Interview with Paul Jansen about the search project of Singapore Press Holdings
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Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) announced at the end of 2006 a strategic partnership with Schibsted to develop online classifieds, search and directories in Singapore and Asia. Whereas 701Search Pte. Ltd., the regional company, is a 50-
In his 32 years in the newspaper industry, Paul Jansen, SPH Search’s CEO, has held many editorial positions at SPH and has also always been at the forefront of the newspaper company’s ventures into new and innovative businesses. Among other achievements, he created and launched in 1995 The Straits Times Interactive, the online version of Singapore’s main newspaper; was a member of the team which won a cellular phone licence which gave birth to M1; anchored the main evening newscast for the group’s first foray into the television business; and was editor of the country and region’s first free newspaper, Streats.
IFRA: How and why did SPH decide to get involved in the local search business?
Paul Jansen: Basically all the things I have done at SPH, with the support of my bosses, particularly Leslie Fong (currently SPH marketing head), have been to try to extend the reach of newspapers and extend the services we are providing to readers. Launching our own search engine will enable us to increase the productivity of our content, expose it to more people and boost the earnings from it.
We have long watched with interest how search engines have capitalised on the content generated by organisations like ours. And when Schibsted approached us for discussions on a tie-
We are going to link people who want to search for content generated by SPH with this content. But beyond that, we also want to bring people to content that has not been generated by SPH but which we have a knowledge of or easy access to or for which we can create a partnership with the people who produce this content, and we will tie all this together…
A directory service, to me, would be useful for someone who goes online to search for an Italian restaurant if the site does not only give you the name and the address of the restaurant but also a review or, maybe, some – good or bad – news items on the restaurant that you would like to know about…
We started in July a directory of all the businesses in Singapore: we called them and asked them all the data they were willing to give us, then we double checked it against all the sources of materials that we have in-
What has dramatically changed is that what we have on our platform is not only ours anymore. Now we have content from other sources and that enables us to give a holistic service. At the same time we also increase the productivity of the content that has already been generated.
Everything we’ve done so far has been very local. Everything that has been produced by this organisation has been local newspapers for a local audience or for people interested in Singapore. My confidence in this stems from the feeling that on the Internet, people using this global resource are actually looking for local content. Everyone is looking for something that has an impact on him or his close relatives…. So that’s what SPH Search is all about: we want to inform people about what’s going on next door. But the second thing is, whatever happens elsewhere in the world that has a bearing on you must also be available to you.
For example, if a Singaporean dies in a foreign country it might be of insignificant value or interest even for his neighbours in this country, but it would be of immense value for his family or friends in Singapore. So, while we want to capture all the data of what’s happening in Singapore, we also want to capture the data of what’s happening in Singapore overseas. It’s just like with the Waco disaster. More than 70 persons including women and children were shot in that city in Texas and the Australian newspapers headlines, the following day, were “2 Australians die at Waco.” That was obviously their local news. You might say it is a little bit insensitive, but that’s the way the world works… So we want local and also global information about Singapore… That’s how we created this product: with our data and marrying it with existing sources…
It doesn’t make sense that a library is sold only to a few corporate clients. We think that there is an interest in the general public in accessing not just the current content but the archives’ content as well. We have to find out how to bring it out to them. If somebody writes a review of a movie currently, it is great because it will help you to decide whether you want to see it or not. But a year from now, when the DVD comes out, the opinion of the reviewer is still as valid as a few months earlier. As archive content, generally, is currently sold by most newspapers to big corporate clients, that particular content is not of any value for these companies. Nevertheless it is of great value for an average person out there who walks into a DVD shop and has a bunch of choices. We must give that person an opportunity to search for it.
The easiest thing we could have done in this organisation is say: Look, there’s a company across the road that makes 60 million Singapore dollars printing directories; it’s not money to be dismissed. So if we would just run a directory service, we could get some of this money by competing with it. But what would be the real value we would give to our organisation, to the public and to advertisers? When we conceptualised SPH Search, we wanted to offer an entirely new service not available before and attract a whole new audience.
