There are essentially three ways to get to information (and news) in the current world: browsing from a landing page, getting to articles provided by organic search, reading docs shared by others in your different social circles.
Pre-Google, browsing ruled. You knew your starting point, you went to trusted sources, and browsed your way to the content that was interesting to you. The coin was the site, how much you trusted it and whether it had content that was relevant to you and your interests.
In this world, the site, its reputation (including both brand and voice), and its usability were all that mattered. Monetizing content was a matter of monetizing the site. But with the rise of Google (and search in general) this world quickly slipped away.
With Google, the entry point is content relevance. Users search for the content that they care about enter sites through individual content elements rather than landing pages and, because they have a topic focus, ingest the content and then bounce back to the search page.
This dynamic created a new tension for sites. Can you grab the reader and provide follow-up content that is clearly marked to keep them on your site, given that they got to you based on their interest in a specific content area rather than a belief or faith in your site and its ability to serve them.
Monetization shifted to focus on advertising related to content and interests rather than the site itself. It became more driven by the user rather than the site.
In this world, the role of the site is diminished though the brand is still crucial. Given the nature of Google and Page Rank, the authority of the site still participates in the ranking of results, but this is a proxy for brand though brand participates in the algorithm itself. Likewise, in the presentation of results, the brand also participates in the user’s decision as whether or not to follow a link, but often less so than the title.
This just to say that in the Google world, the stress has shifted way from the site/brand towards the relevance of the content to the user. The brand is still crucial, but the site and its navigational structure far less so.
With the rise of social and sharing, we see another shift away from the site and brand and the emergence of trust as it relates to your social network. You don’t need to trust a site or brand when you know that a trusted “friend” has just recommended a content element. That piece of content might not fit your current needs but will be likely to fit your general interests given the social circle that is promoting it.
With social, the dynamic is pushed even further away from the site and even away from relevance in the specific. You are ingesting simply because you are getting content recommended by your circle and not because of the site, brand or even relevance to task at hand. You trust your circle not the brand. You read what is recommended or curated by your circle, not the because it has been created or vetted by the site.
Individual content elements are optimized for search and sharing. There is still support for internal navigation, but clearly the emphasis is skewing more towards search and social.
But we are at the early days of this. As more and more consumption skews towards social recommendation, there is less need for the site as site. Even a year ago the figures showed that the bounce on news sites is strikingly high and the trend is not going away. This does not mean that the structure of news production has to change, or that the notion of brand goes away, just that deployment and publication will shift towards a greater optimization for search and social as well as the now emerging approaches to locational and situational information systems. The site will simply no longer be the major vehicle for publication.
The brands that will win will be those that embrace rather than fight this shift. Brands that are focused their sites are going to lose. Brands that decide that their content deployment will be focused on developing the social circles that reflect their brands and their content will flourish as more and more of the traffic is driven by trusted recommenders.
This is not to say that sites will vanish… just that they will be the least important component of what determines if a brand has impact and survives.