PEJ: Google, A News Site's Best Friend

Study examines top 25 news sites in the U.S.
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While search engines remain the top vehicle for driving news consumers to general interest news Web sites, social media--particularly Facebook--are a growing force and, at least for the top news sites, home pages remain the most popular destination. Twitter "barely registers" as a traffic-driver, at least as of the third quarter of 2010.

Cable claims two of the top three news sites, as well as the top two sites in "power users," or ones who visit at least 10 times a month, while Google remains a site's best friend, driving an average of 30% of the traffic to the top 25 sites.

That is according to a just-released study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism looking at the top 25 news sites in the U.S.

A good sign for news sites is that the age of the user tends to be on par with Internet users overall, which skew younger than the audiences to traditional news platforms.

PEJ looked at four areas: 1) how users get to the top sites; 2) how long they stayed; 3) how deeply they dove into the info; and 4) where they went next. Or, in other words, the key issues for those trying to monetize site traffic and hold onto those news consumers as long as possible. The study examined nine months worth of data over the first three quarters of 2010.

Among the key findings are that the sites depend heavily on the casual users, or people who visit just a few times per month and spend only a few minutes on the site. That would square with the "long tail" theory that here is a business in the aggregate power of occasional visitors given that the product is available to billions and there is little or no shelf-space cost.

For example, 75% of visitors to USAToday.com, a top 10 site according to Hitwise and comScore (12th in Nielsen, the third measure studied), only came to the site once or twice a month.

PEJ advises that news organizations may need a "layered and complex" (or put another way, "whatever works") strategy to monetize those numbers. "They may need, for instance, to develop one way to serve casual users and another way for power users," says the study. "They may decide it makes sense to try to convert some of those in the middle to visit more often.

Or they may try to make some of their loyal audience stay longer by creating special content. Advertising may help monetize some groups, while subscriptions will work for others. And the strategy that works best for each site may differ."

Browsers remain the entry point, with only 7%-10% of online news consumption through tablets or e-readers.

Among so-called "power users," CNN leads the way with 17.8% of users visiting more than 10 times a month

Of the top 25 sites according to Nielsen, 11 are newspaper sites--The New York Times (nyt.com), Washington Post (washingtonpost.com), USA Today (usatoday.com), Wall Street Journal (wsj.com), LA Times (latimes.com), New York Daily News (nydailynews.com), New York Post (nypost.com), Boston Globe (Boston.com), San Francisco Chronicle (sfgate.co), The Chicago Tribune (ChicagoTribune.com) and the British Daily Mail (mail.co.uk); six are broadcast network sites--MSNBC (msnbc.com), CNN (cnn.com), ABC News (abcnews.go.com), Fox News (foxnews.com), CBS News (cbsnews.com) and BBC News (bbc.co.uk); four are pure-play aggregators--Google News (news.google.com), The Examiner (examiner.com), Topix (topix.com) and Bing News (news.bing.com); three are hybrid online-only sites--Yahoo News (news.yahoo.com), AOL News (news.aol.com) and Huffington Post (huffingtonpost.com); and  a wire service--Reuters.

ComScore and Hitwise have essentially the same lineup. Yahoo tops all three measures, with CNN and MSNBC either second or third.

That top 25 list does not include specialized news sites, like EPSN.com for sports news. If ESPN were included, it would be in the top three by traffic, PEJ points out. There may be some lessons in the type of ESPN traffic for the general interest sites. Unlike the long tail audience to those sites--lots of people visiting occasionally--a fifth of ESPN's audience visits more than 10 times a month, and 26% spend more than an hour per month on the site. Those figures are triple the numbers for general interest news sites.

PEJ points out that sports news has a subject matter that lends itself to drama and daily finality, and the single-topic passion of sports fans. But it suggests general interest sites might be able to build similar loyalty with specialized "verticals" on specific topics, or perhaps avoid resources where specialized sites are super-serving that audience.

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