What does the SEO-AI conversation mean to news publishers?

By Jodie Hopperton


Los Angeles, California, United States


Hi there.

I have just spent the weekend in Phoenix, Arizona, discussing the news industry with smart, curious, open people at my favourite non-INMA event: Newsgeist. 

Topics ranged from the local news crisis here in the United States, to Big Tech payments, product, AI, and much more. And when I say conversations, I think I mean group therapy for many.

In many ways, it’s cathartic to see that others are facing similar issues, but it reminded me that there is no silver bullet to any of our problems. We mostly need to do the work. It’s a bit like losing weight: you have to cut out the stuff that is bad for you, focus on the nutritious stuff, and throw in some exercise.   

Hope to see you online tomorrow at the unveiling of our CMS vendor selection tool.

All the best, Jodie

News vs. information

One of the debates we had at Newsgeist was around SEO and AI. The session was called: “Is SEO a dead duck? Is generic search an extinction-level event for news? What can help the discovery of news?”

There are a few answers to this.

The short one is yes, it could be. Generative AI could answer questions that customers pose, meaning there is no need for news sites. 

But that is an overly simplistic view which is likely not true.

Already we are seeing that people do not come to news sites for short factual answers to events that are certain (When is tonight’s football? Is there a war in Ukraine?). Search has been doing that for a long time, firstly through links and more and more in app. And they do it better. Much, much better.

When looking up flight details, Google is now always my go-to because the UX is so good. This is only going to accelerate with generative AI. And news sites are rubbish at that as a whole. We don’t deal in short, sharp information. We mostly optimise for time and attention. 

Where news sites add value is where there is nuance and content is needed. Why is the flooding in New York so bad? What is going on with Ukraine and Russia? This is where our industry shines; it’s where we do great things.

At some point, there is likely to be a tipping point where the degradation of traffic because of GenAI tools will outweigh the value of having sites open to scraping for SEO purposes to drive traffic. It will be a pretty basic equation. If this happens on a wide scale, it will be at the detriment to LLMs (large language models) because reportable sources for current content is essential for generative AI tools to be effective for consumers.

If this happens, deals will need to be struck. The big publishers will be just fine, and we’ll have to hope that the smaller publishers band together. 

What I suspect is a more likely outcome is that generative AI chatbots will show some sources and links. To be fair, many already do. 

Below are a few current versions. These are likely to change, but it’s a positive start.

  • Bing GenAI shows sources and directly links to “learn more” as you can see here:

  • ChatGPT will often point to searching the Web for more but does not provide actual links (this may be because it is not “live” — it is still based on results up to a certain point in time):

  • AndiSearch suggest places to go for more information:

ICYMI: INMA audio report

We released a report this month on opportunities in audio for publishers and now INMA members can stream it here now for free.

Questions around AI?

I’ll be hosting a study tour on AI in Silicon Valley later this month (agenda here). Do you have burning questions I should be asking the leaders in this field? E-mail me at jodie.hopperton@INMA.org.

Is innovation dead?

That’s a slightly dramatic headline, but I have had a number of conversations recently about focusing on the core products.

Last week I wrote about refocusing on the customer value chain. This week I want to look one step further. It was a question that was recently proposed to me: What are your views on optimising existing (core) product vs. building something new for audiences with lower WTP (willingness to pay)?

Let’s look at both sides of this: 

It probably makes a lot more sense to focus on maximising the audience(s) willing to pay before we chase new ones. If we know who has the propensity to pay, our duty to the business is to go for the highest bang for buck. In reality, most news organisations have likely not reached the full potential of their core product for paying audiences, so there still needs to be a focus on that before spending much resource looking to the future. 

Does that mean we are no longer focusing on user problems? No. We’re prioritising the problems of those most likely to pay. Those will yield the highest monetisation gains. 

On the other hand,  the future will bring new landscapes, which likely means new products and we can’t get left behind (again). Generative AI is an example of this.

Personally I love shiny new things, and I get to see a lot of them based in California. I’m an advocate for AR/VR as spatial computing is likely to take off in the next few years, and I’ve recently spent a little time looking at Proto Holograms and the new Sphere entertainment centre (both of which are exceptional by the way). 

INMA Product initiative Lead Jodie Hopperton is here for all your innovation needs. Here she is earlier this summer experiencing Pronto holograms.
INMA Product initiative Lead Jodie Hopperton is here for all your innovation needs. Here she is earlier this summer experiencing Pronto holograms.

These are the future, but they don’t warrant expenditure right now because the cost is high, the return is unknown and likely only after a long timeframe.

So what is the ideal split between core focus and innovation? 

Before you decide, there are a few other things we need to bring into the mix. 

Firstly and importantly is team capacity. Because capacity is extremely tight, innovation is a luxury.  

Secondly is deciding what we are optimising for. This is a bigger conversation, but while most people reading this will be focused on core objectives such as engagement and retention, it may be that we need to look at different audiences and how we engage them. Perhaps we don’t optimise for a single thing but have specific targets for specific niches. 

For example, Schibsted focuses on getting users to take specific actions — signing up to specific newsletters or downloading an app — as these actions are more likely to trigger behaviours that lead to engagement. It may be that one of those niche audiences or desired objectives requires innovation.

Lastly, but also importantly, is motivation. News can’t compete with tech salaries, so it’s hard to attract top talent. But if we allow people to work on things they are passionate about, that’s a key selling point. And most people like working on shiny new things. 

So that split between core and innovation is an equation of time, goals, objectives, and motivation. 

I’d love to hear your views on this. What percent of your focus is improving core products vs. building new ones?  And how do you optizimise for different audiences? Drop me a line at jodie.hopperton@INMA.org or hit me up on Slack

About this newsletter 

Today’s newsletter is written by Jodie Hopperton, based in Los Angeles and lead for the INMA Product Initiative. Jodie will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global news media product.

This newsletter is a public face of the Product Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Jodie at jodie.hopperton@inma.org with thoughts, suggestions, and questions. Sign up to our Slack channel.

About Jodie Hopperton

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