Small web publishers have to work hard to create a coherent web identity. Editorial policy, content, appearance, frequency, and a host of other variables have to be managed successfully in order to establish and maintain market presence and exposure. Heck, just deciphering the meaning of Google Analytics is challenge enough.
You’d think that larger, established names have it made; they can generate significant page traffic and advertising revenue, and they can attract indexing, referrals, and links at a frequency and rate that smaller publishers envy.
Well, it’s not necessarily rosy at the top. I was reminded of this recently when I linked over to a news item I saw referenced in one of the RSS feeds I scan regularly: China Overtakes U.S. as Supplier of IT Goods.
The logo at the top of the page is CNET NEWS.COM. OK, I know CNET. I see articles on CNET regularly. I’ve even corresponded with CNET authors. I suppose, from a “tech” source of news on the web, I tend to place it, mentally, in my “trusted source” category. But don’t ask me to locate a main page or “home page” - I have no idea if one exists or not; I get to CNET chiefly through feed based links and referrals. I get in and get out and go on to something else.
But wait - there’s more. Immediately below the article title there’s a graphical text logo that says “The New York Times On The Web.” What does that mean? Does the New York Times own CNET? I have no idea. Why should I care? Well, just referring to this one article (about Chinese technology challenges to the U.S.), there is an aura of respectability that the New York Times provides. But I have no idea what the connection really is. When I click on the times logo, nothing happens — it’s just an embedded graphic. For all I know, its placement on this page is a mistake.
It’s not till I scroll down that halfway down the page I see a box of links for the New York Times, including a search box and a subscription link. So, I begin to think, this article really does have something to do with the New York Times. Maybe CNET subscribes to a feed from the New York Times? That seems a possibility.
But nowhere do I see a real explanation of the relationship between CNET and New York Times, until I scroll all the way down and see that the article is copyright by the New York Times. But I still don’t know - is CNET a subscriber/republisher — or is CNET a subsidiary? It’s impossible to tell.
But wait - there’s still more. The byline of the author of this news report is ” International Herald Tribune.” Ah! Something familiar! I know the International Herald Tribune - I used to pick that up daily when traveling on business in Europe. But what’s the connection with The New York Times and CNET? Beats me.
Then I click on the Tribune link and it takes me to — the New York Times Online. That explains that. International Herald Tribune is nowhere to be found on the page but a link’s a link and the reader can infer some kind of hierarchical relationship between the Tribune and the New York Times.
So, what’s the point? Why care?
Well, consider how people use the web. I came to this article based on a link from an RSS feed, not from a subscription. I don’t even have a bookmark to the New York Times web site. As far as I know, New York Times articles are typically “subscription only” on the web; I tend to avoid those just because of the hassle factor. The fact that CNET is publishing a New York Times article is A Good Thing in my book — I don’t have to deal with the annoying subscription process and I’m still exposed to the CNET placed advertisements.
But for all I know, there’s no exclusive relationship between New York Times and CNET so I may have been taken to a completely different page by clicking the original link, for all I know.
The bottom line of this situation, it seems to me, is that this interrelationship of corporate identities, while it may make perfect sense from a business standpoint, might actually be resulting in a dillution of the value of the individual brands that are represented on this page. This dilution comes from the fact that the reader has no way of knowing who’s responsible for what. A younger reader, for example, may have very little historical background on why the New York Times is so culturally important and, as a result of seeing so many fingers in the pie, will not take away a sense of brand identity or a recognition of the reputation of the different sources.
It’s like those voiceovers claiming funding responsibility for public television programs; there are so many sometimes that any recognition the individual giver wanted to gain from the recognition is lost in the shuffle. So it is with web pages where there are so many voices claiming editorial — or advertising — responsibility; the approriate recognition of responsibility is challenged and diffuse.
Addendum (December 13, 2005)
Thanks to Mario Sgambelluri, Managing Editor of iMedia Connection, for providing this link to a news release that explains the relationship between New York Times and CNET.