It’s been one year since we attended our first LION conference and officially launched Bizyhood for Publishers. It’s been a busy year and we’ve learned so much working with nearly 30 hyperlocal publishing partners that cover portions of our largest cities down to small villages.
Our vision has not changed: hyperlocal digital publishers are the hubs of the local community and need technology like ours to generate the revenue and authority necessary to survive in the online economy. This goes well beyond advertising, which will always generate some revenue but is clearly not the revenue driver needed to sustain and grow local journalism. It’s more important than ever that local stories and investigations happen. Our democracy depends on it.
As a startup, we follow the Lean Startup methodology to impact our efforts. Lean Startup at its simplest is a Build -> Measure -> Learn flow where you are constantly tracking results, learning from those results, and inputting the new learnings into what you build. We have done a ton of building, measuring and learning in the past year! We’d like to share the 10 most important things we’ve learned so far working in this unique and challenging space:
Search is a differentiator – Most of the publishers we work with use WordPress as their Content Management System. And nearly all of the WordPress sites use the standard WordPress search functionality for their news. They also have a search engine for their Events. And possibly a third (different) search engine for classifieds. We offer a search engine for locating businesses in town. This results in a terrible user experience for readers. With multiple search bars, they don’t know what they are searching for! And search results are always fragmented, so they don’t get a full picture of all the content you have available in a single search experience. Because of these issues, search is rarely used on local publisher sites.
But here’s the rub. When your readers do use search on your site, time on site increases by nearly 10X and the number of pages the reader visits in their session increases by over 6X. You’re looking for more page visits? Search is the way to get them.
Because of this learning, we are working to provide a singular search experience for publishers to add to their site. A single search bar, which will search all content on your site. You’ll be able to tell businesses how often people are searching for the types of things that they want to be “found” for. You know who else does this with great success? Google.
Make sure your side door looks as good (or better) than your front door – You may have heard this term – if your home page is the “front door” to your site, then your individual posts that you publish on social media are your “side doors”. They are an entryway into your site, because it’s how many people get access to an article or breaking news.
So, while you may agonize over the look of your home page to make it “just right”, if you check your Google Analytics, it’s highly likely that the number of readers that never see your home page in a given month is greater than those that do. And here’s the problem with this – we have found that the engagement rate of readers that come to your site from social media is horrible. Nearly 90% of them only read the one article before bouncing from your site. These are not high quality visits to your site. They aren’t clicking on ads, searching, or looking for other content.
Based on this learning, we are urging publishers to put non-invasive but interesting content at the beginning, middle and end of published content. We have created an “Interstitial” widget in the WordPress WYSIWYG editor so you can easily add compelling content inside you content.
Social Media looks like it’s a great asset, but in reality it probably isn’t – We have seen publishers experiment with Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News and other “outlets” for their content. We’re still analyzing this channel and strategy, but our current belief is that social media is a Trojan Horse for the social media companies, and don’t add value to Publishers.
As noted in item #2, the bounce rate for users that come to your site via social media is likely to be extremely high. We wrote three articles this summer about the Facebook News Feed and impact on publishers. We see publishers that link out to Facebook and Yelp pages from articles – I know this is meant to provide a service to your readers, but what you’re doing is giving even more authority to these platforms. This is backward, you should be focusing on getting inbound links, not providing outbound links.
Local publishers should focus on how their site can be a destination and not just a quick stop on a consumer’s online journey. Social media is an addictive drug; it’s nice to see your page visits increase once you post something on Facebook. But that drug wears off very quickly and has no lasting effect.
The world is mobile – This comes as no surprise to most publishers. Upwards of 70% of all hyperlocal publisher traffic is coming from mobile devices. And that number is increasing. We live in a mobile world. Sadly, Content Management Systems (CMS) are not keeping up with this movement as quickly as the local publisher needs. Simply having a “responsive” website does not make you a mobile powerhouse, or even mobile effective. And building your own mobile app is not a viable option, you need exceptional scale for a mobile app to be worth the investment.
Most important, the explosion in “near me” searches on mobile is something the local publisher should be taking advantage of.
We have started working on a mobile app that our publishers will be able to promote within their readership. There will be a lot more coming in this area in 2017.
The power of backlinks hasn’t been fully realized – We mentioned in #3 that many publishers freely “give” outbound links but put little effort into “receiving” inbound links. Nearly every article you read on Search Engine Optimization will espouse the importance of inbound links.
I hear it all the time. “My content is great. I don’t need to ask for inbound links, folks will just want to link to it.” This is unequivocally false. Inbound links are proactively asked for at the largest companies, and there are teams of people focused on this exact thing.
When you drill down on SEO at the local level (commonly called Local SEO), this is one of the publisher “superpowers” that we talk about that isn’t being leveraged fully. The more local businesses and associations that link to pages on your website, the more authoritative your own website becomes. And this helps local businesses, since most of them would prefer to be found on a site like yours vs. sites such as Yelp, Angie’s List or TripAdvisor. We recommend that publishers read and follow this post to optimize their overall SEO.
Cornerstone content is crucial – We have noticed a hit pattern with local news posts. Any story that is posted gets a lot of hits initially (typically because notices also go out on social media). The first 24 hours will generate over 90% of all hits to the article. The 2nd day will see 6-8% of all hits to the article, and the final 2-4% occurs over the rest of the articles life.
