What’s Murdoch Up to with Google and WSJ.com?

Google traffic is worth far less than $15 per user per month

Everybody’s all inflamed about Rupert Murdoch bumbling through part of an interview on News Corp.’s Internet strategy in which he said that he might block Google from indexing Wall Street Journal content online or some such thing.

You’d be a fool to underestimate Murdoch’s intelligence, no matter how familiar he is with computers and the Web himself, and you ought to know a negotiating tactic when you see one with him. The Journal has the cleverest and most successful newspaper Web site in the world—clever because it keeps getting subscription dollars every month from more than a million users, while increasing its traffic significantly by allowing Google searches and, thus, links to come in for one story for free.

But Twitter recently extracted money from Microsoft’s Bing search engine to use its real-time search data. As I said then:

So we have now a precedent that the ability of search engines to index and link to content is worth some money.

Josh Young, newly the Huffington Post’s social news editor, who’s made some smart points about search engines and the newspapers, also points out that Google itself has paid Murdoch before to index his content—that time with MySpace. He says “Murdoch should try to fetch a bid from Bing and let others follow.” Yep. And bet that’s what’s going on here.

Young has some good instincts on this, pointing skeptically to search-engine-expert Danny Sullivan’s post analyzing Google’s contribution to WSJ.com’s top line:

I realize @dannysullivan’s being conservative elsewhere, but I doubt the average visitor from (Google) is worth $15/month

That’s what Sullivan sort of kinda guesses the Journal gets from each Google visitor—fifty cents a day (“Are they worth $0.50 per day? That’s about $180 million per year Bing needs to pay just to the WSJ alone to guarantee they’re not losing that $0.50 per day, per person, that they might be earning. Maybe they earn a lot less; quite possibly, they earn more.”). That’s a wild estimate that hints at why at least some Web folks don’t really get the problems newspaper have with the Web.

Because let’s face it, the Journal would be over the moon if it could to get just a nickel a day ($1.50 a month) from each Google visitor.

Think about it. The WSJ has 10.4 million unique online visitors last month, according to Nielsen (The Journal claims it’s roughly twice that). Hitwise last night reported that more than 25 percent of its traffic comes from Google—Hitwise tells me that traffic is unique visits, not page views. It appears Hitwise added the two numbers (13.8 percent and 8.9 percent) from Google and Google News incorrectly, so let’s go with 23 percent.

That comes to 2.4 million visitors from Google last month. If the WSJ got $15 a head that’s $36 million or $442 million on an annualized basis from Google traffic alone. But that’s just less than one quarter of WSJ.com traffic. Extrapolate that across the whole and you come up with about $1.8 billion a year. If that were the case, all would be well in newspaper land and we could quit focusing on this business stuff and go back to focusing on the journalism. Good luck with that.

Truth is, the WSJ doesn’t get a tenth of that from each Google visitor. It may not get a hundredth of that. I’ve estimated that The New York Times news media division has taken in $123 million in online advertising so far this year and is on pace (link is an Excel document) for about $160 million for the year. That division includes The Boston Globe and other regional papers, which combined have accounted for about 36 percent of the division’s print advertising. If that ratio holds online—this is necessarily rough since the Times Company doesn’t break out those online numbers—you wind up with The New York Times itself getting $102 million in Internet ads this year.

The Times typically gets about twice the traffic the WSJ does. For simplicity’s sake (I don’t know if the WSJ gets more or less per unit of traffic than the NYT does), let’s say the Journal will get half what the Times will in online ad revenue this year, or $51 million. If all visitors were equal (and they’re not!), that would imply Google brings just $11.7 million a year in ads or $978,000 a month.

Or forty cents a month per Googler. But even that’s too high, as we’ll see in my attention-spans-are-Twittered-out-so-let’s-split-this-up next post.

ADDING: I realize Murdoch is not talking just about the Journal, but I focused on it for simplicity’s (and data’s) sake.

ALSO: Added a link to said next post.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.