The Man Responsible for NY Times Going Free

In April 2006, I theorized that the columnists at the NY Times would push the Times drop the paid version because Select was hurting both the influence and secondary sales of columnist’s book sales and speaking rates. While I’m still attached to the frustration the columnists must have felt, I believe someone else ended up being most responsible for the NY Times switching to a free format.

The changed didn’t end up being driven by ego driven exposure but search. Search, as in the free traffic Google sends sites.

The seeds were laid for this change in February, 2005 when the NY Times acquired About.com. For those of you who haven’t followed About.com, it’s an online resource site with helpful information on a huge range of topics. Expert guides are paid to build out content in areas that interest them.

What’s interesting about About.com is their compensation model. As I understand it, guides are paid a base salary plus a percentage of the revenue generated by the content they create. This incentive motivates guides to create content that’s both great AND search engine optimized. Content that generates links and content that uses the same terms a typical search engine users would use when searching for information on that topic.

Of course, there were plenty of structural issues that had to be addressed with the content management system as well to make sure the pages were properly indexed and served up in a search engine friendly manner, but the bigger issue was creating great search engine optimized content.

The guy behind the SEO initiatives at About.com, which the NY Times noted was one of the reasons they acquired About.com, is Marshall Simmonds. The SEO policies and training of guides was the responsibility of Mr. Simmonds. Here is a quick bio for Simmonds from April 2007’s Search Engine Strategies conference:

Marshall D. Simmonds was named chief search strategist for The New York Times Company in March, 2005. Mr. Simmonds is responsible for maximizing traffic and search engine exposure by implementing strategic marketing techniques for NYTimes.com, Boston.com, IHT.com and About.com’s 500 topic sites. In addition to his work with The Times, he is also spearheading DEFINE SEARCH STRATEGIES, an enterprise search consulting service, funded by The New York Times Company.

Peter Appert, a Goldman Sachs analyst quoted in the NY Times story linked to above (that’s right, I linked to a story from 2005 on a major media site) missed the opportunity here. At least, his quote shows him focusing on the contribution the About.com property would have for the NY Times’ bottom line:

“The challenge is that About is very small versus the total scale of the NYT business,” he said, adding that About’s revenues last year were $40 million, a fraction of the Times Company’s revenues. “It represents barely over 1 percent of NYT revenue, so while it’s strategically appealing and it’s a step in the right direction, it’s financially too small to really change the growth story at the NYT,” Mr. Appert added.

However, the bigger opportunity in 2005 was for the NY Times to leverage the incredible asset that is nytimes.com. It is by far the most linked to and most respected news source from a search engine’s perspective, yet most of the content on the site was invisible to search engines.

From a search engine optimization perspective, the nytimes.com site is an SEO’s dream job. Ask any SEO if they’d rather work on a high link popularity site with structural issues of a search friendly site with link popularity issues and you’ll get the same answer. You can have a much greater impact by straightening out structural issues than solving link popularity issues since there are generally underlying business issues hurting link popularity.

However, in NY Times’ case, the real SEO problems weren’t structural but political. How do you convince the #1 media site that they should open up their entire archives to Google and stop charging a subscription for access to columnists?

Whoever managed to sell this seemingly radical change internally deserves credit for the change.

Marshall Simmonds is the man behind the curtain.

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