Barry is Mr News SEO. He focuses on technical SEO and specialised services for news publishers, working with some of the biggest names in world publishing.
In this episode we discuss:
- The difference between ‘classic’ SEO and news SEO
- Google’s role as judge, jury and executioner for news organisations
- Social traffic v search traffic in news SEO
- How news organisations are struggling with new commercial models
- Are the challenges any different to previous generations for news publishers
- How AI is impacting SEO
- The ethical and social problems with AI
- How SEO has changed from deterministic to probabilistic
- How Barry got in to SEO
- The importance people skills in technical disciplines
- Why more companies should have a technical track and not just promote managers
Barry Adams has been building and ranking websites since 1998. Through his Polemic Digital consultancy business, he focuses on technical SEO and specialised services for news publishers. Barry counts some of the world’s biggest media brands among his clients including News UK, The Guardian, FOX, Future Publishing, Euronews, and Hearst.
He is a regular speaker at conferences and events around the world, delivers annual guest lectures for local universities, and writes an irregular newsletter on SEOforGoogleNews.com.
The News and Editorial Summit can be found here: https://newsseo.io/
BLINDSIGHT by Peter Watts
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This transcript has been done automagically using Happy Scribe and hasn’t been checked by a real person, so there may be some hilarious mistakes where the AI can’t work out our accents – I’m sure they’re trained on just the American accent.
[00:00:02.090] – Andi J
Eyup and welcome to the strategy sessions. Thank you for joining me today. My name is Andi Jarvis. I am the host of the show. This is another exciting episode for me because it’s the first ever in person recording of the Strategy Sessions. This was a lockdown project. It started over Zoom, so we didn’t kill each other with COVID And today I am joined by Barry Adams from Polemic Digital Marketing.
[00:00:25.680] – Barry A
[00:00:26.480] – Andi J
Polemic Digital. So. Barry. Hello, and welcome to the strategy session.
[00:00:30.340] – Barry A
Thank you very much. Took you long enough to invite me to this. I mean, how long has your podcast been going now?
[00:00:35.770] – Andi J
May 2020. And it’s now what? April 2023.
[00:00:41.050] – Barry A
Wow, that’s a new record.
[00:00:42.690] – Andi J
Yeah, it is. There is a reason why I didn’t invite you on, which also gets us into how we know each other. But I was very keen in the early days of starting my company to not be seen as an SEO company because a lot of the leads I got were like, oh, do you want to do SEO? I’m like, no, don’t really know enough about SEO to sell that service. Right. So I was very keen to try and move away from that. So all the SEO people, I was like, no, stay away, stay away, stay away. But now I think we’re in a different place now.
[00:01:09.460] – Barry A
I think you’ve had some SEO people on the podcast before, haven’t you?
[00:01:13.220] – Andi J
Not really talking about SEO, where I can avoid it. There’s a lot of evolved warm, but more talking about culture and who else has been on top. There’s been a couple of other people, but yeah, I’m much more comfortable now.
[00:01:24.730] – Barry A
[00:01:25.370] – Andi J
Fair enough. We worked together briefly, which is how we first met, before you went on to conquer the world, but you abandoned me as well. Do you want to tell how we met and what happened then?
[00:01:38.580] – Barry A
Yeah, I was digital director at an agency I think we just rebranded to the Tomorrow Lab. Before that, we were called Peers Communications. And I was on my way out because I wanted to start my own freelance adventure. And I think you were the last person I hired at the Tomorrow Lab before I told the boss to stuff it. Although it was a lovely boss to work for. He wasn’t the problem. I was the problem. So, yeah, that’s sort of how we met. I first learned of you through your CV, and then I decided to interview you and decided, yeah, he might actually be an all white guy to hire. And then I hired and promptly filed my own notice to leave a retro CV. Hey.
[00:02:18.330] – Andi J
Bloody hell. Because I never remember any major dates, but I remember I started on April the first because I woke up the night before going, is this just like, the longest of long cons? Have I resigned from one job? Had, like, a six week or eight week notice period, or whatever it was, and started a new job. I’m going to walk in and everyone’s going to be like, April Fools, you don’t have a job. So I had a panic, but, yeah, between me starting, there was a rebrand. And you then handed your notice in days after I yeah, I think I.
[00:02:48.560] – Barry A
Handed my own notice in April 6, so at the end of that week, maybe April 5, yeah, around that time.
[00:02:53.740] – Andi J
I do actually have form for getting rid of my managers, so durham County Cricket Club, one of my first jobs. I started there and my boss left not long afterwards. Newcastle College. My boss was sacked not long after I started, not so much UTV, but then three out of four jobs I started and the boss left. I don’t know if I barely got.
[00:03:19.810] – Barry A
To work with you, so I don’t think you were the direct cause of my particular departure. I think I had that particular brainwave several months earlier, realising that even though I think we were doing quite well at the Tomorrow Lab at the time, we had a decent team, a very good team, actually, and we had won Expedia Island as a contract. Shortly before that, we were nominated for European Search Awards and I was just miserable at work. I just did not like going into work at all, because I was spending my time in board meetings and associates rather than doing the doing. And for a long time, I thought I wanted to be that manager type. I thought I wanted to be, like, head of a team and have the title and the salary and everything. And then when you get there, I realised, yeah, no, actually, I hate this, this is terrible, I just want to do the doing. And you had a bit of a brainwave and decided, you know what, I’m just going to try this freelancing and see if it works out. And I thought the worst that could happen was I had to go find another job, which, in the digital industry, wasn’t particularly challenging at the time.
[00:04:20.850] – Barry A
I think there were more jobs than people, especially in SEO, and that’s still true today. So, yeah, I took the plunge and haven’t really looked back since.
[00:04:29.940] – Andi J
It’s an interesting realisation, isn’t it? Because we kind of fed that narrative that you want to be successful and you want to progress and move on and go up the ranks. And that tends to come in most companies with managing people as part of that skill set that you need to develop. But the thing that got you to be in the position to be promoted is rarely anything to do with managing people. It’s often to do with being a subject matter expert, isn’t it? It seems weird that so many companies then attach so much people, management to people as they move through, rather than just extracting, letting people do what they want to do.
[00:05:05.330] – Barry A
The best of the funny thing is I used to work at a company where they had a very good alternative trajectory for that, as at Phillips Semiconductors, where they realised that people were very good at making semiconductors. They’re generally quite geeky, it nerds. They’re not necessarily good at managing people, so they have a management track for promotion and an engineer track for promotion, where you become a senior engineer and you become sort of a mentor rather than a direct manager of somebody to sort of share the knowledge. And I thought that was a very interesting approach that really helped with retention and also make sure that people didn’t hit that ceiling at a certain level, that they could keep growing within their field of specialty without having to become something else entirely. And I didn’t realise that I probably needed something like that until it happened to me and realised, oh, actually, I’m a manager now because I actually asked for the job, I wanted that job and I got it and then I had it and I realised, yeah, actually, I hate this job.
[00:05:59.650] – Andi J
I know there are a lot of bigger companies so Moss for example have now that individual contributor track and I think Google and Meta have it and some big tech companies have realised that sometimes you just want people to be good at their job and promote them so they can stay and earn more money and more power and credibility. Power, strange word to use that, but you know what I mean. But it’s still in so many companies as you move down the size and scale of companies, really difficult and you don’t really find that dear and the difficulties. Every company has geniuses working there and yet most companies seem to put blocks in the way that stop them getting the most out of people. And how do we fix that? Or do we even need to worry about fixing that? Or should we just worry about what we need to worry about at Polemic and Eximo and kind of get on with ourselves?
[00:06:44.670] – Barry A
Yeah, I mean, I made a very conscious decision not to hire people when I started out on my own, that it was just me doing work. I wanted to divorce myself from the whole becoming a manager thing also because I felt a lot of responsibility when I was the digital director at Pierce to get new clients in and keep clients happy and focus on the PNL part of the business because it’s paying for people’s salaries. And I realised I was not comfortable with that pressure. So I understand why small companies have just one way of promoting people because it’s the only way they know and the only way that makes sense to them. They might not necessarily have the scale or the resources to have alternative tracks of promotion because they might not have the funds to have both a very senior software engineer and a senior manager on the books and pay for both their salaries, it can be very hard to justify that cost. So they have to pick one approach. And the management approach probably works the best for most companies because you do need somebody to manage the other people in the business.
