Is Google killing independent news and review sites? PR and our changing media landscape

Category: Digital PR

By: Rich Leigh

It’s fair to say that the media landscape is changing at the rate of knots.

I pasted this blog into GPT 4 and asked it to come up with an image that works. Not bad. Except for the suit jacket maybe. A bit 80s.

This isn’t going to be a blog (only) about media industry layoffs – the Guardian has written a good piece about that here, calling the number of current layoffs ‘breathtaking’. Press Gazette is keeping a running list of layoffs in 2024, by title. Sky News reported just days ago that the TV industry is struggling too – with 68% of industry union members saying they’re out of work.

Here’s what this blog is:

  1. I’m going to provide some recent PR industry context/history
  2. I’m going to look at a recent (brilliant) post looking at how Google is ‘killing’ independent websites, in favour of returning searches for visitors on bigger, legacy media titles – that show much less reason to be trusted
  3. I’m going to look at the nature of how people search is changing, including among younger generations – and whether that’s a good thing for trust or not
  4. Well, let’s see when we get there, eh?

1. So, firstly – how is the media industry changing, how does that impact brand PR budgets and why does that matter?

When I started working in PR in 2008, things were very, very different. ‘Digital PR’ was simply getting online coverage. PR for SEO meant earning links through media.

Some clients, and it feels daft to say this now, didn’t much care unless that coverage was in print, too.

Digital PR saw an enormous boom just prior to Covid. This boom was especially kind to PR people like me and agencies like mine, having been building/earning links since first stepping into the industry, thanks to recessionary market conditions, forward-thinking bosses* and clients, and an enormous personal desire to be as good as I could be.

The digital PR market has recently suffered a bit of a battering, with many great agencies and very good people being hit hard.

I wrote this blog last year, in which I said that we’d reached the end in the race to the bottom for digital PR. It wasn’t traffic-baiting hyperbole, I meant and mean it.

2023 wasn’t kind to digital PR specialists and agencies – and many others in more broad-base PR – especially on the consumer side of things.

We did that thing we do as an industry, where we publicly pretend it isn’t the case, but it was rough, and in many cases, the veil fell after pint 3 with other agency founders, in private.

I get it, and in many cases, this is what happened:

1) Brand X chucked a tonne of cash at hoovering up as many links as possible, and is now satisfied that returns are diminishing and/or 

2) they decided they didn’t fancy the hassle of achieving media mentions and links, which are not guaranteeable, and would sooner spaff cash in the direction of paid social and pay-per-click ads, which are altogether much more attributable**.

Journalists are typically judged on the:

    • traffic
    • social media engagement
    • and even affiliate marketing earnings

their posts are responsible for.

With fewer journalists and harder-to-achieve top-down targets as higher-ups understandably shit the bed amidst an advertiser budget exodus not dissimilar to the one PR finds itself against, things have got desperate in the never-ending land-grab for eyeballs.

Add into that a load of fresh-faced digital PR types (especially from previously more technically-proficient SEO agencies), desperate for follow links, and these journalists’ inboxes just didn’t (and still don’t) stand a chance.

Much has been written about the media’s various attempts to find new ways to monetise, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a succinct explanation as this one from Jay Rosen:

2. “Google is killing independent websites like ours” – but first, affiliate marketing

As a PR person – and an agency owner – how and where we reach our client’s target audiences is, bluntly, all that matters to me. We will go where our audience goes, and we find a way to get our client messaging to them.

There will always, always be a place for good media relations. And creativity – in PR, in out-of-home, across social channels; basically, anywhere you can market to reach a target audience – will always help us get there. We are, after all, an interruption. We should at least be a fun, perhaps informative and ideally useful one.

In the media’s bid to increase ways to monetise, and I touched on this in journalist targets a few paragraphs back, they turned to affiliate marketing.

Basically – “we have an audience of people that trust us to varying degrees already – why not link to products, services and deals, and take a cut if a reader clicks through and buys?”

It makes sense. The publisher earns a percentage commission for having sent the buyer, and the linked-to company wins too.

I was even part of putting some of these affiliate deals in place with clients and publishers, as we sought to increase client visibility in target media, increase client earnings – proving our worth, again – AND ways to ensure the media loved us.

Sometimes, these earlier exclusive affiliate content deals also meant the titles wouldn’t feature competitors – which for us, was a massive win.

So, when I saw this piece from (fellow agency owners, and independent review site founders) Gisele Navarro and Danny Ashton, I was – well, not excited to read it, that sounds dark AF, but I’m ever-curious.

