International traffic on local websites: Name in Lights

On Google’s news page recently, Matthew Buckland saw the name of East London’s Dispatch Online above some world famous brands. But could they cash in on it?

The other day I saw a story from East London’s Daily Dispatch website, Dispatch Online, highlighted on Google’s news site. It was up there with world famous brands like the New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian and CNN.

The Google news search engine had picked up a random Dispatch Online wire report floating in cyberspace on a random shooting in Iraq – and made it the lead for a few hours, relegating a report from the mighty CNN website on the same issue to a spot of lesser importance on the page.

Dispatch Online 1. CNN 0.

What this now means is that a little-known regional online newspaper from a place called East London in a country called South Africa (it’s at the tip of Africa) is competing with a whole host of big international news brands.

The internet is effectively turning regional news operations into world-wide operations. This is a big deal for a relatively small (by world standards) regional newspaper. It means the Daily Dispatch, via the internet, is now publishing to the whole world – not just the Eastern Cape.

The Daily Dispatch is obviously not alone. For example, by far the great majority of the New York Times readership comes from outside New York. For most South African online publishers, a big percentage of their readership is from outside the country’s borders.

It’s helping make local publishing brands famous and extending their footprints, but most online publications don’t really know what to do with this international readership.

Although the Google news listing would have undoubtedly sent the Dispatch Online its biggest readership for the month, it brought in readers from around the world who probably have no clue or don’t care that they were reading this story about Iraq on a small, regional newspaper in some city called East London.

Some have termed this kind of readership “guerilla readership”. The reader finds the link in a search engine, parachutes in, without noticing or caring about the brand, gets the article and then leaves as quickly as he/she arrived – probably never to return. It’s perhaps the equivalent of someone casually paging through a magazine at a shop and giving it a skim read – not actually buying the magazine or taking any cognisance of the brand or advertising.

It’s a very different reader from the one who regularly visits the brand, understands the brand and attaches some loyalty to it. This is the reader most likely to interact with the services and advertising the online publisher offers and places around articles.

In the case of South Africa where bandwidth is pricey, online publishers also pay, literally, every time an international reader visits. Apart from the contextual search advertising model, that cost is generally not recoverable via online advertising because local advertisers are more interested in the local readership market.

So while international readership is good for the brand and good for reader numbers, it’s also a problem.

There is the odd occasion where local advertisers are interested in advertising to the overseas readership, but it is rare. Would it be crazy to suggest a scenario far into the future where a South African publication gets such a high US or UK readership that it could approach US and UK advertisers and grab a share of that adspend? Could East London’s Dispatch Online one day command such a significant US audience that it attracts US advertisers?

It’s a mad, mad world we live in.

Matthew Buckland is publisher of the Mail & Guardian Online @

Matthew Buckland: Publisher


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