[00:07:49.300] – Barry A
I do think there’s a risk that people build in too many layers of management, that there’s managers reporting to managers reporting to managers. And I’m not a fan of those sorts of organisations. I used to work in many of those. I spent 15 years in house in various jobs in various large to medium sized companies, and some companies were great to work for other companies, you just feel like a cog in a machine and you never feel seen and never feel rewarded and never feel part of the business, really. So, yeah, there’s different ways of approaching that, for sure.
[00:08:18.460] – Andi J
You’re being, I think, a little bit disingenuous because you do have a superb team around you at Polemic. Now, you have one employee I have.
[00:08:27.090] – Barry A
She owns half the business, my wife, Allison, who keeps me sane in all things finance and admin. And she has a very good brain for the commercial side of the business and very detail oriented, and I couldn’t do what I do without her. The funny story about that is it took me longer to convince her to work with me than to convince her to marry me. Within four years of us meeting, we were married. And it took me a long, long time to actually talk her into even becoming part of the business, then becoming part owner of the business. And now, finally, she owns half the business because it makes a lot of sense from a tax perspective. But then she also works bloody hard to make everything happen. So she’s been a reluctant employee of Polemic Digital. But I have to credit most, if not all, of the success I’ve had.
[00:09:19.190] – Andi J
To her really finding someone who you can work with, you don’t have to be married to them, but it can help. But someone who fills in the bits that you don’t either don’t like or don’t have an aptitude for. It just seems to me to be a no brainer to find somebody to do the bits that allow you to fly, because everyone’s great at certain things, so why not just focus on those and just do more time doing the things you’re good at, right?
[00:09:44.880] – Barry A
Yeah. I remember having a conversation with Mark Haslam, who founded Logmouth Media, the PPC agency, and he said the first person he hired when he grew the agency was an office manager, not an extra PPC person. And I thought that was a very good approach. And he has built a pretty successful agency of that. They do all right. I think their awards cabinet is too small now for what they were.
[00:10:06.530] – Andi J
So tell us, you started Polemic nine years ago, and I think is it fair to say you started doing kind of a little bit of all round SEO for lots of people, but you very quickly niched down or niched for both American listeners to news SEO, which is kind of where you spend your time and your days here. So how did that happen? And what is different about news SEO to general SEO, for want of a better term?
[00:10:35.140] – Barry A
Yeah, there was a funny one. Yeah. When I first started, I took on any work I could get, because when you start your freelance journey, it’s absolutely terrifying.
[00:10:42.740] – Andi J
Mortgage to pay.
[00:10:43.860] – Barry A
Well, fortunately, we were in a very fortunate position. We didn’t have that, but I did have car payments to make and all the other stuff. So, yeah, I just took any work I could get and I actually ended up with some clients who stuck with me for a very long time, which was brilliant. I sort of found my group fairly quickly in doing site audits, which is something I really enjoyed. I did do some other stuff like content marketing and link building, but I outsourced that. I worked with people who I knew from the industry and delivered good quality stuff for that, and I was fairly open about that with my clients. But, yeah, the site audit part and the technical SEO part, that stuff always came naturally to me. So I sort of tried to focus on that now, before I joined peers. I had another job when I first moved to Northern Ireland, because, like you, I’m an import here. And that was nearly a year at the Belfast Telegraph in house as their SEO, looking after the classified websites like CARFINDER Job, Finder, Property, News, but also the news website. And working with Jerome Quality, online editor there, we very quickly realised that ranking in Google in the news ecosystem is a very different cattle of fish than ranking in general, classic or organic rankings, as I call them.
[00:11:58.230] – Barry A
So I learned a lot there, but I never really got to apply that to any other client, because news clients that don’t generally come knocking. But we did experiment a lot when I was out at the Belfast Telegraph and found some really interesting exploitable weaknesses.
[00:12:12.670] – Andi J
In Google news, because it’s almost an inverse relationship, isn’t it, to classic SEO, in that you launch a page at some point, it’s crawled and indexed and then ranks. And that can take, depending on the size of the site and the industry, however many days or weeks or months. But with news, it has to rank immediately, because if they go to recent story said Joe Biden visits Northern Ireland, it’s no point that story ranking in seven days time. It has to rank immediately and then decay much more quickly than a traditional SEO.
[00:12:45.530] – Barry A
Yeah, it’s as close to real time SEO as you can get. When you publish a story on a news publisher, google tends to crawl and index it within a few minutes and it will start ranking in the news ecosystem, which is actually primarily those top stories boxes you see on regular search results. That’s where most people will click on news results in Google’s ecosystem it’ll start ranking there within a few minutes and it has a fairly short shelf life there. A few hours to maximum, about two days, sometimes a bit longer if there’s not a lot of news on the specific topic, but it drops out very, very quickly. So it’s a very different environment where you have to get it right the first time you publish it, and if you don’t get it right when you publish it and then going in later to change the optimization, probably. Won’t work because Google doesn’t necessarily recall and re index it after it’s been published until several days later, at which days it’s no longer a news article. It will just dropped out of the ecosystem and become a regular search result. So yeah, like I said, I learned a lot at the Buffalo Telegraph but didn’t really get to tap into that until early 2016.
[00:13:49.520] – Barry A
I got a phone call, out of the blue, really, from someone working at The Sun newspaper in London. And she was a project manager tasked with relaunching The Sun website after it was dropped its paywall, because they had a payroll at The Sun for a very long time. Didn’t really work for them. And they lost nearly all the visibility in Google off the back of that. So they decided to drop the paywall and go back to just being a free to read newspaper and relaunched and replatformed the entire website. Now she was Northern Irish and she realised that the Belfast Telegraph was doing way better than it had any reason to in Google search results because of the tricks that Jerome and I managed to find and the weaknesses we managed to find in Google’s News rankings, which I might explain a bit later on what some of those are, because some of those still exist to a certain extent. But she got me on board for that project, and we had certain goals there. It was a very good project to work with, with very smart, very motivated people. I felt very fortunate to be part of that team.
[00:14:49.370] – Barry A
I mean, people can say about The Sun whatever they want and some of that criticism is probably warranted in terms of editorial output, but the people working at that paper are very good at that jobs. Every single person I’ve ever worked with at The Sun has been nothing short of an absolute excellent in their field. And because of the quality of the team we had, there were certain goals that we wanted to surpass. The daily Mirror within about a year in terms of traffic. Wanted to surpass or meet the daily Mail in about three years and we managed to surpass the mirror in about three months and the mail in about a year in terms of just pure Google visibility and Google traffic. And that open a lot of doors for me just to be part of that project and be part of the success story that that was. And that really started my journey into specialising in news SEO. And I’ve been really fortunate to work with some really big, interesting media brands, but also smaller niche brands that have very unique challenges of their own. And it’s a niche I am absolutely still very excited about.
[00:15:51.970] – Andi J
The news industry has, as with all parts of Google, I think that the main criticism is that Google holds the kind of judge, jury and executioner role across the whole ecosystem. And there’s been some very specific challenges with Google and some products like Amp or Amp accelerated mobile pages, which I know you have, I’m sure you’ll tell us what you really think, things like, but also changing what goes into those news boxes. And there was an Australian magazine publisher as well that kind of lost all its visibility. So there’s been some interesting challenges and I think there’s an opaqueness in how Google makes its decision. So talk to us about not necessarily you can talk about any of them, specifically if you like, but the role that Google has in this and how that affects it’s. Okay. Not just newspapers, but, like I said, the people who work at these newspapers as well, and local media and things. What’s the industry look like?
[00:16:44.930] – Barry A
Yeah, I mean, I love to say that newspapers get traffic from various different sources, but the truth of the matter is it’s mainly Google. Google, for most of the publishers I work with in all its forms, generates at least half of total visits to any given news publisher. Sometimes a lot more than that. Facebook, since they tweaked their newsfeed years ago, has really started to downgrade and continues to downgrade official pages, company pages, and it’s not really a massive source of traffic to most news publishers, depending on what kind of stories they write. Some publishers are very focused on social traffic and they would get the majority of the traffic from Facebook. But most publishers focus primarily on search as a channel because it has the biggest potential. The interesting part of that also is that it’s not just search, it’s also what we call Discover, which is basically Google recommending articles directly from the Google app on your Android phone or your iPhone. If you scroll past the search box on your Google app, you will get articles recommended to you. That is what we call the Discover feed, which is very highly personalised to each individual user based on their interest.
