Rick Robinson’s Turf Talk column appears every Wednesday.
Tumbling into toddler-hood and growing-like-nuts, Examiner(we’re-not-a-content-mill).com celebrates its third birthday this week. Over that short time the network of sites has generated nearly a billion and a half page views, expanded into 244 markets and taken a turn down Local Lane as they try to go from being all things for all people (with 70,000 scribes called “Examiners” writing about everything and, some would argue, nothing) to a site about your neighborhood and all that surrounds it.
Street Fight turned to woolly-chinned Examiner CEO Rick Blair to get a little insight on the direction of the company. Blair is a veteran of the local online space, with ties to some of the earliest sites on the Web in the 1990s, and a longtime media guy. He also doesn’t take much sh*t, so I figured I’d start with a non-confrontational question:
Is Examiner.com a content farm?
“No, if you apply the most common definition of a content farm, an outlet that generates content around search and advertising value, with a model solely dependent on search traffic — that is far from what Examiner is,” said Blair. “We’re local, so we have to be trusted, accurate and complete.
“I define hyperlocal as providing thorough information not just in a city, or even a borough, but in a neighborhood that may be the size of a block or two. I can say we have achieved a strong local presence across the board, and we have a strong hyperlocal presence in several communities, with solid growth in all.” — Rick Blair, CEO
He said this means Examiners are not trend-chasers relying on buzz to build their audience. Rather, Examiners have a complete picture of the topic they cover, and a solid understanding of how it relates to their city. Blair notes that content farms bank on front-loading SEO to generate traffic; Examiner.com is “building relationships with the community,” having consumers identify with both the brand, the topics, and the individual Examiners.
“We don’t value a piece of content before it’s published — we let our online community determine what’s valuable.” OK, so maybe more of an organic content farm…
But three years ago, things were different indeed. The local focus was really wishful thinking, though Examiner says local has always been their model just that things have taken time to gel. The company’s sites penetrate into 244 markets in the U.S., but many of those markets are not exactly hyperlocalized yet. We randomly chose Cincinnati to, um, examine, and while we did find content very specific to the region we were also served a story called “Interview with God” (but hey, the writer is from Cincinnati at least).
But Blair insisted the sites are charging forward on that front: “The strategy was to go broad, then start digging in deep — and after three years we really have the local footprint we want. We can still go further though, whether it’s hyperlocal, or just becoming even more local.”
He said he defines hyperlocal as providing thorough information not just in a city, or even a borough, but in a neighborhood that may be the size of a block or two: “I can say we have achieved a strong local presence across the board, and we have a strong hyperlocal presence in several communities, with solid growth in all.”
So let’s take a look at Los Angeles, where Examiner has 2,700 contributors — which, BTW, is a truly impressive number. Guess if there was one place for an abundance of writers with time on their hands, it’s L.A.
“With several hundred neighborhoods in the city, we are still aggressively expanding our presence, there and everywhere else, to be able to provide a complete local experience on every level,” said Blair. And I guess it just comes down to how one defines a complete local experience… “This top down strategy has been very successful, recruiting at the city level, and populating the neighborhood level organically once that presence is established.”
But balancing the drive to cover local and hyperlocal issues may contrast with a contributor’s desire to go after bigger fish — at least traffic-wise. Compensation at Examiner has been somewhat tied to traffic, so this would be a natural instinct on the part of the writers. Blair clarified that traffic is one of the many factors on how they compensate Examiners, noting also session length and referrals are important judges of value.
“In the coming weeks we are implementing even further transparency to our contributors on how this is calculated, while instituting other metrics including publishing frequency, as well as incentives for producing quality, local, on-topic content,” said Blair. “We recently appointed an editorial advisory board, after a year-long search, made up of media leaders and educators to help mold the initiative to continue advancing the caliber of our content. (Members include Jim Brady, Journal Register; Lou Heldman, Distinguished Senior Fellow, Wichita State University; Art Howe, Executive Chairman, Verve Wireless; Geneva Overholser, Director of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism; Geneva Overholser, Director of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism; Steve Robinson, former managing editor, CNN Investigative Unit; and Jose Zamora, Journalism Associate, Knight Foundation.)
