A Canoe on the Pacific?

To become an ocean liner on the Web ocean, aggregate and affiliate
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Longer ago than I care to admit, a bunch of my cerebral college buddies and I used to get together once a week and discuss the problems of the world. Before the beer buzz set in, we'd manage to fix a few.

I've been pleased to engage in some philosophical but practical discussions with some of you as well. I've had a few similar phone and e-mail conversations with such folks as Uli Haller, manager of the local affiliate program for MSNBC.com.

Not only is MSNBC.com the Web presence for MSNBC, but it provides content for, and acquires content from, local NBC affiliates. Given this two-way door, I asked Haller what he felt the relationship should be between a national news-aggregator site and affiliates.

Haller favors an aggregator-partner approach to the national site-affiliate relationship. "Local stations can do it on their own, as many have proven, even with cutting-edge technologies like streaming.

"Nevertheless," he told me recently, "the Web is a medium of partnerships, where even the strongest individual sites ultimately benefit from having a variety of relationships. It is why they call it a 'Web,' after all."

Haller doesn't believe that, just because you have a great local site, with great technology, on-air promotion and your Web address plastered on the side of city buses, that you will get the eyeballs you seek.

"Just as 'hot' technology is often the most desired element in building a station's Web site, distribution is often overlooked in most stations' plans," he said. "Putting up a basic Web site is a bit like having a rowboat in the Pacific.

"Add great technology," Haller continued, "and now you've got an ocean liner-you're now a big boat, but you're also still a relatively small dot in a vast ocean.

"The paradox of the Web is that it is a universal medium-you can reach every Internet household from a single site-but the universe of the medium is so large, there are so many Web sites, that you have to find ways to bring your product to the attention of potential users."

Don't misunderstand him, though. He believes that yes, on-air promotion of your Web site, within your market, indeed has its place. Yet he takes pains to point out some technical and marketing limitations inherent in staking all of your hopes on these avenues.

"The obvious answers to the distribution problem-local on-air promotion and search engines-are fine, as far as they go. Local on-air promotion does not take you outside of your DMA," he said. But "even inside your DMA, you're marketing mainly just to your own news audience through on-air mentions."

You might think that search engines can help you broaden your Web site's audience. But, in my exchanges with Haller, I was reminded of a fact that not everyone knows. These utilities work by crawling the entire estimated 4 terabytes of the Web, building some or most of the text content of every Web page into a database. When users go to a search engine and perform a query, they are not searching the Web per se but searching the database the search engine has made.

Typically, it can take several weeks for your Web content to appear in a search engine database. This means that the online preview you posted last week of a five-part news investigation you are set to air this week won't appear in a search engine for several more weeks.

"In fact," Haller noted, "many search engines won't index news content because it is too dynamic. By the time the search result is posted, the news story has been taken down."

That's where content-distribution partnerships can be helpful. A national news site or content syndicator can work with you to facilitate posting of your content in a timely manner. So you avoid the local-reach limitations of your own sites, as well as the long lead-time that search engines require to index your content to a more geographically diverse audience.

"The local/ national relationship is a reversal of the traditional broadcast partnership, where the local station is the distributor of the national signal. On the Web, the national site is often the distributor of the local content to audiences beyond those reached by the local site itself," said Haller. "Hooking up with successful content aggregations ... is the next step in building a powerful distribution network, both within your traditional market and beyond."


Russell Shaw's column about Internet and interactive
issues appears regularly. He can be reached at russellshaw@delphi.com.

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