[00:17:55.560] – Barry A
So what Google knows what they like to read, and it can be an enormous source of traffic for a lot of publishers, and also very hard to optimise for, because it’s not based on search, it’s not based on keywords, it’s based on interests, on what Google knows that you like and the kind of content that you like to read. And it can be very hard to find sort of a formula for your business, for your publication, to get traffic from there. And it is a very opaque system. We used to have a manual approval system for Google to allow websites to be classified as a news publisher and therefore reap the rewards of showing up in Google’s News ecosystem, which is quite a varied ecosystem. We talked about Discover, we talked about the Top Stories box. You also have the News Google.com vertical, which is the dedicated News vertical. You have the News tab on regular search results as well. So there’s a lot of different surfaces, as Google calls them, where news is being shown. And for nearly all websites, you have to be seen as a recognised, authoritative news publisher to have any chance of showing up anywhere in that ecosystem.
[00:19:02.830] – Barry A
Like I said, there was a manual process for that, where you just literally filled in a form and submitted your website to Google. Someone in some data centre somewhere in Google would review it and would either approve it or deny it, and then you would either get those rewards or not. And it was fairly straightforward once you knew what Google was looking for. For a few clients even offered a no fee, no pay service to get them into Google News, because I knew exactly what those reviewers were looking for in terms of the front end of the website, the About US page, how news was being presented, that sort of stuff. That was retired at the end of 2019.
[00:19:41.390] – Andi J
I hate tech language like that. Sunsetting retired?
[00:19:44.150] – Barry A
[00:19:44.670] – Andi J
You’re getting rid of it anyway.
[00:19:46.400] – Barry A
Sorry, that’s it fair enough.
[00:19:47.840] – Andi J
There’s not a whole other policy.
[00:19:50.330] – Barry A
We all have different gripes. I have some gripes with other terminology in SEO land as well. But yeah, Google got rid of that end of 2019 as part of the complete merger of Google News with regular Google. Google News was a separate beast within Google for a very long time, because when Google News first launched back in 2002, google’s standard web crawlers and indexers were very slow and News had to be very fast. So Google had its own crawler and own index for news, and they didn’t end up merging that with regular Google crawling and indexing until like, 2018, 2019. I think around that time they really completed that merger. And now News in Google uses the exact same systems as regular Google search, just with a slightly different emphasis on speed of indexing and speed of ranking.
[00:20:38.790] – Andi J
Is that generally kind of just that the products have improved so much, so from a Google point of view, that makes sense, I suppose. There’s no nefarious reasons behind it. It’s just technology has improved, so they’ve whacked it all together.
[00:20:49.600] – Barry A
Exactly. Because Google’s crawlers and indexing systems got so fast, you didn’t need a separate caller and indexer anymore. Between crawling and indexing in Google, there’s no real delay anymore.
[00:20:58.130] – Andi J
But that’s led to getting hold of Google as anyone has ever tried to become, is really difficult. So by putting news and regular SEO all under one umbrella, has it therefore kind of muddied the waters for how news is treated and seen and ranked and all those?
[00:21:16.650] – Barry A
Oh, yes, I’ll give you some concrete examples of that now. First and foremost, the inclusion process in Google News now is entirely algorithmic. That means Google decides, based on its algorithms, whether you’re a news publisher or not. And that’s a very opaque mechanism. We don’t really know what Google is looking for. And I’ve worked with a lot of publishers who launched a new website after December 2019 when Google got rid of the manual approval process. And on average, it takes about two years for a new publisher to be accepted as a valid news publication. Two years, which not a lot of publishers have the stomach for, because without that news approval, you don’t show up in top stories, you don’t show up in the news Google.com vertical. You can show up in Discover. That takes about three to four months, which is fairly normal in SEO land. So you’re very heavily reliant on Discover traffic if you get any traction. But after about two years, if you’re lucky, you get into that news ecosystem, then you start showing up in those top stories boxes, and then that’s where the wheel traffic comes from.
[00:22:18.730] – Andi J
What sort of algorithm takes two years? Is it just if you keep publishing for two years, therefore you must be a new suspect?
[00:22:24.760] – Barry A
I think it’s an accumulation of authority factors and trust factors. It takes a certain while to reach that threshold of trust before Google says you’re a valid publisher. And I think not to make too many excuses for Google, they do it for reasons that they don’t want very quickly launched, fly by night propaganda websites to suddenly start ranking in Google News. They want to make sure you’re a proper, valid, authoritative publisher before you give you that prime real estate.
[00:22:51.280] – Andi J
Surely the only people who have got a two year stomach for this are the propaganda funded by yeah, the ones.
[00:22:58.150] – Barry A
Who don’t have to necessarily worry about the income.
[00:23:00.070] – Andi J
We don’t have to turn a profit for two years because we’re funded by the government anyway. Sorry.
[00:23:04.970] – Barry A
Yeah. So that inclusion process is very opaque. And I have had many conversations with clients over the years, like, who want to change their domain name for whatever reason. Maybe they’re rebranding, maybe they want to launch a different type of website. But inclusion in Google News is based on your host name, on your domain name. So the moment you change your domain name, you lose Google News inclusion. There used to be a form for that you could fill in, oh, we’re changing domain. Can you migrate. Our Google News inclusion across that too was retired as part of the manual approval process that was also killed off. So now when you change domain name as a news publisher, you tend to lose all your Google traffic, at least your news specific Google traffic, for that period of about two years before it comes back.
[00:23:46.710] – Andi J
That’s a business. When Guardian Co UK changed to theguardian.com this was pre 2000, and yeah, they.
[00:23:52.600] – Barry A
Did it in 2012, 2013, but there.
[00:23:54.920] – Andi J
Was a form to fill in a manual process even then in that process.
[00:23:58.560] – Barry A
It was a painful one. They lost nearly all their Google traffic for about three months. It took them about a year to get back to previous levels of traffic. And that was in the best case scenario, because they even had a little bit of help from Google along the way in terms of Google crawling and indexing their new web site very fast, once they got the heads up that it made the switch, that mechanism doesn’t exist anymore, really. Right.
[00:24:17.480] – Andi J
So if you want to make any changes to your site, does it also affect if you’re going for like a redesign or a replatforming?
[00:24:24.890] – Barry A
Not really. I mean, the biggest change you can make in terms of Google for your website is changing URLs. If you don’t change URLs, Google might still detect changes on your website. And what Google actually does tend to do, they’ve gotten smarter about this. They will call your website very fast for a long time, for a short amount of time, I should say, to come to grips with those changes. So if Google detects changes in your code base, changes in your URL structure, changes in internal linking, anything that might indicate that you’ve replatformed or redesigned, or even when you migrate a new website across, they will recall your new site very, very fast to try and find all the changes as fast as possible. And you can see this in the relevant reports in Google search console. For example, there’s a crawl stats report. When you make massive changes to your website, you will see a spike in call traffic because Google will try its best to find all the changes that you’ve made in a short amount of time. So they’ve built that intelligence into the core, they’ve gotten better at that. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to the same ranking signals and same inclusion in Google News.
[00:25:25.080] – Barry A
And the problem there is with Google News that because publishers are so dependent on Google for that traffic, they are very hesitant to make changes that sometimes they need to make for business reasons, because it is potentially incredibly costly for them to do so. And there isn’t a mechanism at the moment where they can just say to Google, oh, hey, we’re migrating website. Because even with the tools that Google offers, like there is a domain migration tool, you can tell Google with the change of address. Or we’re moving from one domain to another. Google News. Inclusion isn’t part of that migration process. It’s just regular Google because the new system still works on its own subset, small ranking subset of ranking signals that just yeah, I find it very frustrating because I see this all the time with a lot of different publishers, that they are hamstrung in their business decisions by what Google allows and doesn’t allow them to do. And that isn’t a healthy situation to be in, that a business has to make critical business decisions on whether or not a certain platform allows that to happen or not.
[00:26:35.020] – Andi J
So the two things going through my head. So, firstly, you probably heard my eyes rolling during what you were saying there, and it feels wrong that a company like Google has such an outsized impact on an industry, and an industry which most people generally agree there are news outlets that you like, news outlets you don’t like. But broadly speaking, certainly in that UK, Western European viewpoint, news organisations are important. They’ve done a lot of harm over the years, but they’ve also done a lot of good and exposed a lot of things, politicians and scandals and things like that. So we need news to report and hold people in power accountable and things like that. So the fact that Google now has this kind of judge jury executioner role feels like it’s an outsized role to a company based in America that has very little american tech firms have very little understanding of, seems to be seemingly what goes on outside their own campus, let alone what goes on in the UK. And then you roll that into where the culture is very different, places like India and Malaysia, and cultures are hugely different. So I’m thinking, okay, this is wrong that Google has that sort of power.
