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By Thomas Baekdal - July 2019

Link-Jacking, Incognito mode, and The Athletic

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

We have now reached that point in the year (at least here in Europe) that whenever you try to contact someone, all you get is an 'I'm on vacation until...' message back.

So Baekdal Plus will also take a short break. For the next week, I will do nothing media related and just try to not melt. The first part will be easy, the second part... not so much.

But before we get there, I have a few exciting things for you today.

Publishers need to think about link-jacking too

Last week I came across a tweet via Michelle Manafy about the problem with link-jacking, and how some SEO services are buying up old domains linked to from, for instance, the New York Times, and instead redirecting them to their own clients.

The outcome is that these clients end up getting traffic from the New York Times, and an SEO boost on Google Search.

This is obviously a problem, but I was curious to see just how bad it was. So on a quiet Sunday evening, I wrote a quick script that looked through all the links I have included in my articles ... and the result was shocking.

Since 2005, I have posted 1,026 articles containing a total of 7,562 links, and of those, 3,596 links were bad.

When I break the "link failure rate" down per year, it looks like this:

This is amazing (in a scary way). The link decay (or link rot) is massive. But more than that, I discovered that some of the links in my older articles were now redirecting to malware sites.

That's just something that I, as a publisher, cannot accept.

So, I decided to fix this, and in "Publishers need to think about link-jacking too", I wrote about how I did that.

Let's talk about that thing with Chrome Incognito Mode and Metered Paywalls

There has been a lot of talk recently about how Google is fixing a bug in Chrome that allowed publishers to detect when people were in incognito mode. As you probably know, this was used by several newspapers to prevent people from circumventing their metered paywalls.

Understandably, several publishers are quite angry at this decision, and they feel that Google shouldn't be allowed to make this change. But when you really dig into it, you realize that it is us publishers who need to rethink our focus on this.

Last week I published an article about this. I wrote about what I expected the impact to be, how it ties into the future of privacy regulations (specifically the potential changes to ePrivacy), and also what the public expects from us.

Take a look at: "Let's talk about that thing with Chrome Incognito Mode and Metered Paywalls".

The Athletic has reached 500,000 subscribers, but it's really hard to talk about

As you may have already heard, Bloomberg reported that the new US sports site, The Athletic, has now reached 500,000 subscribers in record time.

They started in 2016, with funding and a very ambitious plan, including hiring many of the really top people in sports, to create a new type of sports site, with no ads, and entirely driven by subscriptions.

It had a really strong start (compared to most other things we see), and last year alone they added 300,000 subscribers.

As Bloomberg reports:

The Athletic, based in San Francisco, is an ad-free, online-only network for local sports coverage. Subscriptions cost $10 a month or $60 a year, though many customers have signed up at lower promotional rates. The site's average annual revenue per subscriber is roughly $64.

As for profit:

"The site has yet to show an overall profit but is profitable in all but a few markets, and new cities routinely achieve profitability within a year".

And they are now expanding to the UK, hoping to combine both markets in such a way that they can double their current subscribers within the next year.

All in all, this is quite impressive, and The Athletic is one of the publishers I have on my list of 'things to look out for'. They have massive ambitions, they're willing to invest ... and, of course, they have the funding to support their goals.

However, as a media analyst, I also have a big problem with their models, because everything they are doing is based on building massive scale as quickly as possible, which in turn means it really only works if you have a market that can support that level of scale.

You have that in the US, and partly in the UK ... but in most other places, the realities are very different.

I wrote about this on Twitter, where I said:

Part of the reason the Athletic can grow this way is because of the US as a market, but let's compare that to Norway.

There are four factors to consider:

  1. Population size: The US has 62 times more people than Norway, so a comparable subscription size would be only 8,000 subscribers in Norway. Is that impressive... well... I mean... everything is relative.
  2. The Athletic is in English, which means that they have a much bigger potential "international market". I don't know what share of non-US subscribers they have, but for a Norwegian publisher, because of the language, you would have none.
  3. Because of the scale of the US, most sports are also much larger. This means they have more sports categories that would be successful, whereas in a small country like Norway, only a very few top sports would really work, with the rest not being able to reach critical mass.
  4. Also don't forget that a big part of The Athletic's push is what they call local sports ... but local in the US is very different too. For instance, the metropolitan area of Chicago has 9.5 million people, which is almost double the entire country of Norway. Local sport in the US is what the rest of us call national sport ... and that is suddenly very different.

So you can see the outcome of this. While The Athletic is certainly impressive, it's also extremely different from anything you could do in most European countries.

This is the constant challenge we face when comparing publishing strategies. What might work amazingly for one publisher in one place, might not work at all anywhere else.

It's the same when I see European publishers talk about the New York Times. It doesn't translate to European realities, especially not for the smaller non-English speaking countries. Even a publisher like the Guardian doesn't compare well to, say, a newspaper in the Netherlands.

This puts a lot of pressure on European publishers to think differently about their market.

Let me give you a simple example.

Take something like a TV company from one of the smaller European countries. What most are doing is to produce a number of 'local' shows in their native language, and then spend the rest of their money licensing big English-speaking TV shows from the UK and the US.

But why not turn this model around? Why focus on producing local shows that have no real market potential outside the very limited scope of just that country, and then buy all those other shows ... when it could instead just make those big shows, in English, to begin with.

Focus on creating shows that you can show and license to everywhere from the start. Don't keep limiting yourself just because that is what you have always done.

This is the new reality of most European publishers, and it's something that all the digital natives have already figured out.

It's the same with many other forms of media. Why on Earth would you define yourself as a Belgian fitness publisher, if you can just define yourself as a fitness publisher, period!?

The Athletic has a big advantage, because they don't have to think this way, but as European publishers, we have to transcend our limitations to make things work.

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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