I think that the fact that we sell so many newspapers everyday shows that the brand that we have is very strong. And if advertisers are still coming to us for our print platforms it is because the reach that we have is also very strong. And they have a good ROI when they publish their ads in our newspapers. We, in SPH Search, thought that we could carry this trust, both from the readers and the advertisers, and the value of the organization, on to the online space. We are doing it right now with our online newspapers. And now we want to do it with local search. If we succeed, SPH will be maintaining its impact on the local scene but, more interestingly, we will increase the ROI opportunities for the advertisers by serving up a new platform.
IFRA: What kind of human and financial resources does such a project imply?
P. Jansen: We will have about 40 persons in the company working on various aspects of this project. But this is possible because we are not building the base search technology platform in-
I can’t go into the specifics of the money being pumped into SPH Search but I can direct you to SPH chairman Dr. Tony Tan’s recent announcement where he said that SPH had set aside 100 million SGD to invest on Internet strategies which include our classifieds sections, that we now moved also online, a few projects done by our regional company 701Search and SPH Search.
IFRA: What is the business model?
P. Jansen: Our business model is based mainly on advertising, plus some premium contents and some subscriptions services. Our objective is of course to be a profitable SPH subsidiary. But what is harder to calculate would be the value of our contribution to the other organisations within the company. On this issue, I can give you two numbers: one is that some stud
ies have shown that 85 percent of new visitors to a news website come from a search engine. And in general, the companies which are doing what we are doing have found that they have increased the traffic at their news sites, after their launch, by at least 20 percent.
Then, the challenge is how to manage these different platforms. Because obviously different teams sell different products. Some companies have decided that they would take a very aggressive approach and that every entity within the company will stand or die by itself and they will cannibalise their own products. If they succeed, good for them. If they don’t, too bad!. That’s pretty tough to take. My recommendation would be for some kind of integration of print, portal and search.
IFRA: Is there an integration of the advertising sales teams of your different platforms?
P. Jansen: No, it is split. There are actually several teams selling the Internet: one team for the classifieds and then there is one team for the online portals. Search has its own sales team. But all of us meet regularly and work on integrated sales opportunities. So there is some kind of collaboration.
For a major event such as the first F1 Grand Prix in Singapore (which will take place in September 2008), every unit in this organization (print, search, online portal, outdoor, radio, etc.) will get together and will come out with a solution around this event that we feel might appeal to the organizers and advertisers. Then we would do a pitch jointly. If a newspaper carries an article about this event, this article and its associated ads gets translated onto the website which will bring more eyeballs to them, and then SPH Search will crawl the site and point readers back to the online products. So we have multiple entry points for the advertisers. And we also have different demographics for the advertisers to take advantage of. If an advertiser comes back with a certain budget and says he doesn’t want to put everything on one or the other platform, we can sit down and talk and develop a solution. This is a very proactive approach and I think it represents integration in a much better version than training one man to learn about 5 different products and then have him go and make a pitch.
IFRA: What kind of technology are you relying on for advertising and web analytics?
P. Jansen: We are currently looking at Fast Admomentum for the display side, but if we partner with one of the global search companies, we will consider also using its ad network solution on some of our verticals
The ability on the Internet to collect and process user information is critical. By using our own search engine, we can build up an online picture of the search habits of Singaporeans, or people interested in Singapore, which we would not have been able to do before. Processing this information, we cannot only help our own product to improve because we have a better idea of what people want, we can also go to other entities and tell them that, if they haven’t had such detailed metrics before, we have them and can help them. So the potential to boost ROI is not only for the internal organisation but also for the organisations outside which maybe cannot afford that kind of data collection and analysis.
In this new business, the ROI is more easily traceable than in any other operation we have currently. If I put an ad and people don’t click on it and go to another site, I will know exactly how much I spent and I can measure the exact result of my investment. This preciseness of the ROI is an important service that comes along with our new product. And if we do that effectively, we might change the scene in Singapore. Pay for click, currently, is not a very hot model in Singapore. But we intend to move towards the pay for click model where the ROI is very easily traceable and where we can give our advertisers the maximum information for them to make good business decisions on where and what to invest in.
IFRA: Did you already talk with media planners and advertisers? What kind interest did they show for SPH search?