[00:27:40.770] – Andi J
The flip side to that is that with the exception of public funded or state broadcasters, and I don’t want to merge those two because they are two very separate things. All news organisations have been advertiser funded since they began. Radio stations, for example, are actually not news organisations. Radio stations are advertising channels with content around them. Right? They’re effectively content marketing most newspapers. The Belfast Telegraph that you mentioned was ad funded forever. And newspapers have, over the years, made decisions based on what will drive circulation, because increased circulation means increased ad revenues. Those decisions have led to things like phone hacking scandals. I’m not talking about the Belfast Telegraph now, just to be clear, in case their lawyers are listening, phone hacking scandals, people being hounded, which has led to sort of suicides among certain people. The newspaper industry has a murky history and a murky past. Why? Maybe the advertisers aren’t pulling the levers, but the newspaper industry is still being beholden to the advertisers. So is this just at one point, they did what the advertisers wanted because it drove views and therefore they could charge them more. Now they’re just doing what Google wanted because Google has the same power.
[00:28:59.690] – Andi J
Is it just they have a different master now, that’s a really long way of asking a question. Is it just a different master for the news industry?
[00:29:05.530] – Barry A
Yeah, it’s a lot to unpack there. First and foremost, six hour podcast, sorry about that. No, I fully agree with you there. The news has always chased after monetization. News isn’t a public good, news is a commercial business. Now, some publishers take that more seriously than others and they’ve always cased after either circulation or now clicks. And ironically, Google owns the whole click stack as well, which is actually the subject of several lawsuits on both sides of the Atlantic at the moment, that Google not just controls distribution of news, they also control monetization of news by owning the entire advertising stack from start to finish. So publishers don’t have a choice but to work with Google and that is definitely a monopoly that needs investigated. Aside from that, we are in a real scenario where publishers in many cases are forced to chase after clicks just to survive. Whereas previously publishers had a I would say they had a choice in what they were chasing after because it was advertising. It was mainly classifieds that paid for news, publishers for newspapers, the classifieds at the end of a newspaper, cars for sale, jobs on offer, funeral notifications, that sort of stuff.
[00:30:27.900] – Barry A
That stuff all went online as well and therefore publishers sort of lost that particular income stream and especially with news initially starting as free to read online, they had to embrace an advertising click based model and that has made it very hard for publishers to not chase after clicks. The few publishers who don’t chase after clicks, and I’ll mention The Guardian here specifically, are loss making. They make millions of pounds of losses every year but they’re funded through other means to foundations or charity organisations or whatever it is. And the other publishers that don’t chase after clicks tend to have a paywall where people have to pay to subscribe to their news and I actually think that is the model going forward. I think most news will disappear behind the paywall. And we have a very unique situation here in the UK where a lot of news publishers don’t feel it’s feasible for them to go behind the paywall, because there will always be a free to read news website in the form of the BBC, which is funded through the licence fee. So that makes it challenging. This is why The Mail and The Sun and The Express probably will never go behind the paywall again until the BBC throws up its own paywall or stops publishing news online, which seems very bloody unlikely in both scenarios.
[00:31:43.050] – Barry A
So they have to chase after the clicks. It’s a situation created in a way by the internet and it’s very hard for publishers to divorce themselves from that and we can complain about that sensationalism and gutter journalism and everything else, all that you want. The hard fact of the matter is, if you want a thriving news industry, you need to find funding models. And the best funding model we have at the moment for free to read news is advertising. And there isn’t a way around that. And that leads to advertisers wanting more clicks and that leads to publishers generating more clicks off the back of stuff that we actually click on. We, the public, have a responsibility here as well. We read this Harry and Megan site every single minute of every single day, and therefore publishers keep writing about it. If you want to make meaningful change, stop reading bullshit people.
[00:32:36.370] – Andi J
Yeah. And you’d be amazed the number of people you talk to who are like, you explain how this works and then they’re like, oh, yeah, but I just really wanted to know what happened to that person in the mail online. It’s like, well, you part of the problem then, right. I was actually looking for a picture then of the there were some details published over the weekend of the New York Times has finally managed to start turning a profit, I think, on there. So now they’ve got advertising subscribers and digital subscribers, so they still have a good chunk of people pay cover price, and they’re kind of a model case of perhaps the future of the news industry in America, I think it’s probably worth adding.
[00:33:13.940] – Barry A
Yeah. And I think in Europe as well, there’s a lot of publishers now playing around with paywalls or finding other ways to monetize users, which, for example, you can do by not necessarily requesting payment, but requesting they register an account and then supply certain interests. And then you can market newsletters to them and you get to sponsor those newsletters, or you can market specific products to them. Again, New York Times one of the leading lights there, they bought wirecutter and integrated that into their website, which is a bloody brilliant move because that’s sort of a product recommendation engine to a certain extent. But you can see it autobiography with specialised news. Again, The Athletic, now owned by The New York Times. But before that it started out as.
[00:33:50.250] – Andi J
A I didn’t know they were owned by MIT.
[00:33:52.190] – Barry A
They are now owned by NIT. But it started out as an independent sports focused news publisher with a paywall direct from day one, and they’ve invested very heavily in getting very talented sports writers on board, which is why people want to pay for that news. And those models work. People are willing to pay for news, provided it is news of a certain quality, of a certain level of output that aligns with what people want to read.
[00:34:15.010] – Andi J
Is this a problem with making local journalism pay? So the local news industry has other challenges trying to make money from paywalls, but at the end, if you’re running a small regional newspaper with three reporters churning out, let’s be honest, shite, mainly, is anyone really going to pay for that?
[00:34:32.710] – Barry A
Well, yes, that’s the beauty of it, because you only need to pay for three reporters, you don’t need to pay for 100 person news desk low. Local news is actually probably one of the areas most ripe for paywalls at the moment, because people, they can get general news from the BBC, they cannot get hyper local news from the BBC. So that’s a scenario where a local news publisher with a hyper focus on local can say, you know what, we have advertising on the website. If you pay for a subscription, you don’t get advertising and you get access to all this other content. There are some really good websites in the Netherlands, where I’m originally from, that have a freemium model where and these are local news websites where, say, roughly one third, one half of the articles are free and the rest are behind a premium paywall. And that payroll is like, what, two or €3 a week? And a lot of people will pay that because they want access to that extra level of content, that extra level of journalism that they get, especially the local journalism that they cannot find on the free national news website.
[00:35:30.490] – Barry A
So, yeah, local news, I think, probably one of the most reluctant to adopt Paywalls, but for the wrong reasons. They probably should be the first ones diving into paywalls.
[00:35:39.300] – Andi J
Yeah, I think as the industry evolves and changes, because Paywalls used to be problematic, didn’t if you put a Paywall up, Google had just the index because it couldn’t read your content. That’s changed over time, though, right?
[00:35:52.540] – Barry A
Yeah, the technology is now there were still a lot of problems with Paywalls when websites had amp articles, which fortunately is no longer a requirement for mobile top stories. So publishers are Dixing paywalls left, right and centre. So we’re not dictating Paywalls, Dixing amp left, right and centre, because an amp article doesn’t necessarily have the same login credentials as your own website. So user could be logged in on a website and therefore get free access or be ready in the payroll, as it were. But when they would land on an amp article from Google result, they would be confronted with the login screen. So that’d be a highly disruptive user experience. But, yeah, previously Google couldn’t crawl behind a login. Now, there are mechanisms that Google has put in place that allows them to see content behind the paywall, provided you’ve implemented it correctly. And Google will not penalise paywalled websites in their news rankings. And I see a lot of people complain about that on social media, like, oh, I click on a link in Google search results and I get confronted with a paywall. And I’m like, yeah, but that’s by design. Google does not want to be seen to hurt publishers even more because they’re already being accused of hurting publishers left, right and centre.
[00:37:03.720] – Barry A
So Google says, yeah, we’re not going to have a negative ranking factor for Paywall content.
[00:37:07.690] – Andi J
I think what year people say is that, just tell me it’s paywalled, but I suppose what the publisher wants is the traffic first.
[00:37:13.820] – Barry A
Yeah, if you tell people the paywall, you’re not going to get the click.