“Quality has, and will continue to be one of the key areas of focus for Examiner.com. With the board, as well as the implementation of new standards and technology, we hope to continue to push the level of online content quality overall.”
But some have said the kind of quality content produced by Examiner caused the site to get tripped up when Google changed it’s algorithm recently. Many sites saw traffic tank following the search giant’s effort to battle low-quality content mills and those gaming their system. According to Compete.com, Examiner saw a decrease in traffic, but things seem to have stabilized.
In a statement the Examiner said:
While some reports have lumped us in with other sites with noticeable traffic drops, we are happy to report we have not seen a dramatic decline in page views or unique visitors as a result of the change. In fact, we have seen an increased session length in some areas, indicating the new system has enhanced the visibility of some of our best and most appealing content.
The changes made in the algorithm appear to be a very positive evolution, as the best and most relevant information should rise to the top of consumer search results. As you know, this echoes Examiner.com’s mission to provide original, high-quality local content.
Because we remain dedicated to vetting, training and recruiting the highest caliber writers across North America, we are confident the shift by Google strongly reinforces our direction, and gives further validation to the unique Examiner.com model and the content our Examiners create.
Regardless, we will continue to monitor our referrals and traffic patterns, and will continue to aggressively develop relationships that provide alternate paths to our content, like the exciting integration of Facebook comments this past month, or some of our content sharing partnerships that we have with sites like RoadRunner and Active.com.
Surprisingly USA Today is looking into a similar model of compensating reporters with bonuses based on traffic, perhaps lending more credence to a new journalism model, or perhaps destroying it. I wondered what Blair thought of it, and what it could mean for Examiner. He said he thought it a “good fit” for USA Today, considering their content, and possibly a way to get their reporters to “fully embrace writing digitally.” Snap.
“If you move towards only being concerned about driving eyeballs to your site regardless of substance and relevancy, you’ll alienate your audience and end up with 7,000 stories about what Charlie Sheen had for breakfast,” he said.
But money and incentives can taint the coverage — even hyperlocal coverage — no? Blair noted somewhat philosophically: “it’s vital to never sacrifice the integrity of what your publication is about for a couple extra clicks. While we do have a very small percentage of our Examiners that make a living writing for Examiner.com, in most cases monetary compensation is secondary, and is not fueling the type of content they post. If you move towards only being concerned about driving eyeballs to your site regardless of substance and relevancy, you’ll alienate your audience and end up with 7,000 stories about what Charlie Sheen had for breakfast.”
Instead they are wondering perhaps what you had for breakfast. The Examiner notes it’s now focused on providing readers with insights into original topics that are locally relevant — “whether that includes writing about community theater, composting or local cycling— there is no one out there doing what we are on the scale we are” Blair asserts. “A competitor could potentially be anyone out there chasing the same advertising dollars, but we take pride in the fact that the Examiner.com model is unique through the Examiners themselves—vetted subject-matter experts that provide useful, relevant information to readers who share similar passions in their local communities.”
Going local ultimately means being mobile (and might as well throw in “social” since that’s what all the cool kids are doing). But it does not look like Examiner’s a player there yet. They’ve got mobile Web sites but that’s it. You might think they’d be daunted by the many excellent local apps spinning out of new startups almost daily. On the contrary according to Examiner, they actually welcome it and seem to be going the partnering approach rather than just trying to own it all right now.
“As both the social media user and the smartphone user base rapidly expand, the traditional demographic barriers are starting to become less relevant, and opens up more gateways to the vast amount of diverse content on Examiner.com,” claimed Blair. “We have already partnered with LivingSocial earlier this year to provide local daily deals, and have built dynamic social media relationships with Facebook and Foursquare. We have also teamed up with Cell Journalist to enhance our mobile platform to both our contributors and consumers, opening the door for further mobile integration with our site and partners in the future.”
That’s enough for three years, perhaps. But the sleepy local space has awoken and will wait for nobody. Nimble newcomers are finding easier ways to scale and are maximizing utility over contributor-styled content — many times they have to: after all they can’t afford office space, let alone a farm.