The intermediaries of online information

Article  by  Franck REBILLARD  •  Published 24.09.2010  •  Updated 11.10.2010
The intermediaries of online information, from news aggregators to social networking websites.



A considerable amount of information scattered about the Internet must be reconciled with differing and often individual demands. This situation gives online information intermediaries, which we could call infomediaries, a crucial place in the relationship between content editors/producers and Internet surfers. For several years, it has been essentially content aggregators who have taken on this role (and in particular Google News). A short time ago, they started to face considerable competition from social networks (especially Facebook). This might suggest that tools based on computer algorithms are gradually being joined by social recommendation systems. Will web authors, who at first had to “write for search engines” have to switch to “managing communities”? Will online news websites - having been fragmented once already because of the need to reference articles one at a time - see their homepage losing out to inward flows coming from a number of “friend groups” in a network?

There are great many players involved in providing online information. Several newcomers have appeared to broadcast news, or rather provide access to news on the Internet. Multi-service portals offer, among other things, agency dispatches, aggregators of articles, videos, or blog postings, social networking sites, thereby increasing the number of gateways to the outside... All of these parties act as intermediaries between web surfers and on-line information. Their role is considerable, especially if one takes into account the socioeconomic organisation of the sector as a whole. By federating theses large audiences, or even by hoarding personal information on web surfers, these online information intermediaries pick up a large part of the added value that has moved around the Internet, to the detriment of editors and the financing of creation.
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Editors and infomediaries working in coopetition

News editors are facing head-on competition from online news intermediaries in terms of audience figures. The latest data supplied for the United States (see table 1) shows that of the six top sites, two are spinoffs of existing media companies (CNN and New York Times) while the four others are either news aggregators (Yahoo News and Google News) or information entities of large multi-service portals (MSNBC and AOL News).

Table 1 – Top 10 audience figures - News category – United States (autumn 2009)

Site web
N°of unique visitors
Yahoo News
MSNBC Digital Network
AOL News
Google News
Fox News
ABC News
Source : d’après Nielsen et Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism (State of the Media 2010).

A more qualitative study carried out this time in France came up with similar conclusions. Web surfers, generally speaking, when keeping up to date with everyday news tend, for their great majority, to turn to large portals. Many more of them turn to this type of offer than towards sites exclusively dedicated to news, and in particular those published by traditional media companies: 47% of web surfers, when asked, stated that they consulted the news sections of large portals every day, while only 12% visit sites published by the written press and 5% visit television channel sites (Granjon, Le Foulgoc, 2010).
Most of the large portals provide information purchased from third parties in the news sections; they are mainly press agencies, but can also be traditional media companies which are considered to be sub-contractors. The number one Internet provider in France, Orange, offers articles, photos and videos on its website, most of which are supplied by AFP. The portals, as intermediaries at the end of the chain, offer finished products for the web surfers, and have a clearly established relationship with the content providers that they pay for this service.
The situation is quite different for other online news intermediaries. Some aggregators and social networking sites, rather than incorporate news content into their own sites, tend, most often, to organise and add a section of hyperlinks to information edited on third-party sites. Intermediaries of this kind may be referred to as infomediaries (Rebillard, Smyrnaios, 2010). Their role is to match up a flourishing and scattered range of web content with web surfers whose demands may be disparate and sometimes highly specific. In so doing, they fulfil a key matching function between editorial production and network access, where the greater part of the value lies in the media and cultural industries that are represented on the Internet (Gensollen et al., 2004). This crucial role as intermediary is carried out by infomediaries which have considerably overtaken editors in this area as far as online information is concerned.
Infomediaries and editors are nonetheless joined by a coopetition relationship, an ambivalent relationship that brings together cooperation and competition (Brousseau, 2001). On the one hand, these two parties are forced to cooperate with each other because they need each other’s services: infomediaries enjoy positive externalities thanks to the presence of the large amount of free access content on the web; the editors see a significant part of the audience siphoned off by the infomediaries who steer web surfers toward them. It is the economic value of this audience that is in turn a source of competition between editors and infomediaries. In this field, the editors, who are not paid for their services, are undergoing great competition from the infomediaries who have started to dominate in terms of the forms of advertising tailored to the Internet (sponsored links), and in terms of the exploitation of personal data on the web surfers. The emblematic cases of Google and Facebook demonstrate the hold that these major players have gradually taken as infomediators for on-line information.
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Google, the unavoidable intermediary for news access