I’m keen to take in all the context I can as to what’s going on around us, especially from smart people. Industry changes happen regardless, I’d sooner not stumble forward blindly or ignorantly.

Please do read the piece – it’s long, but sets out how independent review sites like Gisele and Danny’s HouseFresh are being beaten down in search results by ‘legacy’ media titles like BuzzFeed, Rolling Stone and Forbes, even with evidence that these titles aren’t, in some cases, necessarily even reviewing the products.

The blog uses air purifier reviews as a means to compare and contrast.

Gisele argues that Google allowing this is crippling – and killing – smaller websites, that aren’t necessarily as recognisable. I also take from it that you can’t trust that these bigger sites are the best source for independent reviews – and often, in lieu of giving actual personal opinions, copy and paste from Amazon reviews and otherwise affiliate link out to a large list of products, uncaring as to which link a site visitor might click and ultimately part with their cash for.

Who knows if these are ranked or listed in order of the product or company that pays the highest affiliate commissions but… well.

You can quickly see how search becoming less trustworthy matters enormously.

3a) How is search changing?

“51% of Gen Z women prefer TikTok, not Google, for search”, according to ‘a survey from Her Campus Media, a Gen Z media and college marketing company’ (here on Search Engine Land, from September last year).

Ignoring the self-fulfilling nature of a story that gained a tonne of traction – nice PR, Her Campus Media – the New York Times wrote this piece in 2022, ‘For Gen Z, TikTok is the new search engine’.

This from Rebecca Roberts for the CIPR, is a slightly less breathless report, and speaks to how search habits differ generationally, too. Do have a gander.

Whatever the exact numbers, it’s clear that more people are using social to search first than before. Whether the volume of searches is gazumping Google yet, in total or even by generation remains to be seen.

As basic as it sounds, the best-performing social content will perform best in social search results and come up top.

We know, through decades of search engine use, that we are inherently lazy, and as such, there’s little reason to doubt somebody searching on TikTok for ‘best air purifier’ won’t click the ones at the top, with the most views, and especially if it’s somebody they recognise.

It isn’t necessarily going to be the best, most expert content, is it?

To be fair, in the case of product, service – let’s even say, restaurant – reviews, there’s an obvious subjectivity, but a post from a recognisable and popular influencer, gifted and/or paid to promote a product or service, will undoubtedly perform and show up higher than a video from a massive air purifier nerd who wants to extol the technical virtues and value of the latest AirSucker9000.

Just as with the big legacy media titles and the trustworthiness of the reviews as highlighted in the blog on FreshHouse – it’s no longer about trust.

It’s pay to play, stretching the rules of the game. It’s survival of the fittest.

3b) A quick note about AI

Perplexity, GPT4 and other AI tools are also, to an increasing number of people, going to be used for search. 1) It’s easy if I’m already in the tab and 2) they cite sources (you sometimes have to ask for them with GPT 4, but still).

As you can see, they cite some of the sites FreshHouse talked about, including Real Simple and Good Housekeeping. In the FreshHouse blog, there’s some doubt cast over whether or not Real Simple tested 67 purifiers as the headline states, and yet now, here’s their number one shout being highlighted as a result of Perplexity sourcing from media titles.

4. So… what?

From this, I’m hoping you’ve taken (and I’m numbering here to help me – I say it often, but I learn best out loud):

  1. Smaller, potentially much more relevant and trustworthy sites, will fall by the wayside.
  2. The media industry is continuing to shrink in employee numbers. It can and does make getting coverage (and links) in media titles harder. Ask yourself, if you work in PR – do client or manager expectations seem lower, the same or higher than you remember them in years gone by, despite the shifting landscape?
  3. Brands are continuing to allocate and reallocate budgets to paid social and pay-per-click ads – they need investor and C-suite pleasing sure-thing marketing results, and PR coverage results are never a promise. That doesn’t mean the death of PR AS WE KNOW IT, it means staying on top of how it’s changing and evolving accordingly, to me. Paid, owned, social and earned – how much emphasis we place on each of those aspects is going to be client, market and skillset dependent.
  4. Google’s dominance as the first port of search call isn’t forever-assured. Search habits change over time, and younger generations are using social as a search engine, too.
  5. God, people have a lot of opinions about air purifiers.

=====

*Here’s my first PR boss Andy, with a trademark take on all of this. I don’t disagree. He’s always ripped me for enjoying ‘long form’ content, for context. We are who we be, I guess.


**PR is bloody-well attributable – here I am 10 years ago literally taking you through the measurement process, something I repeated in even more depth in my best-selling book Myths of PR a few years later – but, definitely not guaranteeable, in the same way).