Buying Clicks To A Tragedy

How news outfits boost Web traffic when stories like Virginia Tech break

As news outlets deployed their teams to Blacksburg, Va., following the Apr. 16 shooting at Virginia Tech, the business operations of The New York Times (NYT ), The Washington Post (WPO ), CNN (TWX ), and Time magazine were busy, too. Each bought ads on either Google (GOOG ) or Yahoo! (YHOO ) so that anytime someone searched the phrase "Virginia shooting," their links would pop up prominently on the right-hand side of the page. "Get info on the gunman and other breaking news from," one Apr. 17 sponsored link read.

With an ever-growing chunk of total revenues coming from the Web, news outlets now scramble their online marketing staffers as quickly as they do reporters when a big story hits. These marketers employ a variety of tactics to take advantage of their audiences' piqued interest in times of crisis. "At the risk of sounding crass, these do become marketing events for these news sites," says Ben Crain, vice-president at Rapt Inc., which optimizes ad sales for Yahoo!, Dow Jones (DJ ), CNET Networks (CNET ), and others. Some argue that such self-promotion treads a dangerous line between being shrewd and exploitative. "It's a line of taste more than ethics," says Michael Hoyt, executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. "You push your newscast, of course, but do you do it on the back of a national tragedy?

It's hard to gauge how many users go online for a story following a tragedy, but the impact on a news site is clear. Just two days after the shooting, said it had received 2.3 million unique visitors in one day, a 210% jump from the week before. CNN, meanwhile, saw its traffic spike on Apr. 16 from its usual 7 million unique users to more than 19 million.

But in the world of Web news, success takes more than scooping the competition. A site's traffic can come from blogs such as The Huffington Post, news aggregator sites like Digg, or the major search engines. Maximizing traffic means courting all of them. Foremost, the story must be easy to find.

Even though most news operations are in a financial pinch these days, nearly all invest in technology, experts, or ads that help win prominent placement. CNN and USA Today both hired an outside search marketing firm, Reprise Media. In 2005, The New York Times Co. set up its own consultancy, Define Search Strategies, to help boost traffic from searches to its Web sites. (BusinessWeek does not currently buy search ads associated with breaking news but does buy them on general topics.)


Competition to be the top ad on the right-hand side of a search engine page is brisk. During the week of Apr. 16 ads on terms like "Virginia tech massacre" cost as much as $5 per click, says Peter Hershberg of Reprise Media. A week later, the price was around a nickel per click.

For the news sites, the advantages of the traffic waves are threefold: Each additional viewer generates ad revenue on the day itself; the traffic for a high-impact story can build loyalty; and the surge in audience helps boost the monthly traffic numbers Web sites use to woo advertisers and impress Wall Street. (The Times does not run ads online next to stories it deems tragedies, such as the Virginia Tech shooting.)

Experts also employ such techniques as teaching editors how to present stories in a way that works online, with simple headlines, says Marshall Simmonds, CEO of Define. Simmonds recalls one artful turn of phrase when he first arrived. "The headline said: Pilgrims converge upon the Vatican, the passing of a papacy,'" says Simmonds. "It should have read Pope John Paul II dies'" for online purposes. Traffic from search engines now accounts for 22% of Times traffic, vs. 14% two years ago.

A second step—one that both the Times and CNN used on the shooting story—is dividing up content into many specific topics. For example, each outlet created a set of special pages that commemorate those who died. In addition to serving as an online tribute, the pages were formatted to help the sites show up naturally in searches for a new set of keywords: the names of the individual victims.

By Burt Helm and Paula Lehman

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