Stop Press: Google News Edges Past Yahoo News in UK

Stop the presses! This important bulletin just handed to me… According to the latest data from comScore World Metrix, Google News UK has edged past Yahoo News UK & Ireland in total unique visitors for December 2007. Film at 11.

Okay, okay, so this upset victory in the British Isles seems to be a long shot for today’s top story. But in 1972, Edward Lorenz shocked the 139th meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science with a talk entitled, “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”

So, can small variations in the UK news search engine market produce large variations in the long term behavior of the worldwide search engine market? Now that Yahoo has formally rejected Microsoft’s unsolicited bid to acquire the company for approximately $44.6 billion, who knows?

What I can report are the details of the stunning upset of the front-runner, Yahoo News UK & Ireland, by the underdog, Google News UK.

A year ago, I reported that Google News isn’t top dog in UK news search.

According to comScore World Metrix, there were 17.3 million unique visitors to general news sites in the UK during December 2006. Here were the stats a year ago:

Rank Property Total unique visitors (000)
1 BBC News 7,763
2 Yahoo News 3,550
3 Google News 2,685
4 The Sun Online 2,645
5 2,526
6 MSN News 2,397
7 AOL News 1,924
8 Times Online 1,918
9 CNN 1,306
10 Sky News 1,268

While preparing to speak at the Search Engine Strategies conference in London next week, I asked Jamie Gavin, a marketing communications analyst at comScore, to send me the updated data for December 2007.

According to comScore World Metrix, there were 18.2 million unique visitors to general news sites in the UK during December 2007, a 5.2% increase year over year. Here are the latest rankings:

Rank Property Total unique visitors (000) Year-over-year change
1 BBC News 8,248 Up 6.2%
2 The Sun Online 3,784 Up 43.1%
3 Google News 3,290 Up 22.5%
4 Yahoo News 3,267 Down 8.0%
5 3,151 Up 24.7%
6 MSN News 2,141 Down 10.7%
7 Times Online 2,114 Up 10.2%
8 Telegraph Group 2,085 Up 79.3%
9 AOL News 1,692 Down 12.1%
10 Sky News 1,303 Up 2.8%

Now, to the casual observer, these year-over-year changes may appear like the large variations set off by a tornado in Texas instead of the small variations caused by the flap of a butterfly’s wings. But, I’ve been watching news search engines in the UK since 2005 and I see the subtle shifts shaping these swings.

Google News UK and publishers with a high percentage of “original content” on their news sites are up, while other news search engines that aggregate a high percentage of “duplicate articles” are down.

But, Google News UK is a news search engine with no original content. So, how did it manage to buck the trend? Was it because Google itself created the “butterfly effect” that set off this tornado?

On May 16, 2007, Google announced its critical first steps toward a universal search model and started incorporating information from a variety of previously separate sources – including news – into a single set of results. The press release announcing the company’s critical first steps said, “At first, universal search results may be subtle.”

As it turns out, it was as subtle as the flap of a butterfly’s wings.

Then, on August 31, 2007, Google News launched a new feature to help users “quickly and easily find original stories from news publishers – including stories from some of the top news agencies in the world, such as the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, UK Press Association and the Canadian Press.”

The stated goal of hosting AP, AFP, PA and CP content on Google News was “to display a better variety of sources with less duplication.” According to a post in the Google News Blog by Josh Cohen, business product manager, “This change will provide more room on Google News for publishers’ most highly valued content: original content.”

Later that afternoon, Cohen told AP Business Writer Michael Liedtke, “This may result in certain publishers losing traffic for their news wire stories, but it will allow more room for their original content.”

At the time, I assumed that “Removing all their ‘duplicate articles’ from Google News results wasn’t likely to be welcomed as ‘good news’ by thousands of AP’s customers.”

But, over the next week and a half, there was barely a peep of protest from the 1,500 daily newspaper members in the US that own AP, or from the 1,700 daily, weekly, non-English and college newspapers as well as 5,000 radio and television outlets that used its news.

Was it because Google News had used the old PR trick of announcing something controversial on the Friday before the long Labor Day weekend?

Or, was Google able to dial up the percentage of times that news appeared in universal search results – by, say, 5.2% – to enable publishers with original content to offset losing traffic for their news wire stores?

On September 11, 2007, I reported that Newsknife had already found dramatic changes in Google News ratings. Within nine days, AP had jumped into the top 6 ratings, and AFP wasn’t far behind. Newsknife added, “Some other sites will presumably move down the Google News rankings to make way.”

But, which other sites moved down? According to the latest data from comScore World Metrix, it was Yahoo News, MSN News and AOL News – the news search engines with the lowest percentage of “original content” or highest percentage of “duplicate articles.”

How did Google News UK manage to buck this trend? It now hosts original stories from AP, AFP, PA and CP.

Could I be mistaken?

Piers Stobbs, the vice president of ComScore Europe, will be speaking at SES London during the “Searcher Behaviour Research Update” session on Wednesday, February 20, 2008. I intend to ask him about this “butterfly effect.”

And Robin Goad, the director of research for Hitwise UK, will be speaking at Search Engine Strategies London during the “Competitive Research” session later that afternoon. I intend to ask him, “Can the flap of a butterfly’s wings in the Googleplex set off a tornado in the top UK news and media sites?”

Don’t touch that dial. Stay tuned for our next episode: “Microsoft Won’t Take ‘No’ for an Answer” – even if Yahoo News, MSN News and AOL News are losing market share in the UK.

Greg Jarboe is the president and co-founder of SEO-PR, a search engine optimization and public relations firm. He is also the news search, blog search and PR correspondent for the Search Engine Watch Blog.

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