The problem with this is that those articles don’t have a long “shelf life”. Search engines are acutely aware of how popular an article is, and they look at multiple metrics. One is the number of daily views. The first 24 hours, that new article is an SEO darling – lots of people will find it if they search for the right keyword in Google. Going forward, the SEO value will drop, with the only saving grace being that it’s unlikely many other outlets are writing about the same topics, so the article can actually still be found in organic search, but only because the volume of content for that topic is low.
This daily tactic needs to be complemented with a planned strategy to have a handful of pages on your website setup to get clicks on a regular basis. Typically called cornerstone content, these pages can start to “compete” on popular keywords that more people are searching on. Examples include an Events page, a Restaurant Guide, a Real Estate section to your site. These are awesome “side doors” that your readers will bookmark and come back to regularly.
This is also where a business directory comes into play. An article about a local business will have that 24-48 hour shelf life, but a dedicated page about that business on your site will get clicks regularly. The real value of a business directory is as an anchor to your SEO and cornerstone content strategy.
Very Small Businesses just want “leads” – This sounds obvious, right? This is the entire reason that businesses advertise on your site, and why they want to know how many monthly views you get. Here’s the question – how do you receive attribution to the leads you send your businesses? It’s not obvious, is it?
Most marketing experts will agree that advertising is a branding exercise. It’s primary purpose is not to generate leads. This is a challenge as well as an opportunity. It’s a challenge because the businesses advertising with you that want leads are likely going to be disappointed; it’s just a matter of when. That is why there is such high churn in local advertising. Here’s the opportunity though: what if you could actually deliver on what they want and give them qualified leads?
A solution that delivers qualified leads that are attributed to your site will get people coming back repeatedly for more. It is why we are focusing our efforts on “calls to action” that business owners can place on their own page on your site to drive interaction with your readers. We’re launching an analytics portion to our business dashboard that will tell business owners how many “clicks” they are getting on their page on your site, and strategies they can employ to get more.
Businesses and Publishers are confused about Local SEO Marketing – The businesses in your community are getting dozens of calls every week from sales folks touting their Local SEO Marketing expertise. Confusing pitches tout amazing results for very little work. Most of it isn’t true.
We’ve also found that publishers are confused. They don’t understand all the benefits or requirements around Local SEO. And they should, because the hyperlocal digital news site is a wealth of Local SEO benefits!
Local publishers should become experts around Local SEO. Advertising is a highly competitive space and it’s hard to differentiate why your site is better than another site to do advertising (see Item #7). Local SEO is not nearly as competitive, requires more expertise (so you can differentiate yourself), and once you learn why your site has Local SEO superpowers, you will have an advantage over all those cold callers.
A business directory by itself is not a money maker – We never really thought it was, but we spent the first 6 months we were working on our platform primarily describing it as a business directory. Savvy publishers already knew that a business directory alone is impossible to monetize.
We now know that our business directory isn’t really a feature at all. It’s the foundation of our offering – you can’t do Local SEO without it – but by itself it does very little. Most businesses simply view a business directory as more advertising. Most business directory product offerings don’t offer anything more than the directory, which leads to a “stale” directory. And search engines like Google and Bing are so much savvier. They don’t give value to business directories unless they are “active”, which means that content is being added to the directory on a regular basis. Just slapping a directory online and having it focus on a certain segment or keyword may work for a short time, but as a sustainable benefit, it’s no good without regular and consistent content.
A business directory is “table stakes” toward making more money on your hyperlocal site. Simply having a business directory doesn’t lead to more revenue, but generating more (and consistent) new revenue is extremely hard without a business directory.
WordPress is great … And problematic – We love WordPress. Creating a WordPress plugin to run the Bizyhood functionality has allowed publishers to get up and running with Bizyhood in minutes. It’s truly amazing.
And yet, there are issues. We notice that publishers focus on how quickly something can be done rather than how effectively. We see WordPress sites where page load times are exceptionally slow. Many sites don’t have a backup or staging site to test things, it all gets done on the live site. We see functionality that is being done via plugins that make much more sense to do another way. We see multiple similar pieces of functionality on the same site.
Your website is your “product”. You need to optimize your product and make sure you have appropriate safeguards and backups in place. Being able to do something quickly or add new functionality without a lot of effort is truly revolutionary. But nothing comes for free. Make sure you have a qualified WordPress designer helping you manage and keep your site current (for example – do you have an SSL certificate for your website)? Don’t simply install and uninstall plugins without testing them first. Pay for a Virtual Private Server (VPS) which will be much more than the $9/mo hosting plans out there, but they’ll hold up better during heavy loads.
Finally, here’s the most important thing we’ve learned. Hyperlocal publishers are ridiculously committed to reporting local news and providing a valuable service to their community. They work countless hours and live a life filled with interruptions. They are wildly underappreciated relative to the value they bring.
They are also the ultimate startup, and as such can’t just focus on “writing the news.” Being a startup means you are head cook and bottle washer. You are doing the things you love the most along with the other stuff you probably don’t like as much, but has to get done in order to run a business. It’s a “Jack of all trades” role that requires persistence, a short memory and lots of endurance. We respect the local journalists giving their time to do a service they love. And we look forward to learning a lot more over the next year!