Fear of a Search Planet
What we are seeing is the evolution of a very complex and sometimes befuddling search-driven ecosystem. The engines are moving into spaces that in some ways compete with traditional content providers for ad dollars, brand equity, and attention. Yahoo!, for instance, has been creating some of its own news editorial content. It sent a special correspondent to war zones. And while on hold for now, the portal announced its own broadband TV series. So is Yahoo! a partner to media it aggregates, or does it aspire to be a direct competitor with the very links that it hosts?
Many see Google as the even broader threat to content providers. It buys up and generates an ever-increasing crop of homegrown material. On several occasions, the engine suggested to advertisers both that text ads have a branding value, much like the display ads on which many publishers rely, and that even specialty business product buyers start with general search, not vertical publications. Nevertheless, Google habitually insists that it is just a tech company acting as a neutral broker among audience, content, and commerce.
Despite these content-centric maneuvers, one wonders if Google really wants to be a content company. "It still seems to be in denial, publicly," 360i's Berkowitz says. "But whether you call it a media property, content company, or however you want to define it, the answer is yes."
Tools like Gmail keep users at Google rather than passing them on to content sites. Innovations like the personalized home page and the information-rich Google Finance often give users all the at-a-glance information they need from headlines and blurbs without clicking away. Its Blogger company and Groups index of Usenet posts both aggregate user-generated material, and its Video store is partnering with major media entities like CBS to resell TV show episodes. Google keeps drawing media properties closer. "They may not own the content, but they hold a long-term lease on it," Sullivan says.
For many publishers, the deeper realization is that in the new world of linked and searchable media, they lose some control over their own coveted brands. "It is Google's world, and we are all playing in it," says Jon Fine, columnist at BusinessWeek Online. Among big media brands, Fine discovered substantial resentment that search now intrudes on their relationship with readers, scraping more content and perhaps even drawing away ad budgets with attractive pay-per-click models. Among old media, Fine says, "There's no small amount of institutional ego involved with Google being the front page and I'm not. To take the subsidiary role is galling." A few publishers in the U.S. and Europe have sued Google over the percentage of news stories and archival material it "scrapes" to keep on its own servers. Others, like Associated Press CEO Tom Curley, have floated plans for major media to launch their own multi-brand news or sports portals and let the engine bid to access it.
With so much traffic—and ad revenue—tied to a few companies, there is understandable concern about the "what ifs." What if Google or Yahoo! decide to favor certain providers in tools they incorporate into search results? While publishers profit from Google's contextual ads on their own sites, this also gives the engine a detailed peek at what goes on in "partners'" networks. What if Google decides to use that business information in cutting future partnership deals? And if publishers become more directly and indirectly reliant on engines like Yahoo! and Google for their revenue, "what will happen if they don't like you?" Sullivan asks.
Generally, and for the near-term, however, the new search interface offers less a threat than an opportunity to tap into massive streams of traffic with the right tools. "[Search] is an extension of the web, and you have to get your head around it," Sullivan says. Brands like The New York Times embrace the new ecosystem by helping engines find content behind its site registration walls and in fee-based archives. Print brand Entrepreneur.com virtually doubled its traffic to 40 million page views and expanded its audience to 10 million users in 2005 through a combination of search optimization and buying their own keywords. Some publishers now market their content on engines the same way ecommerce sites drive product purchases, by precisely calculating the ROI on keyword buys. The analytics tools make the process so transparent that marketers at major publishers calculate how much it costs to drive a predictable amount of traffic to a content area against the revenue its ad inventory produces. The search economy is so efficient it can even make determining content profit margins into a science.