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Google helps newspapers — period.

As the newspaper industry has grown weaker and weaker, there has been a steady stream of articles and blog posts blaming Google for some or all of this decline. I’m not going to link to them all, because there are simply too many, and they are easy enough to find. The standard allegation is that the search engine, and other similar engines such as Yahoo and MSN, hijack readers by aggregating content, and then monetize those eyeballs by posting ads near the content. Newspapers get traffic, but Google critics argue that this traffic is essentially worthless — or at least can’t make up for the value that Google has siphoned off.

One of the most recent articles to take this tack appeared in the Guardian and quoted Sly Bailey, the chief executive office of newspaper publisher Trinity Mirror. Among other things, Ms. Bailey said that:

“By creating gargantuan national newspaper websites designed to harness users by the tens of millions, by performing well on search engines like Google, we have eroded the value of news. News has become ubiquitous. Completely commoditised. Without value to anyone.”

This argument is almost too absurd to be taken seriously. In a nutshell, Ms. Bailey is claiming that by expanding their readership and making it easier for people to find their content, newspapers have shot themselves in the foot, and should do their best to avoid being found by new readers. It’s particularly ironic that the Mirror CEO is making these comments in a story in The Guardian, which has built up an impressive readership outside the UK thanks to its excellent content.

Blogger and search scientist Daniel Tunkelang wrote a positive response to Ms. Bailey’s comments, saying he agreed with her that newspaper content was being devalued by Google — a theme that also emerged recently in an interview with the publisher of the Wall Street Journal, in which he said that “Google devalues everything it touches.” And then Daniel throws out a proposal: What if newspapers simply used the robots.txt file (a way of telling search engines which content to index) to block Google. If they all did it, wouldn’t that make it easier for them to monetize their content, instead of losing that value to the search engine?

Reading an earlier post in which Daniel and Mike Masnick debated the “Google devalues everything it touches” statement, it’s fairly obvious that Tunkelang has thought long and hard about search and how it works, and how to make more relevant content available to users. But I still think that he and publishers like Sly Bailey are completely wrong in how they think about what Google is doing. If there were a finite market for news and information, then the search engine could be accused of devaluing it — but that’s not how information works. In fact, oceans of interchangeable news make certain kinds of content even more valuable, not less.

The reality (as I have said over and over) is that if a newspaper or media outlet finds its business model severely impacted by the fact that Google excerpts a single paragraph of a news story, then it deserves to fail. If the value that you are providing for readers consists of a snappy headline and a 200-word arrangement of facts that can be easily duplicated, then you are in the wrong business. And if you are adding more value through context and analysis, then there are many more ways to monetize that than by slapping simple banner or text ads on it — which seems to be the only thing that Daniel and others can imagine newspapers doing.

But if you are actually adding value, wouldn’t you like as many people to find out about it as possible? Cutting yourself off from the world’s largest search engine is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Why not just stop publishing on the Internet at all, and just go back to delivering content in one format to people, whether they want it or not? It’s absurd. The bottom line is that newspapers need to think about what kind of value they are adding and focus on that, instead of trying to either beat Google at its own game or pretend that it doesn’t exist.

                                   
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Leonhardt
Caroline O'Donovan    April 23, 2014
“Is there a way to take some of the knowledge that people at The New York Times already have that ends up on the cutting room floor, and put it in front of readers?”
  • http://thenoisychannel.com/ Daniel Tunkelang

    My response–a bit long to stuff into a comment:

    http://thenoisychannel.com/2009/04/20/mathew-ingram-google-helps-newspapers/

  • http://reportr.net Alfred Hermida

    When news executives attack Google, what they are regretting is the passing of the supremacy of the newspaper as the way to deliver news. The value of the newspaper was in offering a bundle of news, information and entertainment.

    Once upon a time, it was simply the best way to find out what was happening in the community, nation and the world, as well as doing the crossword, checking the classifieds and more. This newspaper offered a convenient way of delivering this bundle, often to your doorstep.

    But now, this has all been unbundled, creating a far more fragmented and atomised media ecosphere. Newspapers are struggling to find their place in this new media world.

    Rather than attack Google, newspapers should focus on reinventing themselves as a relevant product to consumers in the 21st century. They are no longer the most convenient way to get that bundled mix of news, information and entertainment. Period.

  • http://importanceofideas.com Jason Whittaker

    Google probably does help newspapers. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be part of the discussions (and the costs) in preparing for a digital-only future.

    I’ve written about this from an Australian perspective here: http://importanceofideas.com/2009/04/07/google-should-search-for-solution-too/

  • http://industry.bnet.com/technology Erik Sherman

    I think the argument has some merit, but it also ignores and glosses over some critical issues.

    >> If there were a finite market for news and information, then the search engine could be accused of devaluing it — but that’s not how information works. <> The reality (as I have said over and over) is that if a newspaper or media outlet finds its business model severely impacted by the fact that Google excerpts a single paragraph of a news story, then it deserves to fail. <> And if you are adding more value through context and analysis, then there are many more ways to monetize that than by slapping simple banner or text ads on it — which seems to be the only thing that Daniel and others can imagine newspapers doing. <> But if you are actually adding value, wouldn’t you like as many people to find out about it as possible? Cutting yourself off from the world’s largest search engine is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. <<

    Why assume that a bigger audience is better? For example, if you have a business that has some geographic specificity, what you might have to give away to gain a much broader audience is not necessarily a profitible tradeoff.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    I think you’re misreading her comments, as well as forgetting a fundamental point: from a publisher’s perspective, it’s not about building the biggest audience, but about building the most profitable one. And quite often, the two things are *not* the same.