[00:37:17.690] – Andi J
Tell us about amp? So, briefly explain it’s not so much what Amp is, it’s more about what the problem is with it, because I think Amp was started out as a good idea and the thought process behind it was great, but the problem wasn’t so much that it was implementation.
[00:37:35.530] – Barry A
Yes, Amp accelerated mobile Pages 2015, I think it was launched. This is when the mobile web was still fairly new. A lot of publishers didn’t necessarily have mobile friendly websites, or if they had mobile friendly websites that were very slow and very slow loading. So Google decided, you know what, we can build a framework, a web framework that publishers can adopt, or any website can adopt, to build very fast loading, mobile friendly web pages. And we’re going to help them along by implementing a certain caching mechanism that, if you have Amp pages, google will cache them in their own CDN. The Google Amp cache and preload and pre render them on mobile devices so that people get an even faster user experience. And they made that a requirement for news articles to be shown in mobile search results in those top Stories boxes on mobile. And that was the problem. It wasn’t optional. If publishers wanted to keep getting mobile traffic from Google, they needed to adopt Amp. So it wasn’t a voluntary mechanism, it was a very big stick, basically. That wouldn’t necessarily have been such a problem if at launch, Amp was a fully fledged framework that had all the benefits and features of a publishing website.
[00:38:50.220] – Barry A
But it didn’t. It was half ass, it lacked very basic functionality that a publisher needs to have. Plus, initially, you couldn’t even measure it properly without a separate Google Analytics account, and you could only use Google Analytics, you could only use a very limited advertising stack on Amp approved by Google. Of course, that later expanded and the platform became a lot more mature. But by then, Google had already sat to bed and publishers were like, well, this is absolutely horrible, we’re having to adopt Amp, but it will cost us a lot of money to implement because it’s an entirely separate parallel development track to our own website. Plus it’s costing us money because there’s less monetization and we’re very constrained in what we can and cannot do on Amp. So it left a very bad taste in a lot of publishers mouths. Plus I saw it as a sort of a Trojan horse for Google, because for very many years, google has tried to adapt itself to the chaos that is the world wide web. Google has tried to cater for almost any possible scenario of web technologies, content integration, you name it, trying to call an index and make sense of it as much as it could, even Flash, if you remember that shockwave Flash, google tried to find ways to call an index shockwave Flash.
[00:39:58.900] – Barry A
[00:41:01.850] – Barry A
But building an entire website in a framework designed by a search engine, that’s a step too far. Again, we’re talking about Google owning the entire advertising stack from start to finish. For me, this felt like Google trying to own the entire web stack from start to finish as well.
[00:41:19.630] – Andi J
Is amp a microcosm of what is wrong with Google’s approach to everything on the web, in that it started out and I think you hit on it there google started out as a way of making sense of the web in a better way than anybody else had done. And I think probably got a long way to find anyone who thinks that for the last 20 years, there’s been a better product than Google. I know Bing reckons it might, it does, the Pepsi Challenge. But by and large, Google got to where they were by just being better than everybody else and making sense of.
[00:41:50.710] – Barry A
The World Wide Web.
[00:41:52.550] – Andi J
But now they are effectively they’re a shareholder control company, and their shareholders are looking for return on investment, they’re looking for value. And they’ve hit a point now where and this is the thing about the stock market, it’s not about how much money you’re making, it’s about how much more money they want you to make next time. So Google can’t stand still and say, okay, well, we’ll just dominate search. They bought Fitbit because they now have to get into the health vertical, because if you look at where can you actually make more money over the next 20 years, it’s going to be cars. Health and education are probably the only places Google aren’t really in any particular way yet, or entertainment. But if you look at, what are Apple doing? I see you wearing an Apple Watch. So Apple are getting into health. Apple TV apple TV. They’re into entertainment, they’re looking at self driving cars, perhaps military technologies probably deal a bit. A lot of Google are already partly going, Is it now that because they’re looking for how do we make the next percentage of revenue? They have to now turn and say, instead of making sense of the web, we need the web to dance to our tune.
[00:42:57.040] – Andi J
Is that the kind of so is Amp the microcosm of the skirmish that kind of highlights the war?
[00:43:02.860] – Barry A
I think there was Google’s attempt to do that and it backfired to such an extent, they sort of abandoned it. But, yeah, Google is very good at launching products and very good at abandoning them. The Google has a very colourful track record of launching fairly decent products, reaching a certain plateau with those products and then just abandoning them and moving on to the next shiny thing. And I think that’s that’s an attempt on Google’s end to be in startup mode all the time, but they constantly try new things, either by launching new products themselves or buying out startups and integrating that into the Google ecosystem to see if it works, if it gets traction. And maybe one out of ten actually manages to get traction, the other nine get forgotten after a while. Amp probably being one of those and there’s many others. Google plus being another one, Google Reader, another one that was very popular but just got abandoned because they just plateaued. And, yeah, they’re constantly trying to find the next big thing and trying to find the next big growth avenue for them, because, like you said, it is all about shareholder growth.
[00:44:04.580] – Barry A
And the problem there is that Google is probably too big to see beyond that. Now, I do challenge people that say Google Search has gone to see it and saying it’s bad search results. Now, just try using another search engine like Bing or Neva or Dr Go. Try using that for a couple of months. Within a day, you’ll realise how good Google actually is, because you’ll be yearning back for Google search results. Of course, the next frontier here is the chatbots, the AI generated AI systems that Google is not the first one to do. Bing has jumped on that one. And Google’s own system, called Barred, by all accounts, is not as good as Bing’s chat, GPT powered search bot. But it’s not necessarily about being the first one, it’s about being the better one. Facebook wasn’t the first, that was MySpace. But Facebook won the battle in the end. And Google wasn’t the first search engine. They were just better at it. Than everybody else at the time.
[00:45:02.960] – Andi J
And AI in the SEO world probably more generally than news. It has issues with news. If people start churning up news articles via AI, but that feels like almost a niche. I don’t know, maybe it isn’t, I’m not sure. But I think more generally in SEO, there’s this concern of if you look at the way Bing has deployed chat GPT, it doesn’t lead to clicks to websites, and that’s terrifying people in the SEO industry.
[00:45:31.730] – Barry A
Yes. I think that problem will be solved fairly quickly, though. Bing has started attributing more and more google has talked about attributing regional publishers. The problem we have with these chat bots is they’re based on Golems generative, large language models, GLL, golem class AIS as they’re called by some people. I quite like the name, so I think we’re sticking with Go for that. Golems and Golems are predictive language models, basically predictive text on your iPhone to the nth degree. They’re not necessarily intended to be accurate reflections of the real world. They’re just intended to predict words in the best possible order, based on the enormous corporates of trillions and trillions of web pages and other documents that are fed into it. So the moment people start looking for truth in those systems, looking for genuine answers about to be willed in those systems, they will be disappointed. That’s not what they’re meant for. That’s not what they’re doing. That’s not what those models are designed around. They’re designed to predict text and can do so with incredible power, to such an extent that people sometimes think that they’re actually thinking machines, but they’re not. Let that be be clear.
[00:46:44.900] – Barry A
These are not sentient AIS that are going to take over the world and kill us all. They do have other risks involved with them because they are self improving AIS. They will find ways to make themselves smarter, not necessarily to the point of sentience, but to the point that they become actually be highly riskful. You can, for example, imagine a very smart AI plugged into all kinds of systems all over the world because they do help things, make things more efficient. And somebody asked that AI to make them the richest person in the world, and the AI says, great, I’ll kill off everybody else. That’s a very efficient way of doing that. So we have to be very careful with these systems, and we have to build in safety valves there. But the problems we are worried about now are not the actual problems that these machines have. AIS will not generate news. AIS cannot report on facts because they’re not people, they’re not there, they don’t have contact. Yeah, they look at history. They don’t look at what’s happening now or what might happen in the future. All they can do is predict things based on what is fed into the system.
[00:47:52.220] – Barry A
And they’re trained on models that I think the content goes back to 2021. And earlier. So anything more recent than that, they might fail on. Now they’re learning as we go along and they’re probably being fed the news as it happens into these systems. So they’re getting better and better at it. But there still needs to be somebody reporting the news never been more valuable. I’ll be entirely honest, we are not equipped as humans to deal with what these machines can do to our society. And I feel a little bit helpless as well in the face of all this because we can’t even grasp the outer edges of what these systems are going to do to our society in the next few years. We are just in Plato’s cave, looking at shadows on a wall and trying to see what’s actually happening in the wider world. And the scary part is the people who’ve built these machines and these models don’t know either because they’re black boxes. There are huge black boxes, machine learning black boxes that don’t allow you to take a peek inside and how it’s happened. That’s not how these systems work.
