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How The Associated Press will try to rival Wikipedia in search results

Yesterday we revealed plans by The Associated Press to hold back some content from member websites. (Great discussion going on there, by the way.) The primary motivation of that initiative is search: AP material that resides on hundreds of disparate sites at the same time will hardly rate in Google compared to a single page with hundreds of links pointing to it. That’s a fundamental tenet of search engine optimization.

The same philosophy is driving their plan to build “news guide landing pages” that will aggregate the AP’s content around subjects, places, organizations, and people. Think of the topic pages on sites like The Chicago Tribune, BBC, and others — except that the AP will be harnessing its vast network of members and customers in what could amount to a brilliant SEO play.

The landing pages were first mentioned at the AP’s annual meeting in April, but further details haven’t emerged until now. In material distributed to some members last month, the news guide is described as “a central location to which headlines, promotional products and other content developed by AP could point.” What that will mean in practice is similar to what you find in the digital content of other news organizations: All references in AP articles to, say, Bill Clinton would link to the landing page with aggregated content and other material about the former president.

But, of course, those links to the landing pages would come from member news sites with excellent PageRank, the key metric used by Google to determine search results. (For instance, CNN, which carries AP content, has the maximum and extremely rare PageRank of 10.) It’s easy to see how the AP’s landing pages could, in short order, shoot up near the top of results for popular, news-related search terms.

Competing with Wikipedia

The document that I referenced yesterday, the one labeled “AP CONFIDENTIAL — NOT FOR DISTRIBUTION,” includes four pages of sharp, if widely accepted, analysis of how news is consumed today. Referring to coverage of Michael Jackson’s death, it says:

Two of the biggest beneficiaries of that traffic bonanza were Twitter and Wikipedia, a couple of digital natives that would have been viewed as very unlikely news competitors even a few months ago. Indeed, a new pattern of consumption was validated in the confusing minutes that followed the first reports of Jacko’s death: Users shared; they searched and they clicked on Wikipedia….

The Wikipedia page on Michael Jackson is not very pretty to look at, but it has more blue hyperlinks than black type. Forget the “wiki” method of community updating, the key to Wikipedia’s success is that its pages are designed to catch traffic, provide key information and then send users on their way to deeper engagement on the subjects they’re interested in.

(According to Wikipedia traffic statistics, the site’s Michael Jackson page has been viewed more than 24 million times since his death.)

There’s further discussion of Wikipedia’s dominance in search results, which is a product of all the external links pointing to Wikipedia and a variety of other factors. As Mathieu O’Neil Sage Ross, the editor of in-house newsletter Wikipedia Signpost, told me yesterday, “Google juice goes in, swishes around, doesn’t come out.” And that’s clearly what the AP would like to emulate, although it’s less clear how they’ll generate many links beyond member and customer sites. The document states flatly, “The Wikipedia model of standing, authoritative pages could be challenged.”

Proof of concept

Most of the AP’s landing pages would be automatically generated, although “editorial curation” would also be possible. That’s the model followed by sites like The New York Times, which has had decent success with Times Topics. In an internal memo late last year, Times editors boasted, “Many months of SEO labor…helped promote our Credit Crisis page to the prominence it deserves; search for “credit crisis” on Google and our Topic Page comes up first.” (It should be noted, though, that the Times page has been passed since that memo; it currently ranks behind The Crisis of Credit, a terrific 11-minute video describing credit concepts made by a young man named Jonathan Jarvis as part of his master’s thesis at a design college. Take from that what you will.)

The AP is also hoping it can convince members to join the project and have their content aggregated on the landing pages as well. (Of course, plenty of websites, citing fair use, do that already without any formal partnership.) The material distributed last month notes that the landing pages could “facilitate paid distribution of AP and member content,” although I don’t get the sense that’s a priority. As with the strategy I described yesterday, there’s a real question of balance here: It’s obvious what the AP gains, but members will obviously want to know what’s in it for them.

An SEO firm called EveryZing recently produced a trial run of the AP’s landing pages, according to their vice president for client services and business development, Bob Fogarty. EveryZing has also created topic pages for Fox News and Newsweek. In the latter case, the project is actually called…Newsweekopedia.

Much of this strategy follows what Google vice president Marissa Mayer suggested in recent testimony to Congress. It’s also in line with the research of Matt Thompson, whose currently online community manager at the Knight Foundation. And I wrote about these ideas when Google News began including Wikipedia in its search results.

                                   
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