    A case in point from the old days of print. In the UK, we had three Mac magazines. I worked on MacUser, which had the smallest circulation of the three. MacFormat had the largest – much larger, in fact, than MU’s was.

    MacUser, though, was by far the most profitable. Why? Because it targetted a small, cohesive niche audience. Had we chased the larger potential audience that MacFormat addressed, we would have been less profitable – possibly even unprofitable.

    That’s the point that Bailey is getting at. Sure, audience numbers are important: but they aren’t everything. What we have at the moment is thousands of news sites around the world doing commodity “me too” stories, bringing nothing original to the party.

    She’s really clear about that: Big newspaper sites are devaluing news. As she puts it:

    “By creating gargantuan national newspaper websites designed to harness users by the tens of millions, by performing well on search engines like Google, we have eroded the value of news.”

    In other words, newspapers have been guilty of chasing traffic and traffic alone, much of it from Google. What they haven’t been doing is creating high quality or differentiated content. And, from a publishers perspective, undifferentiated content with traffic largely coming from search is actually the least-profitable thing you can have.

    Journalists like you and me (and probably most people reading this) care only about the content, and naturally want to get it in front of as many people as possible. Publishers, though, don’t think like that: their job is to sell advertising. And having the biggest, widest audience doesn’t always sell the most ads.

  • http://www.topiccentral.com Terry Steichen

    The search engine lists articles by headline and lede. Certainly for many readers that’s enough – for these readers, Google gets the ads, not the article’s publisher. Other readers will click and view the article, along with the publisher’s ads (as well as Google’s). But some readers that may be inclined toward one publisher will nonetheless direct their attention to competitive publishers.

    A newspaper puts out not just a bunch of unrelated news articles; it organizes them into a picture of what that publisher thinks accurately portrays what’s happened (or happening, in the case of constantly updated online news). What the search engine does is picks apart the news report and displays references to the individual parts. That leaves a lot of newspaper value behind.

    In the end, it’s far from clear whether the average news publisher comes out better or worse. To assert otherwise is to imply a kind of superior knowledge that simply doesn’t exist. And to end the title of this posting with “- period” seems to suggest an attitude that argues that no differing views have any validity, which strikes me as a bit arrogant.

    Finally, being concerned about the effects of search engines isn’t the same as “attacking” them (as is repeatedly implied).

    Mathew argues that newspapers could counter some of the deleterious effects by adding value. But what kind of value can be added that will be evident to viewers of a search engine’s article headline listing?

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work Mathew Ingram

    Ian and Erik, you raise a good point. A bigger audience is not always better — but would it not be better to reach motivated and passionate readers wherever they are? And isn’t Google one way of doing that? Obviously it’s not the only way, but it is one important way, and ignoring it is the wrong approach, IMO. I completely agree on the value of creating premium content, and if that’s the only point Sly was trying to make then I would have no issue with her comments.

  • http://www.metamorphblog.com Matt Mireles

    Matthew, while your argument in this post is valid, you miss the larger point: Google IS bad for newspapers. Just not in the way people think.

    Here’s how…
    1) Before Google, the internet was harder to use, and less people used it for less stuff. Concomitantly, in this pre-Google world, newspapers were still creating a lot of unique value. Their grip was slipping, but as a primary information source, print still had an arguable competitive advantage versus the web. Moreover, because print newspapers served as the choke point through which so much news and information passed, they were able to extract exorbitant revenue from advertisers. News and information was scarce––newspapers eased that scarcity, and thereby created value.

    2) Once Google hit the web, the internet became A LOT better and more useful. Google killed the newspaper as a person’s primary source of news & information, both by putting newspapers in competition with each other and by putting an infinitely larger pool of content and & information at the user’s fingertips. Google ended the scarcity of useful information on the internet and in the world. In doing so, they made the world a much better place, but killed off the scarcity that was newspapers’ source of competitive advantage and profitability.

    My point here is that Google changed the news and information ecosystem, and it is these changes that are killing the newspaper industry. However, now that the world has changed, there’s just no going back, Robots.txt file or no.

    3) In sum…Google: Bad for newspapers, good for the world.

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  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work Mathew Ingram

    Matt, that’s a good point. Google (or rather the Internet itself) has changed the game forever, not just for newspapers but lots of other content creators (encyclopedias, for example). But wishing we could go back is like wishing we could un-invent the automobile or the handgun. In the new world we live in now, Google can help far more than it harms, I would argue.

    And @Terry, I realize the headline on the post seems a little definitive — I was going for impact, not trying to sound arrogant :-)

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  • http://thenoisychannel.com/ Daniel Tunkelang

    Mathew, I like the conversation we had on Twitter this morning, which I’ll reproduce here:

    You: If the effect is the same as private-labeling when people Google the news, then the news provider has failed to do their job.

    Me: Would you take that further and agree that, if a news provider depends on Google for its audience, it is failing to do its job?

    You: Yes, I would agree with that.

    Me: Then we’re not that far apart! I’m saying that news providers need to prove that independence. We just differ on the means.

    For people who prefer it in the original Twitter:
    http://search.twitter.com/search?q=dtunkelang+mathewi

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