February 7, 2008

Welcome to the Neighborhood, Google

by tolles at 10:06 AM

I woke up this morning with a call from one of my board members asking me if I had seen the news about Google's new local news product.

Gulp.

Silicon Valley CEO nightmare right out of central casting, right? In our case, Google launching a local news product that is targeted down to the ZIP code level, something we've had a lock on since 2004, and one of our clearest differentiators. There are lots of people who provide metro level "local" news, but we've been unique in being able to provide hyper-local news, and Google entering this space is certainly a big deal for us.

Fortunately, we had our wakeup call around local news a couple of years ago, and it wasn't the looming fear of Google launching local news which kept us up at night..it was something entirely different. Here's the dirty secret of doing aggregated news around local...

Local news is not a search problem

If you take the totality of news created from the mainstream press (newspapers, radio, television stations), and do the back of the napkin math for all the local stories generated on a daily basis, here's what you get

1,440 local daily papers X 6 stories a day = 8,640
2,303 news radio stations X 3 stories a day = 6,909
1,686 television stations X 4 stories a day = 6,744
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
Total local stories per day 22,293
Number of populated US ZIP codes 32,500

We started by trying to add more sources. We added government, weather and industry sources, and then we added 25,000 blogs to the mix to see what we'd get. And, pretty much, they still didn't provide the breadth of coverage around local news, especially around small towns.

Don't like the news? Make some of your own!

The conclusion our users pointed us to, by sending us hundreds of stories a day through our feedback form, was that there wasn't enough coverage of most areas by the mainstream press or the blogsphere, and that the real opportunity was to become a place for people to publish commentary and stories -- because no one else was going to do it.

So, we launched the Topix forums, and two years and 25 million posts later, Topix has gone from being merely an aggregator of local news, to becoming the home of local voice on the web

60% of the "articles" on Topix are now "original", from scratch, posts not referring to a story
75% of the pageviews on Topix are on the commentary

So, with that shift, and those 25 million posts, we're actually a home for original content, and Google's main search engine is a great way to find that content. Also, for Google, there's a virtuous circle in sending people to places like the Topix forums -- some percentage of them end up participating and adding commentary, making the site better and "justifying" the algorithmical "decision" to send folks our way. We also added the ability for people to edit the news on Topix, and have over 3,500 editors. who are doing that on Topix so far.

Yes, it's always a concern when Google pops up on your patch. As Rich points out, we have great technology, more sources and four years of making this all work - but given the distribution that Google can bring to bear, what I'm really happy about is that we're more of a source, and therefore a natural partner to Google, than a sink for news searches and a competitor to them. Also, it doesn't hurt that the number one player on the web is validating that local is a place worth investment.

And, hey, Google -- if you ever decide that you'd like to add more content around localities (since we feel your pain around the lack of news in small towns), we have a couple of ideas for you...

UPDATE:

There was some great coverage of Topix after this came out.

Valleywag posted a nice OpEd that I wrote about competing with Google

John Battelle shows me why he's a world class editor with the title to his blog post being what I should have gone with

Webbalert gave us major props vs. Google as well, and a phat screenshot, which was cool

Webworkerdaily also had a good overview of the space, worth taking a look, as well

And, gotta love Informationweek's Thomas Claburn's referencing the pointy end of Rich's post.

Finally, got some props from Mike on our handling of things...