If 2010 is really going to be "The Year of the Paywall" as The Economist predicted this month, The Wall Street Journal is set to be the year's poster child. Rupert Murdoch's business paper made waves — and headlines — in 2009 for increasing readers and profits behind a paywall. But if Murdoch's slights against Google over the past few months are serious and he takes the paper's articles off the search engine, The Journal's fortunes could quickly about face.
In an interview with MedaShift today, Alan Murray, the Journal's deputy managing editor, suggests that the Journal may have found a escape hatch from Google's stranglehold on search: social media.
Currently, some Wall Street Journal articles are available for free through Google search. Consumers who stumble upon a Wall Street Journal article while searching a topic can continue through to read articles without paying the subscription fee. It's a way that the Journal can stay involved with the greater discussion online while still making money from people who use the paper as a daily resource.
But the paper doesn't like that little loophole. Numerous Journal employees have stated that they consider Google to be "stealing" their content. However, they have a much more amiable relationship with social media.
According to Murray, half of the Journal's traffic comes through "the front door." But the paper doesn't want to rely on Google for the rest of it. Murray says currently about 30% comes from Yahoo and Google, but also Facebook, Digg and Twitter are among the paper's top 20 referrers.
Considering that Twitterers clicking on tweet links may not be able to access The Journal's content, the paper has to come up with some inventive ways to stay relevant in social. They've worked with Digg on a "Digg Dialogg" to let Digg users ask questions of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, created Twitter lists and encouraged staffers to talk about their work and link to it on the microblogging service. The paper is also working on a special partnership with Facebook and constantly updating its iPhone and Blackberry apps.
As far as social goes, it is still a small source of traffic for the paper, but Murray thinks that it will grow as a potential source of subscibers to WSJ.com in the future. However, even if social grows to be the number one source of traffic to WSJ.com, it will not fix the problem that the paper now has with Google.
The Journal looks down on traffic coming from Google, because those readers are free riders, coming for a specific piece of information and leaving as quickly as they come.
There is one major issue that the Journal has with Google: search visitors don't stick around long enough to pay for content. Similarly, Twitter and Facebook readers are even more fickle than searchers. A consumer constantly returning search results for Wall Street Journal articles is probably a more viable subscriber than one who is haphazardly clicking on content tweeted by friends.
Either way, social users are not likely to be the kind of sticky consumers that the paper is looking for.
And while The Wall Street Journal may get some satisfaction in its long standing grudge with Google by relying on social media and thumbing its nose at search, the paper is going to have to continue investing in both if it wants to keep growing behind that paywall.