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Strategy Shift Pays Immediate Dividends For NYTimes.com

NYTimes.com traffic surged following the removal of its paywall a month ago. More traffic could mean more ad revenue, but the secret sauce is search engine optimization.

On September 17, the New York Times eliminated TimesSelect, its paid subscription program, which offered a package of online content for $49.95 a year that included columns written by the likes of Tom Friedman, Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd, as well as access to its extensive archive.

An analysis by Compete showed that the Opinion section doubled its unique visitors in the first month after the paywall was removed, while the overall NYTimes.com site has grown by roughly 10 percent in the same period.

According to Alex Patriquin, a senior associate at Compete, the Op-Ed section reached 560,057 unique visitors last week, up from 245,942 for the week ending September 15. Overall site traffic was about 3.8 million visitors, up from 3.4 million in the same period.

Compete provides web traffic data and consulting services to large corporations. It gets its data from 12 sources, including ISPs and a panel of more than 2 million people.

A New York Times spokeswoman said that early indications show an upward trend in site traffic overall. There was also growth in traffic to the columns that had been subscription-only. "In fact, right now, four of the 10 most e-mailed articles are from the Opinion section (and sometimes there are more than that)," she said via e-mail.

In September, NYTimes.com had an all-time record of 14.7 million unique users, according to Nielsen NetRatings. "And of course, opening up almost 5 million new archival documents as well as the news and opinion columns is creating additional advertising inventory," the spokeswoman said.

When the newspaper ditched its subscription model on September 17, it said that most people came to the site via search, so the subscription model was being replaced by advertising. In a statement released at that time, Denise Warren, senior vice president and chief advertising officer, promised "advertisers on the site can expect to see an unprecedented number of Times readers interacting with their brands."

American Express signed on for major placement on the newly open NYTimes.com. For the first three days, it sponsored co-branded, full-page interstitial ads that reached every reader when they came onto the site. It also ran home-page ads for the first week and snapped up 50 percent of all ad inventory in the newly free content areas, including Opinion, OpEd and the archives.

But Patriquin pointed out that the newly available content is not typically ad-heavy and the site is only running small text ads against columns and opinion pieces.

"So on a CPM basis, the freely accessible opinion pages are bringing in no incremental revenue. But they are attracting eyeballs and that probably translates to other sections," he said. CPM, or cost-per-thousand, is the standard method of pricing display ads online.

In September 2006, Google became the largest source of traffic to NYTimes.com, outpacing people who made the site their home page, typed the URL into the browser or clicked through from an e-mail.

This change reflected a shift in overall Internet usage, according to Patriquin.

"In September 2006, Google was certainly in the peak of its acceleration in terms of growth," he said. "It changed the way people fundamentally used the Internet. And the fact of Google's impact on the Internet was even more pronounced in New York Times referrals."

The gap between Google and all other traffic sources has continued to widen, Patriquin said. And that makes having an advanced search engine optimization strategy more critical than ever.

Patriquin has a theory that NYTimes.com may be trying to position itself as one of the most trusted—and ubiquitous—content sources on the Internet.

Look at Wikipedia. No matter what you think of its accuracy or balance, Wikipedia is within the top three Google search results for any query, from "Britney Spears" to "narcolepsy" to "blood pudding."

"I'd think an essential element of the NYTimes.com strategy is proving their authority online, by [optimizing] their articles to rank highly," he said.

While the Times wouldn't change the actual content of articles, much optimization could be achieved by tweaking the packaging, he explained. Then, as search funneled more traffic to the site, and visitors browsed through more of the content, that usage would increase the Times' search rankings.

Said Patriquin, "There's an opportunity for NYTimes.com to be the online source of record."