New aggregators are by their very nature highly diverse. For example, in France, Wikio is specialised in aggregating blog postings, gathers together information from the sites that are the most leftwing on the political scale... Of these various aggregators, Google stands clearly apart thanks to the space it covers in the on-line information sector.
Since 2003, Google has been developing a service that is solely dedicated to news: Google News. The homepage of Google News is broken down into sections (International, France, Business, Science-Tech, etc.) with article titles and illustrations from a stock of several hundred sites, just a click away.
At the same time as this specific activity, Google can rely on large amount of other services which make it the indispensable intermediary for accessing news. In the first instance, Google, as a generalist search engine, is of course used by surfers to search for recent events. In the same way, Google Images and BlogSearch can be accessed, which then direct the surfer to sites connected with that item of news. Finally, several monitoring tools - from Google Alerts that enable the user to set up web reviews sent by e-mail, right through to the customisable portal iGoogle, via the RSS thread reader, Google Reader - make up the wide range of services put in place by Google to increase the number of times the web user comes into contact with news sources.
The omnipresence of Google is borne out by the figures. A study carried out by the company AT Internet in March 2010, with figures obtained from 12 French media websites, show this clearly. Google is by far the number one intermediary through which web users pass before accessing news sites (see figure 1 / note: the category “Other sources” brings together direct visits by web surfers on news sites).

Figure 1 - Share of Google in access to French news sites (March 2010)

The data from this study corroborates that supplied on a more ad hoc basis by a few editors: in September 2009, the editor in chief of the web site of the news magazine Express, Éric Mettout, pointed out that 54% of his visitors came via search engines, the category in which Google had carved the lion’s share (a share of 98% of visits coming from search engines). In April 2010, Laurent Mauriac supplied the figures for Rue89, a company of which he is the CEO and co-founder: 28% of visits came from search engines and once more almost solely from Google (share of 93% of the visits from search engines).
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The increasing importance of Facebook as a way of recommending news via a social network

 It is indisputable that Google holds pole position for access to online information. In the sidelines of this ultra-powerful, even quasi-monopolistic position, in the search engine sector, another player is starting to take an increasing share of the infomediation market. Facebook, the number one social networking site with almost 500 million members throughout the world, is positioning itself increasingly as an important relay between web users and available sources of information on the web. In the United States, according to a study carried out by Hitwise in February 2010, Facebook had taken over Google News as a source of traffic to the websites of the main media websites (see figure 2).

Figure 2 – Share of Facebook and Google News for visits to the 20 main media websites - United States (February 2010)

At the start of 2010, 3.52% of web users who visited the main media websites in the United States went there via Facebook. This is more than twice the figure for Google News (1.39 %), but this remains five times less than the total number of visits from Google (17%).
While not forgetting the leading position of Google, the trend is still for an increase in the importance of Facebook. This is part of the global increase in the weight of the “Social Web” which is comprised of a range of systems that help create online social networks. With regard to news, this means that the approach whereby access is based on computerised algorithms is coupled with recommendations from groups of individuals connected through the Internet.
Recommending news over the Internet remains the reserve of a minority of people. A survey carried out by the Pew research Center in December 2009 and January 2010 provided proof of this, finding that only 17% of web users in the United States said they had added links to on-line news sites from social networking sites such as Facebook. And only 3% of them have used Twitter to link to a news item or a blog.
The future will tell us if this type of activity will reach more web users, and above all go beyond more enlightened circles. This does however remind us that social recommendations have always been a key way of spreading news in society. The influence of interpersonal discussions about news items, and in particular the role of opinion leaders in starting up and spreading news within their peer groups, was revealed in the middle of the 20th century when the first empirical studies were carried out on the mass media in the United States. Almost 50 years later, in the age of Internet and the buzz, these studies have gained a new lease of life (Maigret, 2008, in the preface to a reedited version of the classic by Katz and Lazarsfeld, Personal Influence, published in 1955).
Some researchers go back even further in time to analyse the contemporary use of digital social networks. The international [+] NoteThis is a group of researchers who studied “participative journalism” in their own country (Germany, Spain, Croatia, etc.) [1] group including David Domingo (2008) makes a distinction between three periods in the evolution of news dissemination. The first period - let’s call it the pre-industrial period - is a time during which information circulated informally, mainly orally among friends and family within small geographical areas. The second period corresponds to the industrialisation of the media, whereby information was broadcast to broad population bases. Mediatisation, which takes place from a greater distance, then becomes a specialist, professional business. The third period, post-industrial in a manner of speaking, could be said to involve the re-inclusion of social networks into the mediatisation of information, which entails a phenomenon whereby a bond is formed between informal networks for information exchange, now instrumented by digital technology, and the mass media that is opening up to the potential of this process.
We do not have sufficient hindsight to confirm such a hypothesis, thereby concluding once and for all that the social networking system has profoundly redefined the ways in which news is disseminated. Only a small part of the population actually makes use of these opportunities, as we stated above. However, this type of activity is making considerable ground and is turning out to be fraught with potential socioeconomic consequences.
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From exchanges on social networks to economic exchanges between players in the sector

