The Dailymail and publisher leverage5 min well spent

In June 2019, Jesus Mendez from The DailyMail newspaper posted, “We’ve seen a 50% drop in Search traffic post-broad core algorithm update” in Google’s webmaster forum.

DailyMail's post in Google's Webmaster forum
DailyMail’s post in Google’s Webmaster forum

In SEMrush, the domain shows a clear ranking dip traffic between June and September, two months during which Google launched Core Algorithm Updates.

The DailyMail's SEO performance in SEMrush
The DailyMail’s SEO performance in SEMrush

On April 20th, The WSJ reported that The DailyMail filed a lawsuit against Google

The suit, filed in Manhattan federal court, alleges that Google punishes publishers in search rankings if they don’t sell enough advertising space through Google’s marketplace.

The Daily Mail’s concerns stem in part from its assessment that its coverage of the U.K.’s royal family in 2021 has been played down in Google’s search results, a spokesman for the publisher said.

The DailyMail sues Google, not because of the traffic dip, but because they believe they were punished for not using Google’s ad tech.

In the suit brought by the Mail’s owner, Associated Newspapers Ltd., and its U.S. unit, Mail Media Inc., the publisher alleges Google linked its search engine and ad-sales platform to put pressure on publishers, abusing its market power.

In 2019, Google punished the Daily Mail in its search results because the publisher had configured its online ad sales in a way that sent its business away from Google in many instances, according to the complaint. Google later tweaked its technology to counteract that tactic and restored the Daily Mail’s normal search performance, the suit alleges.

Even further, the lawsuit extends to Google’s upcoming change in cookie policy:

The Daily Mail’s suit also alleges that Google’s plan to phase out “cookies” —bits of code used to track users on the web—in its Chrome web browser will make it more difficult for advertisers to target ads unless they buy through Google’s systems. Google has said it is making the change to protect user privacy.

4 lessons from the DailyMail lawsuit

The algorithm update and the following lawsuit highlight four internet trends of our time:

  1. Even though the homepage brings most of the traffic, the traffic dip hurt Dailymail so much that they sue Google
  2. The lawsuit shows who has leverage in the Google – publisher relationship
  3. The ad load on the Dailymail goes to show how desperate publishers are
  4. Algorithm updates are aggressive and unpredictable in some cases

Let’s go deeper on each of these.

First, over 60% of traffic to the DailyMail is direct, meaning users are going directly to their homepage, according to SEMrush. Only 13.5% of traffic comes from Google. If traffic dipped to 50%, as stated by The DailyMail, that means it dipped to ~7% for four months. Why is that enough to start a lawsuit?

Traffic sources to The DailyMail in SEMrush
Traffic sources to The DailyMail in SEMrush

The DailyMail’s lawsuit coincides with growing regulatory pressure against Google, several lawsuits around Project Bernanke, and Google’s direct deals with publishers in Australia.

Second, the lawsuit shows that it’s Google who has leverage in the relationship with publishers. A four months traffic dip is enough to provoke a lawsuit. Granted, not every company facing such dips and fluctuation from algorithm updates sues Google, but the point stands right next to #3.

Third, The DailyMails’ ad load goes to show how desperate publishers have become. Since the publishergeddon in 2008, publishers have scrambled to build profitable businesses off of the news.

Fourth, “algo holes” are not uncommon any more. The traffic reversal in September is a testament to an uncomfortable truth: core updates have become aggressive and make traffic unpredictable in some cases. Traffic dips and comes back months later, without any significant changes on the sites because Google adjusts ranking signals with machine learning, leading to larger fluctuations without meaningful explanations.

SEO performance of verywellhealth.com in SEmrush shows "algo holes"
SEO performance of verywellhealth.com in SEmrush shows “algo holes”

What makes this look like a penalty is that it appears across all languages/markets to the same extent, but it’s not a penalty. It’s an algorithm change.

If you want to read the details of the lawsuit yourself, Alexi Mostrous from Tortoise was so kind to upload it.

The commodity trap for publishers

Last week, I wrote about recipes as commodity content. Publishers are not exempt from this trap. Even though their content is not as replicable as dictionaries, recipes, or lyrics, Breaking News only has value for the first publisher. Once published, Breaking News is a commodity. Unless a publisher has something substantial to add – opinions don’t count – News turned into a winner-takes-it-all game.

The commoditization of Breaking News created a vacuum that many publishers don’t know how to fill. Like the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, only a few were able to thrive under a subscription model and detach themselves from ads by building a strong brand, offer in-depth journalism, and pair it with evergreen content and valuable guides.