A debate last night between Google and newspaper publishers yielded fresh new insights about the value of search-infused audiences. It's a lesson for INMA members everywhere.

In a panel discussion at London’s Frontline Club, the usual arguments about Google’s value in driving eyeballs were bantered about — only to be interrupted by one of the clearest voices about the value of audiences for publishers: Matt Kelly, digital content director for Mirror Group Newspapers.

Here’s what Kelly told the forum, as reported by Journalism.co.uk:

“We need to worry a bit less about search engines and worry a bit more about our readers. We aren’t that impressed with the value of audience we got via search engines. They came across it via Google and buzzed off again, that’s Google’s audience. It’s not our audience. We can’t successfully leverage a disconnected audience.”

And then the killer quote for INMA members:

“I think they confused reach with audience, they confused numbers with engagement. It was a very alluring thing. ...

“So we pumped the market full of inventory and there was too much inventory for advertisers to supply. There’s not enough advertising in the world to fill all of the content that newspapers put out online. So what happens is the rate collapses. So suddenly this reach came back and bit the newspaper industry on the arse. So in all of this great reach, the rate of revenue coming back from it is in terminal decline. What we would sell four or five years ago for £8 CPM now we’ll sell it for £0.80 CPM. This is not a sustainable business model. This is a product of the erosion of engagement that Google brought to news content.”

Read the full report of the evening here — including video coverage.

Divorce yourself from the emotional Google argument, which is secondary to Kelly’s larger point. This is a lucid argument about “numbers” versus “engagement” — a follow-up to my blog post earlier this week.

It’s not just about numbers or blind reach anymore. It’s about the audience’s size, shape, dimension, emotion, smell, time spent, level of focus — OK, I’ve run out of words. What is the value of eyeballs from Google? What is the value of eyeballs from social media? We have to wrap this level of audience engagement into a storyline if “multi-media” or “convergence” are to mean anything tangible.

Matt Kelly’s broadside against Google was a good reminder that news publishers need to better understand all of their audiences.