[00:48:58.090] – Barry A
You feed stuff in and you get stuff out. And what happens there in the middle, those transformer based technologies is entirely opaque, even to the person who built them. And that’s the scary part to me. We’re building machines that we don’t know how they work. That has never happened before. You always were able to take apart a car and get individual parts out and sort of see what that part does. You cannot do that with these systems. And that’s the scary bit.
[00:49:23.240] – Andi J
So is that the difference then, when you hear people say so, humans have always been resistant to change in one form of it. Go back through history, there’s always been people being worried about outsiders coming in because they’re a bit different. Industrial revolution, the Luddite movement came up because the machines were taking people’s jobs. And from then on, through the history of sort of the recent history of civilization from the industrialization point, people have always been reluctant to change. When new technology comes out, it’s like, well, that’s going to take away our jobs. And people fear for their own safety and their own living and because of these things and there’s an element of people on social media saying, yeah, look, technology has always been taken for people have always been resistant to change. Just get on board with it, it’s happening.
[00:50:06.850] – Barry A
Yes, but not all technology has been beneficial to mankind. I mean, you don’t have to go back too far in history to find things like the Manhattan Project that invented nuclear bomb or even much more modern examples. We are now in an ecosystem where our attention is constantly being demanded by devices that have software running on them that is optimised for engagement. Instagram, Facebook, even Twitter. And Google, to an extent. And what has that enabled? It has enabled basically the fundamental undermining of democracy. We see this happening all over Western countries, all over the world, where the far extreme corners of politics are finding ways to make themselves much more mainstream by optimising for engagement. And that’s terrifying. We have no way of predicting what the next thing is going to be. Technology isn’t neutral. Technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And this is something that people like Kevin Kelly and others have been saying for many, many years. You have to understand the context of a piece of technology and try to predict how it might be misused. And at the moment, we are rolling out these Chat QPT systems. I mean, it took Facebook four years to get to 100 million users.
[00:51:22.100] – Barry A
It took Chat QPT two months. And we’re giving open access to these generative AI systems, these Golems without understanding where it’s going to take us. What leave a more scary we probably don’t know how to even start understanding where it might take us, but it’s an arms race. Because if companies don’t adopt Golem AIS, they will be surpassed by companies who do. Because the advantages are very clear to them. The scaling of features and benefits for users is very clear to them. And we’re coming to a scenario in the very near future where fundamental reality will be placed in doubt. I’ll give you an example of this. It is very easy to generate totally convincing deep fake of someone’s face and voice with less than a few minutes of footage. And you can pretty much integrate that into CCTV real time. And we know how human memory is very fallible. What we remember is not necessarily or probably not what actually happened. So we rely very heavily on what we consider to be unfalsifiable evidence, like photographs and CCTV for almost every aspect of our society. And in the very near future, probably in the next few months to a few years, we won’t be able to have that anymore, because everything can be faked.
[00:52:45.320] – Andi J
I mean, on a more entertaining level of that, I’m told that you can now go to a website and all of Kanye’s songs and lyrics and public utterances have been fed into an AI model. And you can now write a song and have Kanye sing it for you using any word. That’s a bit of fun. Yeah, great. Just roll that forward two steps.
[00:53:08.390] – Barry A
Yeah, it’s an exponential curve. It’s not a gradual climb up, but this is an exponential curve we’re on, because the speed with which these platforms move, I mean, from Chat GPT-2 to three took, what, a year? From three to four took several months. Five is already being trained at the moment, which is even an order of magnitude or two bigger than four. The exponential curve is what’s the scariest part of this. We are just not ready on any level for what’s coming.
[00:53:36.360] – Andi J
So I like to look back in history, even things that new and different, like Chat GPT and AI.
[00:53:43.350] – Barry A
[00:53:43.690] – Andi J
Always think somewhere in history there is a guide for us as to what we might be able to do to kind of rein it back in a little bit. And the only example I can come up with at the moment, and it’s not a perfect one, is back to when the US antitrust laws were launched because of Standard Oil and Rockefeller’s company that basically owned the railroads, the rights to get the oil out of the ground, the railroads to move it, the refineries, the end selling point. And when they broke up one of Rockefeller’s companies, I think something like they listed all of the companies on the US stock Exchange, on the Dow Jones, or not the Dow Jones, on the US stock Exchange. And I think of the top six companies in the US. Four of them were formerly Rockefeller companies. That’s how big the company was. People like Exxon and Standard Oil and companies you still know that exist today all kind of came out with a breakup. And you look at that and the way that they controlled the market and the way the people were told, you can’t break this company up because the world will fall to pieces.
[00:54:47.780] – Andi J
It’ll start spinning the other way on its axis, and Jesus Christ will come back in the morning. It’ll be the end of days if you break up this company. Didn’t happen quite like that. But it feels like the legislative agenda back then must have taken a huge step forward. It feels like legislation that was probably 50 years before its time. It feels like we need that sort of forward thinking legislative approach now. And I also feel like there’s only the European Union looking at it in that way.
[00:55:17.910] – Barry A
Yeah, I think the US. Is politically paralysed because of the hyperpartisanship. China doesn’t care. They’re just going to run with this as far as fast as they can. India is going to run with this as fast as they can. European Union is pulling on the brakes, but it’s probably not going to be enough because it’s too small, it doesn’t have enough leverage. There also the difference there is in that rubber Baron oil era, it took a lot of effort to build an infrastructure to dominate the market, whereas these AI systems are frighteningly easy to start up and run with. And the infrastructure demands are going to be smaller and smaller and the things are going to get faster and faster and smarter and smarter that in the very near future you can have somebody with nefarious intent from a bloody cave in some remote country launch this and use it for all the wrong reasons. Which is why I’m a little bit like, yeah, we’re just not ready. We just don’t know what’s coming. And it does worry me to a certain extent if I can get a bit philosophy philosophical. At the time, we were always wondering why we haven’t heard from extraterrestrial intelligence.
[00:56:29.270] – Barry A
Because the universe has so many bloody planets and so many bloody stars. We should see some remnants of some civilization somewhere just by this year. Chance of probability. And I think the reason we haven’t is because civilizations tend to destroy themselves before they reach that point, and we’re not far off doing that as humans.
[00:56:46.010] – Andi J
[00:56:46.990] – Barry A
So, yeah, that’s a very cheerful podcast here.
[00:56:49.400] – Andi J
Yeah, thanks very much for that. I was going to say nefarious intent. Sounds like either a great name for a band or an autobiography, I’m not sure which one, but hitting the bookshelf soon. Nefarious intent by Jarvis and Adams. So I’m looking at the time, but there’s a few other things I want to cover, and we kind of moved off the subject of news, but I want to go back there for a minute to talk about news and social media. In that you said most news companies, other than a few who focus on driving social traffic, most get the bulk of their traffic from Google. Facebook famously tweaked their algorithm a couple of years ago and went from being a huge supplier of traffic to hardly any for most news organisations. But I suppose the question is, a couple of questions are, do you see social media driving different sorts of traffic or traffic to different sorts of stories for news journalists?
[00:57:40.710] – Barry A
[00:57:41.080] – Andi J
And can social media help break Google’s hold?
[00:57:50.550] – Barry A
That’s a good one.
[00:57:51.420] – Andi J
[00:57:52.160] – Barry A
Yeah, first and foremost, yeah. Different types of stories work better on social media. The slightly clickbaity headlines do really well on social. They tend not to work on search. Search headlines need to be fairly factual and straightforward and almost give away the topic in the headline, because that’s what Google wants to rank for. It wants to match stories to topics.
[00:58:10.450] – Andi J
[00:58:10.970] – Barry A
And the moment you sort of hide the topic in the headline, which is what works well on social, you lose that ability to rank in Google search. So it’s a slightly different dynamic and some publishers are very smart with that, because Facebook, for example, takes the headline from a different attribute on the web page than Google. Facebook has a so called open graph set of meta tags implement where it gets the headline and the featured image from, whereas Google looks at the actual h, one headline invisible on the page to track.
[00:58:36.130] – Andi J
You can play both games.
