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March 19, 2008

Morning Keynote: Gordon McLeod

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I have coffee. There’s a keynote. Let’s go.

Kevin Ryan is up and says we’re in the homestretch here. There are only two days left of drinking. Um, he means sessions. Two more days of sessions. Who drinks at conferences? Stop looking at me.

Stop it!

Okay, Gordon is up. Thank goodness.

Gordon says last year they rechristened themselves as The Wall Street Journal Digital Network. There’s a lot going on there. You have Financial News, FiLife, MarketWatch, Barron’s Online, and the Wall Street Journal verticals.

WSJ Timeline

1996: He shows what the WSJ site looked like in 1996. It was, um, pretty sad. It was articles from the paper cut and pasted onto the site. There were 50,000 subscribers. Search was not part of the nomenclature. There were four firewalls around the site (hardcore!). You had to pay or else. Their biggest problem right now is that they’ve been around since 1996, meaning that their site platform is really old. The pay walls are not very successful. They’re catching up.

1997-2002: Vertical sites are spun out, but search still isn’t part of the conversation. They started offering up some free content. They have 600k paid subscribers. Put some content outside the wall and drive more inventory for ad sales.

2003-2006: They start getting pretty serious about search. People are starting to talk about search. They’re talking to the search engines. Search engine optimization becomes important. They acquire MarketWatch and Barron’s Online is launched as standalone site. WSJ also launches free content like blogs, podcasts and their mobile edition. They have 800k paid subscribers. They start to understand that they needed more content outside the firewall.

2007: That was their big year. SEO basics like dynamic site maps, modified URL structure, proper redirects, and consulting expertise are brought into the mix. They were rewriting headlines to do better in search.

AllThingsD.com is a free tech site build on WordPress. They launched the Barrons.com "free at 3" program where content that was for-pay on Saturday was let free after 3pm on Monday. MarketWatch Community: Increases the surface area and generates high quality click backs.

Still in 2007, Personal finance and "Business of Life" offered as free content, they offered up a snippet page with two paragraphs free, and one click access from Google and Digg. They’re up to 900k paid subscribers. Trying to grow both the content and ad network at the same time.

And it’s working. Search engine traffic is up. They’re being served up more in the search engines. Last year they weren’t found at all, says Gordon. Referral traffic from search engines has more than doubled since October 2006. Share of search engine traffic has grown 33 percent.

2008 and Beyond

There are no excuses if you’re not being really aggressive about search. The WSJ never had never really focused on it until last year.

They’re going to expand their free content offerings. There’s talk about making the WSJ completely free. He says it’s not quite playing out that way. Their traffic is growing faster than their capacity to sell ads. They’re going to stick with the hybrid model of having both free and paid content.

They’ve almost doubled their political coverage. Increasing international coverage, food and wine, sports, etc. They grew 68 percent uniques last year. They’re pacing ahead of that for 2008. It’s because they’re smarter about servicing content.

Another big change for them is they’ve adopted a site search. They used to offer Web search but it was a lousy user experience. They’re spending a lot of time thinking about site search now.

They’ve added blended search features into their own site to build the user experience. They’re started it on MarketWatch.

The Hybrid Results Page

This is where the WSJ is going. Gordon says CNN is doing a decent job combining Web search with site search and serving it in a way that’s pretty user friendly. Gordon says he likes what CNN is doing and wants the WSJ to model that. They know they don’t have the best story on every subject and they want to point you to the places that do.

CNN puts Google in the search box. They’re debating whether or not they want to do that. They’re talking to the obvious partners. They want users to use their search box. They don’t want users to leave their site, whether they want to search the site or the Web.

Search as a content platform

Gordon says users only use site search when they fail. When you run into a brick wall, that’s when you go there. They want to use search as the key platform to learn about user, extending it as their primary platform for all content access. Behavioral search will be used to create a unique user experience around content.

Lessons Learned

Web site is a 1.0 Concept: Three years ago the paper would hold stories from the site so it would be in the paper first. There are still a lot of companies that do that. The WSJ is beyond that but they’re still learning that it’s okay for their content to appear in other places, like Yahoo Finance or Facebook. They’re using it to reach new audiences.

SEO is Not A Project: In 2002, they’d hire SEO consultants who would do an audit and then they’d go away. They do training and then they’d go away. They’re now working with a company and are in a one year contract. They have training programs set up. SEO is a way of life. It’s not a one time project. [Emphasis added.]

Free is Good: He’s happy with their free content. He wants to grow the free content out and the paid content. The Journal publishes 1,000 pieces of news a day. That gets him excited.

Build and Buy: Do you hire an SEO staff or outsource it? Do you build your community platform or have someone else do it for you? He says build and buy.

Content is back. He wants to be high up in a Google/Yahoo/Ask search and he thinks the search engines want that too. It’s been up to the WSJ to catch up. They’re hiring writers and have changed the way they process content. You’re talking about a world that would produce content and then say, “okay, if you’re interested come read it.” They’re far more aggressive and open about that now. They get up every morning thinking about the index and where their content is. This catching up isn’t showing tremendous growth. We’re not going fast enough to pay for this content, but we think we’re going in the right direction.

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