44% Of Google News Readers Only Scan Headlines? Maybe Not!

A new report saying that 44% of Google users fail to click from Google News to newspaper web sites got some buzz this week. However, after a closer look at the report, I don’t see it providing the damning evidence that Google really is a content vampire, as some news publishers have accused it of being. More on that below, along with some fascinating stats on how search has grown into a major news channel in many ways, with the notable exception of local news.

The report is News Users 2009, produced by Outsell and based on survey conducted in July 2009 to measure news consumption habits in the United States. It involved nearly 3,000 US consumers.

Search Engines: Growing As “First Thing In Morning” News Resource

One question surveyed how people got their morning dose of news. What did they check “first thing” in the morning? Responses from 2009 were compared to those from a similar question asked in 2006.

TV was the top choice. Print newspapers tied with search engines as the second choice (specifically, Google, Yahoo, MSN, AOL News were listed collectively as a single choice). Unlike TV and newspapers, search engines grew in popularity as a morning choice when compared to 2006. In summary:

  • TV: 30% in 2009, down 6 points from 36% in 2006
  • Print Newspapers: 19% in 2009, down 4 points from 23% in 2006
  • Search Engines: 19% in 2009, up 9 points from 10% in 2006

Radio, the fourth most popular morning news choice, also declined.

Online Newspapers Also Gain Over Print Newspapers

Along with search engines, another news source saw a gain. People were asked about online newspaper reading separately from print newspaper reading. While print declined, online newspaper usage rose from 3% in 2006 to 6% in 2009. That’s a 3 point gain, almost exactly what print newspapers lost.

So are search engine responsible for the decline that print newspapers saw or are online newspapers the reason? There’s no way to know for certain, but I’d expect it’s a mixture of both.

Power Users Like Search Engines & Online Newspapers

The survey also looked at how “power news users” behaved compared to “regular news users.” For morning news reading, power users — who are seen as trend setters — were slightly more likely to use search engines than regular users. This behavior, warns Outsell, is “a darkening cloud on the horizon, portending more shrinkage of newspaper usage.”

However, the report also found that power users were slightly more likely to read online newspapers than regular users. So if they really are trend setters, that stat could also be used to show that the clouds may be parting for the newspaper industry.

Search Engines Win For Breaking News

The report also looked at what sources people turn to for “news right now” — breaking news. In this, TV has been unseated from its number one spot, replaced by search engines:

  • Search Engines: 31% in 2009, up 11 points from 20% in 2006
  • TV: 30% in 2009, down 13 points from 43% in 2006

From those stats, News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch needs to be less worried that Google is somehow stealing users from his Wall Street Journal and more concerned that his Fox News television channel is being threatened!

Radio and print newspaper usage also saw declines compared to 2006. However, online newspapers nearly tripled their share, rising to 8% in 2009. They were the fourth most popular breaking news source, behind third place “Other Online Sites.”

Search Engines Lose For Local News

The survey also looked at how people sought national versus local news. Search engines ranked as the second leading source for national news. But for local news, search engines barely registered. With a 4% share, they were way behind TV — the leading source — at 31%. Print newspapers came second at 30%, followed by online newspapers at 17%.

Do They Really Just Read Headlines?

Probably the most reported stat from the survey has been that 44% of people reported scanning headlines at Google News but then not actually leaving Google to read the full story at newspaper web sites.

That stat came from a press release about the report issued earlier this week. I think that figure needs to be taken with a big grain of salt. In particular, respondents could only choose one answer among four choices about how they used Google to locate news. The choices, prefaced by the percentage that selected each one:

  • 44%: Scan headlines on Google without accessing newspaper sites
  • 30%: Do not use Google to find news stories
  • 14%: Use Google to find local newspaper stories instead of news site search box [IE, Used Google to find local stories by searching at Google]
  • 12%: Use Google to find local newspaper stories then use news site search box [IE, Used Google to find local stories, then searched for more at news site]

Personally, sometimes I scan headlines at Google and don’t click on a story, either because I’ve learned enough from the headline to know all I want to know about that story or don’t care to learn more. Other times, I do click on headline links to read a full story. I exhibit two entirely different behaviors. But if I took this survey, I’d have to choose only one. That could turn me into a “scanner” even though I don’t actually scan all the time.

I doubt I’m unique. I suspect many people in the survey who said they were “scanners” chose that because often they scanned, but not always. Indeed, Outsell told me people were asked to choose which answer best described their behavior. As a result, the scanning figure is likely inflated to some degree.

No question, there are headline scanners, perhaps a hefty percentage of them. That type of usage has caused some news publishers to claim that Google in particular — and news search engines and news aggregators in general — are somehow robbing them of an audience they’d otherwise get. Now there’s an actual figure they can cite.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the figure proves or disproves anything. To really determine if Google is pulling from newspaper sites by showing headlines, you’d need to ask about some additional news consumption behaviors.

For example, are people looking for a broad overview of news from multiple sources? That’s something most newspapers don’t provide, because by their nature, they summarize only what they themselves are reporting. If so, it’s hard for Google or any aggregator to steal away an audience that the newspapers aren’t serving.

Similarly, do people preferring the layout and story clustering at Google News versus the display at a typical newspaper web site? If so, then again, it’s like saying that Google is stealing an audience that wants TV shows in color when the “traditional” options only broadcast in black and white.

30% Don’t Use Google To Find News

Meanwhile, 30% of people say they don’t use Google at all for news. That’s a huge number, considering several prominent news publishers have all but blamed Google for the destruction of the newspaper industry. Google’s destroying an industry when 30% of news seekers don’t even turn to it? The number is even higher when you look at “regular users.” Of that group, 37% say they’ve never used Google.

The questions themselves also further muddy the waters. Two choices ask about finding “local” news stories even though the other two choices don’t specifically mention local coverage. Also, Google News itself is also not specifically named. Instead, just Google is. Are these people answering just how they use Google News, which shows headlines by default? Or are some of them talking about how they might search on Google in general for local news?

Ideally, I’d say this question should have either allowed more than one response or had more nuanced choices, such as:

  • I never use Google to find news
  • I scan headlines at Google but never click on those headlines to read the actual articles
  • I scan headlines at Google and sometimes click on those headlines to read the actual articles
  • I scan headlines at Google and often click on those headlines to read the actual articles
  • I scan headlines at Google and always click on a headline during any visit

Overall, I’d use caution in interpreting this particular question to try and prove or disprove the equity of Google’s impact on newspapers. I think the other questions I’ve covered from the report about search engines and news consumption are more specific and less open to misinterpretation.

As for Outsell’s take on my issues with the Google usage question, analyst Ken Doctor emailed me this:

I checked with Outsell’s survey staff. On this question, respondents were limited to one answer, asked which answer best described their behavior. Such directions are often used in surveying to get to most dominant behavior. Clearly, behavior is nuanced, time-dependent and multiple. My sense is that it is one noteworthy data point, which provides some clues to current behavior and should lead to deeper research.

Thanks also to Outsell and Doctor for allowing me to share some of the additional figures from the report. There’s much more in it, full of fascinating stuff about news usage. It’s available for purchase from Outsell here.

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