interests of media owners from diverse backgrounds including newspaper and magazine publishing, TV and radio broadcasting, and pure online media.

Our steering groups are the life blood of the AOP and help build networking ties across the industry. Member organisations can input into the agenda, drive discussion, share learnings, and send key staff members to represent them in the meetings. Our current steering groups include: Commercial, Ad Ops, Research, Product Development, B2B, Audience Development, HR and JAB [Journalism Advisory Board].



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