Aishwarya Ramesh
Media

The saga of Indian languages and web publishing

On the final day of the Digipub Week 2020, a panel discussion looked at the tech and content challenges that Indian language web publishers face.

On the first day of the Digipub Week 2020, a panel discussed paywalls and the ways that publishers could benefit from them. The second day saw a session about how web publishers could use adtech. On the third day, a session pondered on how publishers can use affiliate marketing for revenue. The fourth day witnessed a discussion centred on e-papers and their future in the context of the Coronavirus pandemic.

The topic of the fifth and final day’s panel discussion was one that we constantly revisit at afaqs! in the context of Digipub. Since our first edition in 2017, we have discussed regional language web publishing in detail.

The moderator of the session Ashwini Gangal, associate editor, afaqs!, explained that what is different this time around is that the panel approached the discussion keeping in mind a layer of technology and how it can influence regional language web publishing.

The presenting partner of the discussion was AdPushup, the cloud presenting partner was Akamai Technologies, the technology partner was Quintype, and the associate partner was Chartbeat.

The speakers on the panel included Abu Fyzee, senior manager, web services at mathrubhumi.com; Amardeep Vishwakarma, CTO, The Indian Express; Boby Paul, general manager, marketing, Manorama Online; and Shilpa Raghunathan, senior solution engineer, Akamai Technologies.

Gangal began the discussion by referencing a 2017 KPMG report that estimates that by 2021, 70 per cent of India’s Internet user base will be accessing the net. This means that many more users were able to access Internet from Tier-II and III cities, but were looking for content in their own languages.

Vishwakarma oversees tech for all the websites under The Indian Express umbrella in languages like Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi and Bengali. Gangal asked him how the tech challenges change from language to language.

Vishwakarma explained that the first challenge from a technical perspective was related to the people who develop tech – do they know the challenge that they are developing for?

“We have newspapers in Bengali, Kannada, Marathi, etc., but the tech for these sites is developed in Noida. They know English and Hindi, but they may not know the other languages. You need a translator in between, because of which, the pace of development tends to slow down. That’s how we face challenges in the development process as well as the quality assessment process.”

Vishwakarma added that another challenge that publishers face with creating regional language content was the lack of support from Google on the SEO front, since English is still the most preferred language on the search engine. He added that translation is also a problem since it can be difficult to put the right words in a limited space.

He also said that the fonts pose a challenge because there are very limited fonts available for regional languages. When the publisher builds a custom font, there’s also the challenge of whether the browser supports that font, which is what makes the text readable.

Adding to a regional publisher’s woes, Vishwakarma said that some CMS softwares that publishers use don’t support all languages, making it more challenging to create content.

He also said that when Google is translating content, it doesn’t always give 100 per cent accurate results. Google has a large dictionary of English words, but it may not match up for regional languages to provide accurate translations.

Fyzee from mathrubhumi.com talked about the Malayali community by explaining that all the citizens of Kerala – including women – are educated. The state also has the highest number of Internet and smartphone users, and these factors affect content creation in the region.

“Almost three million copies of the newspaper and numerous magazines are published in Malayalam, in addition to people closely following television channels. All these indicate that people are closely watching for news updates in Kerala.”

Fyzee added that since people stayed indoors during COVID-induced lockdowns, consumption patterns did change.

“Consumers are looking for more content and our average screen views have gone up. Video consumption is at its peak right now and we are getting a better response from push notifications. These cues clearly indicate that consumers are curious to know what is going on around them.”

Paul of Manorama Online pointed out that no consumer comes to a website to see ads. They come to read the news that the journalists have painstakingly put together. Publishers build a brand around quality content and the by-product is what gets monetised and brings in revenue.

“The most important part is your audience and how loyal they are. An important factor is how long they linger on your story since those count as page views. We use a mix of vernacular, video and voice to reach out to the audience and give them what they want to consume.”

“There’s no dearth of technology available to publishers, but what works in engaging with readers can only be determined by trial and error, and the different aspects of tech must be studied with a prudent business sense in mind,” he added.

Paul explained that in the context of the pandemic, the time spent on sites has phenomenally gone up as people spend more time indoors, but it has led to an increase in bandwidth and content delivery network costs.

Advertisers shut down in the initial months of March and April, but news on the digital bounced back very quickly. “By mid-April, things started normalising. By Onam, we had crossed last year’s revenue rates. It’s back to normal in all the senses now,” he added.

Raghunathan of Akamai Technologies pointed out that the company was at a vantage point to observe trends such as shifts in the reading medium, interest in content, and so on.

She said that to solve some of the issues publishers are facing, it has to start with monitoring. “Publishers use analytics to track how quickly their pages load and all, but there are so many advancements in that space. They need to be able to figure out if they’re measuring the right things and are they true indicators of your customers’ user experience.”

She explained that Google has launched a set of metrics called core web vitals, and those from 2021 onwards are going to start contributing to the page experience. Responding to Vishwakarma’s statement about SEO being a problem, she said that technology can help improve those rankings.

“If you focus on ensuring that your pages load quickly, users can interact with them, there's visual stability as they load, that will help you get a leg up in terms of rankings,” says Raghunathan.

Vishwakarma says the most important thing is to know your audience - to know the behaviour of the audience. "Then you will be able to segment them, and target the right ads towards them. I feel that despite the language of the site, if you focus on these areas, you will be able to do lot of things around monetising content,” he adds.

Talking about the challenges of monetising content in regional languages, Paul explained that the two sides of the this discussion are – the CMS and the ad server. He said that the CMS is what’s used to create content and the ad server is what helps monetise content.

“Since these two are not directly connected, the optimisation for content is slightly different than optimising for ads. On the content side, what a marketing team needs is to make people stick around for a longer session because this will increase the time spent and the page views. So the more the time people spend on the website, the more the time you get to monetise them – that’s the key," says Paul.

Raghunathan added another layer to the tech half of the discussion by pointing out that most sites in India don't require a login. Everyone prefers to browse anonymously, whether it’s a free service or not.

“When talking about it from a tech perspective, in order to be able to collect information about what kind of content a person prefers, it becomes challenging in that case. I think that's one of the barriers standing in between being able to personalise content more effectively and, therefore, monetise better,” she explains.

She added that some publishers may prefer to not have any user data, because it's safer that way. “But to understand your users, target them better, move up in the value chain and pitch better ads, this is important.”

Watch the full discussion below.