Taxes, syndication, and web traffic

By Felix Salmon
April 20, 2011
picked up on the excellent taxation story which David Cay Johnston syndicated to a group of 40 alt-weeklies. It got a fair amount of attention -- but then, five days later, on Monday, it exploded:

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Last Wednesday, I picked up on the excellent taxation story which David Cay Johnston syndicated to a group of 40 alt-weeklies. It got a fair amount of attention — but then, five days later, on Monday, it exploded:

Our web site crashed today for about 3 hours. We are now back up and it appears that the culprit is the David Cay Johnston story on “9 Things The Rich Don’t Want You to Know about Taxes.” For a period of time, we were getting 12,000 page views request per minute!

What caused this massive firehose of traffic to the Willamette Week’s website? It wasn’t Drudge, or Yahoo, or any other big gun on the internet. Instead, as far as I can tell, it was old-fashioned old media — specifically, radio. Monday, you see, was tax day — the deadline for any American to file their tax return. And on tax day every year, radio stations around the country all decide to talk about taxes.

David’s story was perfectly pitched as a topic for discussion on such shows: well written, controversial, and timely. And it seems that millions of Americans, all thinking about taxes and listening to radio hosts talk about the article, were sufficient to crash the Willamette Week’s website.

How did they all end up going to the same place, rather than to, say, the more central version at altweeklies.com? It probably helps that the editor of the Willamette Week is also the president of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, and was one of the key driving forces behind the article. The Willamette Week version was also the one that David himself linked to when he told his friends about the piece.

But thanks to Google’s search-ranking algorithm, someone was always going to end up with the lion’s share of the traffic for the article. Links like mine might not have generated a lot of traffic in and of themselves, but Google noticed them. So come Monday, when radio listeners were searching for the article, Google sent them to the version which had inbound links from places like Reuters — rather than to any other version.

I’ve been thinking a bit of late about what happens when the same piece appears in multiple different places online. Historically, publishers haven’t liked it when that happens, because they fear that the other websites might end up with traffic which is rightfully theirs. They also worry about SEO: that someone searching for an article will end up elsewhere, or that search engines will consider the content to be spammy on the grounds that it’s appearing in lots of different places.

But my feeling is that syndication — publishing the same article in many different places — is normally a good thing. If everybody’s asked to link back to the original version of the piece, that’s ideal: it’s a clear sign to search engines which version they should prioritize. But even if they don’t, there’s a very good chance that the winner of the Google lottery will end up being entirely deserving, as the Willamette Week was in this case — none of the other alt-weeklies which published the piece had a stronger claim to the traffic than the Willamette Week did, and there’s no way to spread the traffic around evenly.

And more generally, if you want influence, it’s a good idea to go to where readers are, rather than to force them to come to you. That’s why I’m happy for Seeking Alpha to republish my posts — the overwhelming majority of my readers there would never read my pieces if they weren’t there, but many of them, after discovering me on Seeking Alpha, become regular readers of my Reuters blog. Reuters probably gets precious little direct traffic from Seeking Alpha, but it does get mindshare and influence — and those will ultimately show up in a larger number of loyal visitors.

This is why I think that publishers are misguided when they complain about sites like the Huffington Post aggregating their content and linking back to them. It’s true that most readers of a HuffPo piece won’t follow the link to the original source — but that’s fine. They probably wouldn’t have read the original story anyway. Instead, HuffPo readers are getting exposure to that news source in a place and in a style that suits them. And HuffPo is giving that news source valuable Google juice, to boot. Which means that next time there’s a surge in Google searches on a given topic, the news source is likely to get more traffic. Everybody wins — unless, of course, the web servers end up crashing.

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