Compared with previous forms of discussion about the news and news recommendations, discussions that go via social networks are special in that they are instrumented using technology. Firstly, the transition to the content is direct thanks to the use of hyperlinks (to articles, videos), and it is precisely this content that is being discussed and recommended. Secondly, the technology of on-line social interaction is being instrumented to make a profit.
The operators of social networking sites, the most significant being Facebook, are mainly seeking to use the personal data collected on their users to make money. The web user, by opening an “account”, provides socio-demographic information about himself or herself. Apart from elements that are made up in order to create an online avatar, some information actually corresponds to the real identity of the user. Thanks to the list of friends or common interest groups that are built up on the social networking sites, forms of interpersonal recommendations are created that are of great interest to the advertisers (Stenger, Coutant, 2009).
The Like function on Facebook is probably the main on-line interpersonal recommendation process at the moment, being used by millions of web surfers throughout the world. This process, especially since the launch of the Open Graph protocol in the spring of 2010, has gone from being used internally by “communities” on Facebook to all interested sites externally, and in particular sites offering news items.
The sites offering news, by inserting the Like used by Facebook, are equipping themselves with a double-edged sword. On the one hand, these sites can hope to boost their audience figures by being recommended by the visitors, thereby attracting their respective circle of friends. On the other hand, by accepting the Open Graph protocol, they hand over to Facebook the exclusivity of their use of the personal data on the visitors and even the pages visited within their own site.
Finally, there is a risk of ending up with a situation of coopetition between editors and social network site operators that is quite similar to that with content aggregators.
But is this coopetition relationship balanced? We have grounds to increasingly doubt this, given the extent to which infomediaries - each in their own way - have the specific skills and know-how to take advantage of their web audience. The new advertising methods, and in particular sponsored links, form a crucially important market that is highly dominated by Google with the AdSense and AdWords services. The editors have lost a lot of ground here, as can be seen from the great extent to which several news editor sites use Google as space broker. Facebook is quite a way ahead, as regards the exploitation of the personal data on web users and their personal history. This lead should be amplified or even turned to their competitive advantage once this type of resource, resulting from the adoption of the Open Graph protocol, has been captured.
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Infomediation, a political business issue for on-line journalism