[00:58:37.370] – Barry A
Yeah, you can. And you can be smart about how you republish content, because social media doesn’t necessarily have the short shelf life that search might have. So you can definitely play the game and be smart about how you go about optimising content for different channels. Whether or not social can be an existential threat to Google in terms of driving traffic to publishers, I’m not sure, because people’s behaviours are different. When Google adopted the newsfeed to show less news and more stuff from your friends and family, people didn’t complain. They liked it. That’s what they wanted. So when you go on Facebook, you’re not in a read news mindset, you’re in a let’s catch up on our neighbor’s mindset, as when you go to Google, you’re in a right, let’s learn some stuff, let’s read some stuff mindset. And I think for that to change, you need a fundamental different shift in user behaviour by a as of yet unforeseen platform that will enable people to interact with the web in a very different way. We’re not there yet. I think Zuckerberg is trying to invent that with the metaverse. I’m not sure that’s going to succeed, if I’m honest.
[00:59:41.130] – Barry A
But if it does, then we’re having a very different paradigm of how news gets in front of people. Because at the moment, it’s reading it on news websites or seeing it on TV. And reading it on news websites means you have to go through an intermediary. Unless you go directly to a news publisher. Now, that second option is something most publishers really want to accomplish. They want to become a go to destination for their readership, they want to build a news brand, but that also means they need to differentiate themselves. They need to do something slightly different, slightly better, to build that brand and have that unique attribute that people say, okay, I’m going to go directly to a Guardian or a Son or a Daily Mail, versus just typing search them into Google and seeing what the latest stories are. And that’s hard. A lot of publishers will struggle to find what differentiates them from the next.
[01:00:30.760] – Andi J
That’s about brand, isn’t it?
[01:00:32.170] – Barry A
[01:00:33.450] – Andi J
Probably the topic we talk most about on this podcast.
[01:00:36.000] – Barry A
Yeah. The funny thing is, marketing is a dirty word in most news publishers, because when you talk about marketing, you tend to talk about advertising and monetization. When we talk about growing your audience in a news environment, we’re not talking about marketing, we’re talking about audience growth, different terminology. But the moment you start trying to explain that actually what you’re trying to do is marketing, they lose interest, because like, oh, that’s dirty, that’s what the commercial people do. And we keep that separate from journalism. Yeah.
[01:01:00.040] – Andi J
And there is, and rightly so, there’s a wall between commerciality and well, there used to be anywhere between newsrooms and commercial in most news organisations because they had to be for editorial independence reasons. So, yeah, it’s interesting how the brand and I do think sometimes national newspapers keep publishing a print version because they understand whether they call it marketing or not or brand building or whatever, having that bit of paper on the shelf gets you onto the 10:00, look what the headline is for tomorrow. And those build brand and trust. What is it that newspapers have?
[01:01:35.810] – Barry A
[01:01:36.400] – Andi J
That’s all they have, really, the masthead for years.
[01:01:40.750] – Barry A
I think there’s one example of a newspaper, the Independent, in the UK, that has managed to successfully stop its print edition as all the others just keep still printing papers, but the circulations are just dropping and dropping and dropping. I think Duffel’s Telegraph, last time I checked, had 50,000 circulation and when I worked with them in 2010, there was closer to 200,000.
[01:02:01.510] – Andi J
You wonder how long even that was a drop. Yeah, even 200,000 was dropped.
[01:02:05.290] – Barry A
That was a massive, massive drop from the glory days in the when they had like easily half a million every day. Jeez.
[01:02:12.580] – Andi J
[01:02:13.500] – Barry A
Yeah, bloody hell.
[01:02:14.570] – Andi J
I want to roll you back in time now where we talk about the back to the good old days. I want to actually talk about you, about Barry Adams, the man rather than the news SEO publishing bit, because you mentioned you worked at Phillips. You mentioned you’re not from this parish in Northern Ireland, you’re from the Netherlands. And you’ve had some interesting jobs in the past as well. And I think you’ve had an interesting route into marketing. Tell us about that.
[01:02:41.480] – Barry A
Yeah, I’m an It guy at heart. I mean, I probably shouldn’t admit this in public, but I never finished Uni. I did two years of uni was a mixed business and It course, and I absolutely hated It because there was a lot of business, not a lot of It. And I liked computers. I was an It geek, so I started just quit uni after two years. Also because my grades were terrible and started working at a call centre, actually doing first line and second line. It support, which it wasn’t a great job to have, but it did teach me a lot about how to explain technical concepts to people with no technical ability whatsoever. And those skills have stood me well over the years now I upskilled over the years I got working with an outsourcing company that just put it outsources in different companies for different projects. I had lots of different projects there at Phillips, for example, managing internet and Internet web infrastructure, both in Eindhoven, in their headquarters in Amsterdam and all kinds of other jobs at Atos origin, also for Internet management. And that really ignited my passion for things web related.
[01:03:44.860] – Barry A
First on intranet, so internal networks, internal webs, really, which are used for like knowledge sharing and internal communications, and then for internet stuff as well. And a little bit of a sidetrack there that for a few months in the mid two thousand s, I worked for World of Warcraft as a game master. Sort of a spur of the moment thing when they were I don’t think they’re trying to find game masters to manage users and report on user reports, investigate user reports for people who are playing the game world of Warcraft. And I was and still I’m a massive gamer, so I jumped on that, did that for a few months, realised it wasn’t financially feasible, moved back, got a job as international webmaster at a company called Handheld Products. It’s still the coolest job title I’ve ever had.
[01:04:33.500] – Andi J
Great, isn’t it?
[01:04:34.360] – Barry A
That was a job I had when I met my now wife. And I think that’s why she married me, because I had such a cool job title. But basically I was in charge of the whole of the web, at least the European side of the web, including SEO, as well as PPC and a bit of social media that the company did. And that’s when my passion for SEO was really ignited. Now, I already did SEO for my own hobby website, so I built my own website back in the late ninety s and realised nobody was visiting it because it didn’t show up anywhere. So you go to things like link exchanges and try to get it listed on the Yahoo directory and then Google came along with it. Right, let’s try to get it to rank in Google and doing all these things I didn’t know it was called SEO tried to find out what worked and tried to do those tactics. But then when I worked for the company, handled products, SEO became part of my remit and I thought, oh yeah, this is fun, this seems very easy, I can learn this quite easily.
[01:05:25.840] – Barry A
And then a few years down the line, still at that company, the company decided to send me to a conference in New York called Search Engine Strategies. And this was 2007. And I thought, well, I’m not sure I can learn anything new about SEO, but great, let’s just go to this conference, I might meet some fun people. It’d be a trip to New York, why not? Great. And I walked into that conference centre with a lot of confidence, a lot of arrogance, and three days later I walked out of it realising I was John fucking Snow. I know nothing. Absolutely nothing. My eyes were opened as to what SEO actually was, but I was hooked. I was like, yeah, this is it. I am going to specialise in this. This is my thing. So that’s I haven’t looked back since.
[01:06:05.510] – Andi J
That Venn diagram of a bit techie loves, a bit of intrigue and learning some stuff and kind of actually doing something and seeing an impact of it. Those sort of three circles of the Venn diagram, and you’re right in the middle of those.
[01:06:20.520] – Barry A
Yeah. I mean, I saw people speak like Jill Whelan and Matt Cutts was there. Matt COTS presenting Google Webmaster tools. They just launched Google Webmaster. I still have the T shirt somewhere. Danny Sullivan and loads of other old school SEO folks. And I realised I want to be those people. They seem so smart and so on top of things and so knowledgeable. Plus, I liked SEO in general because for me it was like that perfect meeting point of computers and humans. I realised that pure It on its own was not interesting enough. But I still am a natural introvert and don’t necessarily like people all that much, but there is a happy place in the middle there. And for me, SEO was that happy place where I could focus on both the tech side and still have the feeling I was making meaningful impact for people, but not have to deal with people all day, every day like you enjoy doing, because that’s not my natural environment.
[01:07:17.630] – Andi J
I do like having days off from people though, as well. It’s nice to just close the door.
[01:07:21.650] – Barry A
I like having years off from people.
[01:07:23.790] – Andi J
That’s probably the introverts and extroverts. You still need a day off, but it’s only a day for me, not a year.
[01:07:28.370] – Barry A
[01:07:29.420] – Andi J
No, I think it’s interesting because people get to see you speak at conferences and hear you on podcasts, but there’s a back bit there and a backstory of and I’ve always thought you were much better with people than you ever give yourself credit for. And like you said, explaining those technical concepts, because a lot of SEO is quite technical. A lot of technical SEO is by it’s very nature technical. So the fact that you can just cut through that with here’s what you need to do with a little bit of frustration when it doesn’t actually happen.