P. Jansen: Since we haven’t launched yet, we have talked only to a few of them. Amongst the people we spoke to, some of them understood very quickly what we are planning to do and what we will be able to achieve, but many of them want to see how our service will work. Because it’s so new, they are not sure how the integrated search model is going to work… They know there are directories of services and they know that people who go there want something very specific: a shop address, or a phone number – but what about adding a film review… or a news report… to the mix? However, Media planners know that only an organisation like SPH can build all the necessary alliances to provide such content. Our archives go back to 1845, we have 14 newspapers, we have nearly 100 magazines, a radio station, all generating content every day which we can use… we have people who worked for this company for many years and have endless contacts who can help us get even more content. We even employ retired journalists with extensive experience to help us refine our product offering… No other company could do all that!
IFRA: What kind of external sources did you integrate? What kind of partnerships did you build?
P. Jansen: There are 3 different levels of sources. One is sources that we can crawl, that are freely available. So, when we send out our spiders and they detect a site with Singapore-
IFRA: In the same way that Schibsted’s search engine, Sesam, is powered by Yahoo!?
P. Jansen: Yes. Sesam decided for a tie-
IFRA: Is the knowledge and experience you are gaining now in Singapore exportable to other countries in Asia ?
P. Jansen: SPH maybe could but may not want to go to neighbouring countries to try to set up a search engine on its own. But if we find a partner like ourselves in Singapore, we might have value to bring to it. A very important part of the problem that we have is that if I were a German company, interested in everything that is relevant to Germans, any content that is in German in the Internet would be relevant (well, maybe I would eliminate Switzerland, Austria and maybe part of Latin America and the U.S., and that would be it). But how do you determine what is relevant to Singaporeans? All our Web sites are in English, at least all the company’s websites are in English. Many of them are not even .com.sg, they are just .com. So how can my spiders tell the difference between one and the other?
We’ve been developing rules to solve the problem of this specific situation. This ability to work out rules for identifying specific local content is probably the greatest value that this company could bring to a project in another country.
If you are a newspaper company with enormous resources and very good touch points, we could s
how you how to do this. We’ve been developing business rules to solve the problem of this specific situation – how to provide high-
To answer more directly your question, yes, we are interested in exporting at some future date the skills set we are developing. We have first to launch our own product, see the success and failures, modify it and, at that point, go and look for other partners. SPH Search itself will remain a local company, and 701Search, our regional company, will be the one to decide whether it wants to use our skills and export them.
IFRA: Did you develop these skills internally, or are they part of your suppliers’ expertise and technology?
P. Jansen: We work with Fast, a Norwegian company, which has worked out a way you can crawl the web, generate an index and serve it up very quickly. We licensed its technology. We then brought in another Norway-
Beyond that, we are also working with external researchers. Our current generation of services is sufficient for what people need right now, but we are already looking five years down the road. Our discussions with the researchers centre around our hunt for newer technologies, new advances. We are very happy to fund that type of research and we hope to make use of their findings. We also have a very small group of people that is looking way off into the future…
We intend to be around for a very long time and to do that you got to invest in research for being able to re invent yourself in the future. If you ask people what they want, they will tell you what they know, but if you want to be successful, you have to innovate and offer something nobody had thought about before…
IFRA: Will SPH Search be available on mobile phones?
P. Jansen: Absolutely. We thought from the very beginning that we would have to have a mobile launch at the same time as the portal launch. We already have some mobile services. Readers send us photos or videos via their mobile phones… SPH Search will be available on mobile although the service will not be exactly the same as on the Web. On mobiles, there is a charge issue, so we will be very careful that we don’t cause excessive costs to our users .
IFRA: Will the companies that are included in your directory have an opportunity to update themselves their data?
P. Jansen: Yes. At a company level, you generally have to pay if you want to be in a directory. But we feel that there are some very basic bits of information that you really shouldn’t be charged for. And then, for the rest of the content that you want to add on and that other people don’t have, you would have to pay for. Somebody who is making a search wants to get this basic content from you and you should give it to them. It should be a free exchange of information. That is not the current model. The current model is that we will charge you for whatever you want to put out because we are one of the few directory services in town. We wanted to change that.
At a personal level, when you register for your phone service, you are automatically included in the phone directory. And if you want to be excluded, you have to pay more! Now, if you do decide you want to remain there and even want to put more information than your phone number, you can do it. Basically, we will create a platform which will be mainly free and we will charge only for very limited premium contents. I am confident that in any vertical that we offer we will have more rich content than anyone. And as a whole, as we’ll have an integrated service, it will be considerably more resource rich.
Interview conducted by Gilles Demptos.