Given the key position held by infomediation in the on-line information sector, editors are just as subject to a reduction in their income as to new expenditure.
On the Internet, income earned by editors has been affected by the reticence of the final user to pay for content. Faced with this “freebie” culture, their income is essentially indirect, that is to say from advertisers. But this online income is very low, amounting to around 1.2 Euros per unique visitor in 2008, whilst printed free dailies such as 20 Minutes, which are also dependent solely on their indirect revenue from advertising, manage to obtain 18 Euros per reader, according to an estimate made in 2008.
Editors are therefore having difficulty coming up with substantial income on the Internet. They are also faced with additional expenditure arising from the development of infomediation on the Internet. The supposed digital “dematerialisation”, led us to believe for a while that “physical” printing costs (paper and printing) or distribution costs (transport and sale of newspapers, broadcasting over the airwaves or the cable of audiovisual signals) would be abolished. But switching to Internet means that new skills have to be acquired to create page layout and to put the information online. After a phase during which editorial teams throughout the world had to learn about referencing, which encouraged “writing for the search engines” (Paterson, Domingo, 2008), a new need appears to be taking shape regarding “management of communities” in order to attract friend groups, thus populating social networking sites. After the wave of SEO (Search Engine Optimization), the large American press groups recently converted to SMO (Social Media Optimization) and set up teams in this field as of March 2010: USA Today then the NY Times, Condé Nast Cox Media Group. More generally speaking, investment by press groups in the digital press is more concerned with marketing than content creation, and they do not balk at reducing their number of journalists (Smyrnaios, 2009).
Since editors are finding it hard to find a level of viability on the Internet, financing the creation of news content has become an acute issue. News content, apart from content provided for free (blogs, militant webzines, amateur posting on participative journalism sites...) must continue to be taken on by editorial companies. And yet, at the same time, infomediaries, while taking advantage of positive externalities from putting information on line free of charge, pay nothing in return in the huge majority of cases.
A quite logical solution would be to get the infomediaries to contribute financially, and in the first instance Google and Facebook, as they reap the largest share of this manna from searches and recommendations by web surfers for news items. In France, the idea of a tax on Google’s income was put forward for music, but not for on-line press. Instead, direct negotiations between the editors and Google are taking place. So far, they have not led to Google paying up, with the notable exception of AFP. As the result of a lawsuit taken out in 2005 by AFP against Google at a court in Washington, the parties managed to come to an agreement in 2007. Since then, Google News has been paying to display dispatches and photos from the French agency on its pages. There are two ways of explaining how the balance of power tipped in the direction of AFP: firstly, unlike the editors, a press agency does not seek to boost its audience on the web and is therefore less affected by visitor flows from Google; secondly, from a technical perspective, it may be supposed that incorporating dispatches by AFP - the main source of information used for setting the media agenda in France - enables Google to improve its clustering algorithm for articles produced as a corollary by editors (Smyrnaios, Rebillard, 2009). At international level, the decision by Rupert Murdoch to start to charge for the sites in his News Corp group (in particular the Times - since May 2010) and at the same time de-index Google has so far not become general practice, as the sites of competing newspapers are hoping to take advantage of the situation. For lack of a joint strategy by the editors, the status quo has essentially been maintained, and there have still been no contributions from infomediaries to finance the content creation.
Under such circumstances, another solution might be for the public authorities to give support to editors, thereby providing financing indirectly for the creation of information on the Internet. Following on from the General Assembly of the written press for autumn/winter 2008-2009, the French Creation and Internet Law of 12th June 2009 laid down the status of an online press editor in article 27-I. This status will enable them to claim for specific forms of financial assistance. This support scheme for the on-line press only applies to “professionally edited communication service[s] for an on-line public”, and therefore leaves out amateur producers, which attracted considerable criticism from bloggers as soon as the amount of the initial financial aid was revealed.
This notion of the professional nature of journalism goes back a long way (Ruellan, 2007). One may well be surprised though that this situation continues despite the advent of the Internet age, and that the special characteristics of the new organisation of the sector have not been taken into account. Amateur creation is supported by the public authorities; yet they do not strive to limit the dominant position of the major infomediaries, formerly Google and now face Facebook. The financial assistance alone given to editorial companies is commendable in that it is geared towards all professional organisations, both from the media sectors and pure players. This scheme to provide financial support for creation is necessary, but it is not enough because it does fully take into account all the risks and opportunities arising from the development of news on the Internet. Broader-sweeping regulation affecting all players in the sector could be a way of redistributing the profits from the infomediation sector and helping initiatives by amateurs, such that online journalism reflects the variety of information that it is capable of producing.
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Bibliographie :

BROUSSEAU E., 2001, « e-Economie : Qu’y a-t-il de nouveau ? », Annuaire des Relations Internationales, Bruxelles, Emile Bruylant, pp. 813-833.
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E. MAIGRET ,  « Flux, filtres, pairs, blogs, buzz : dites à vos amis que Personal Influence est (plus que jamais) d’actualité », préface de Katz E., Lazarsfeld P., Influence Personnelle. Ce que les gens font des médias, Paris, Armand Colin-INA, 2008, pp. 3-10
C. PATERSON , D. DOMINGO , (ed.), 2008, Making Online News : The Ethnography of New Media Production, New York: Peter Lang.
F. REBILLARD, N. SMYRNAIOS,  « Les infomédiaires, au coeur de la filière de l’information d’actualité en ligne. Les cas de Google, Wikio et Paperblog », Réseaux, La Découverte, 2010, n° 160, pp. 164-194
D. RUELLAN,  Le Journalisme ou le professionalisme du flou, Grenoble, PUG, 2007,
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Nikos SMYRNAIOS, « Les groupes de presse américains sur l'internet: une approche économique. », Les Cahiers du journalisme, Université Laval de Québec – École supérieure de journalisme de Lille, n° 20, 2009, p. 110-124
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Blogs d’experts :
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  • 1. This is a group of researchers who studied “participative journalism” in their own country (Germany, Spain, Croatia, etc.)
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