[01:07:58.140] – Barry A
Oh, yeah. That’s I think, part of the beauty of of SEO as well, and what keeps it interesting, I call it a probabilistic endeavour. Now. It used to be a deterministic, as in you did x and Y would happen, very fairly predictable. But the systems are so vast and complicated now and powered by machine learning systems that are themselves black boxes that Google engineers themselves don’t really know how they work anymore, they just know that they work. That it’s become a probabilistic science where you put stuff in which increases the chances of Y happening, but you don’t necessarily know if it’s going to happen and if it does happen, to what degree it’s going to happen. It is pure probability and you’re trying to maximise the probabilities that it’s your website and your content that is going to get those clicks and that traffic rather than your competitors. But that is all you can do. You can only maximise the probabilities. And probability is funny because you can get something with a 95% probability, but it can still fail because that 5% is still a fairly decent chance. So it’s about maximising those probabilities and giving yourself the best chance to get traffic and to rank and to improve, knowing full well, hopefully, that there’s no guarantees.
[01:09:08.360] – Barry A
There are no guarantees in SEO. The moment someone says, oh, I can guarantee you a traffic increase, they are lying, or they’re trying to scam you, or they just don’t know what they’re doing.
[01:09:16.900] – Andi J
Yeah, or a little bit of all three. So, as we start to wrap up, I am going to ask you for a book recommendation or a couple of book recommendations if you can have a think of some just while you’re having a think because I realised I didn’t warn you about that one in advance. I am going to put a link in the show notes to Barry’s News SEO newsletter. I am not in News SEO, but I really enjoy reading it when it comes through. I’m a regular reader. I find, again, the way you explain technical concepts. I think if you worked in News SEO, you would love it. And even if you don’t work in News SEO, I don’t read that and go, I have no idea what he’s talking about. There are bits where it does dive deep sometimes and I’m like, I can just skip over this, but I don’t need this, but I find it really interesting read to find. So I’ll put a link in that and we’ll talk about that’s. Kind of led to a News SEO conference. So if we have got News Seo’s listening and you don’t go to the conference, tell us about that first and then tell us your book recommendation.
[01:10:06.780] – Barry A
Yeah, the News SEO conference is the news and editorial SEO summit. It’s a brainchild of John Shahata, who used to be global vice president of audience growth at Conde Nast and myself. And we launched it in 2021, I think, as a niche within the niche. So an SEO conference specifically for news publishers, and we had sort of a hope of maybe attracting 100 attendees, a fully online conference also, I should say, and with a strike goal of maybe 300 if we were really successful. And the first edition had 650 people sign up. Brilliant. I think we were lucky as well, that pretty much every speaker we asked to speak at it said yes straight away, because these old people working in SEO, in news publishers, realising there isn’t really an event specifically for them, and you might not have noticed, but news is huge. There’s thousands upon thousands of news publishers and thousands upon thousands of people working in SEO for news publishers, so the niche is actually not that small. So, yeah, we launched the event 2021, had a second edition in 2022, again online only. We’re currently in the early planning stages for the 2023 edition, probably again around October time, as we had for the previous two editions.
[01:11:17.040] – Barry A
And I intend to keep it as an online only conference because I think that is the key to a success. But we might do offline real world spin off events as well, because there’s a certain taste for that as well, for people in the news industry to come together and share war stories and sort of drink. Yeah. Although for the tea, total is among us, it’s always good networking opportunities. And I found it very encouraging that people working in news and in journalism, even if they work at technically competing publications, are still quite open to sharing knowledge and sharing insights, because we all seem to have the same goals of making news give news the best possible audience it could possibly get. And there’s always more readers and more clicks out there. We’re nowhere near new situation yet. There’s a book recommendations. I’m going to throw you a bit of a wildcard here, because I reckon most people will give you a book recommendation of, like a business book, like a nonfiction or something like that. I’m going to do something else. I’m going to give a fiction recommendation, because this book, when I first read it, blew my absolute mind.
[01:12:22.740] – Barry A
Now, I’ve always liked reading science fiction, especially En Banks, for example. But this is from an author called Peter Watts. He’s a Canadian author. He’s written several books. The book that he wrote that blew my mind was called Blind Sight. Blind Sight is one word, and it’s a science fiction novel, but basically, first contact scenario. Okay, I won’t give away the full picture here, but he manages to put so many ideas and concepts into one novel that other science fiction writers would struggle to put out across their entire river. And especially his thoughts about the nature of conscience, sentience and intelligence, and what we take for granted that intelligence and sentience are the same thing. He totally undermines and says, you can be highly intelligent without being self aware. And in fact, that might be the default way that life in the universe operates, because self awareness can be a break on intelligence, as in, you see this with again, I’m going a bit scientific and philosophical here. There’s a certain hypothesis that, for example, chimpanzees have very fast visual memory. There’s these tests that they do with chimpanzees where they show a sequence of numbers on a screen for like a fraction of a second, and then the chimpanzees, after that sequence has disappeared, can point and tap those places in numerical order flawlessly.
[01:13:47.760] – Barry A
We humans can’t do that. We don’t have that sort of very sharp visual memory because we have other things that they don’t have, like language. And there’s a bit of a hypothesis there that we made a cognitive trade off. We exchanged some forms of intelligence so that we could speak and communicate and share our intelligence. But what if there was highly intelligent life out there that didn’t have to make that trade off, where there wasn’t that sense of language itself, of self awareness itself, of sentience, but still highly intelligent and highly problem solving? We might be living among that intelligence without realising it. Like octopuses are highly intelligent, but probably not self aware in the same way that we are. So that book, more than anything, changed how I think about life itself, about existence itself, and about how special it is to be alive, period, and about being able to enjoy and appreciate life. So, yeah, that, for me, was the most profound book I’ve ever read.
[01:14:52.370] – Andi J
I love when we get, as you say, left field, just good book recommendations. And there are, I would say, 90% to 95% of the recommendations are business books, which is fine. We’re talking marketing. There’s a lot of marketing, a lot of general business. But I recently watched Light and Magic, which was about the industrial light and magic, how it was founded by George Lucas and things. And you look at what came out of there from all the films, basically, star Wars, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, basically, any film with special effects that’s won an award over the last 40 years, yes, it’s come from there. Pixar formed from there. So any animated film that’s won an award in the last 20 years that’s come out of ILM, the guy who invented Photoshop, invented it as part of helping to find ways they could make better. So any graphic design you’ve seen in the last 40 years has also come from ILM. But if you go back to the beginning of the story, what happened was they brought people together who probably wouldn’t ever have been in the same room together, and that diversity of thought crashed together to create different things that spun out of there.
[01:16:02.610] – Andi J
And when I hear you talk about that book, that’s the sort of thing that I hear, is that if everybody just reads how brands grow and sits.
[01:16:12.720] – Barry A
And talks about it atomic habits, it.
[01:16:15.940] – Andi J
Just becomes a pissing contest, right? And everyone’s like, oh, great, well, I took this from that book. You’ve got to bring in some different thoughts and concepts to challenge how you think, because that drives everybody forward. And it’s no accident that all those amazing things came out of ILM because of the way it was formed. And that’s a real lesson for me, is that just surrounding yourself with people with the same degree from the same place, doing the same thing, taught by the same people, it’s reductive, doesn’t take you anywhere. So, no, I love that book recommendation.
[01:16:45.080] – Barry A
Yeah. I would say if you start reading it, have a Wikipedia page open next year, because you’ll be doing a lot of googling on what does that mean? Because Peter Watts does not assume, doesn’t explain much. He just runs with it. But it’s very rewarding to go along that ride with him. It is incredibly rewarding. Brilliant stuff.
[01:17:02.120] – Andi J
Well, listen, Barry, thank you for your time. It’s been great having you along. And we shall see you at a conference soon.
[01:17:07.630] – Barry A
Absolutely, yeah. There’s plenty of those coming, so keep an eye on my Twitter feed and my website for the latest.
[01:17:13.280] – Andi J
We will have links to all of that, the event, the newsletter, how you get hold of Barry, all in the show notes, and you can catch him from there. Great to follow on Twitter as well. Great banter.
[01:17:22.890] – Barry A
Thank you very much for having me, Andi.
[01:17:24.340] – Andi J