If Google Disappeared

What would happen to content providers such as News Corp. if Google went away tomorrow? Would they be better off, or would they be back where they started? In this theoretical world, it would depend on how they took advantage of the opening (one that has always existed for them anyway). However, the main issue is that Google is not really the problem for content providers. The ones who see Google as a threat don't understand that it is just the search engine that succeeded, not some evil empire bent on undermining the newspaper business model.

Rupert Murdoch, chairman and CEO of News Corp., and Associated Press CEO Tom Curley are forever whining to anyone who will listen that Google is stealing their content. Murdoch made headlines recently when he said he would take his content out of Google by blocking it from the index. That's fine. It's his prerogative (even if I think it's wrong-headed-as I've written many times). It's clear he's looking at the symptom and thinking it's the disease. Google is not the problem. The problem is the fundamental shift from print to online.

Murdoch has even gone so far as to set up talks with Microsoft about supplying its Bing search engine with exclusive links to News Corp. content. I find it amusing actually that some publishers see Microsoft as a savior here when it's much more likely a case of "meet the new boss, same as the old boss." In the highly unlikely event that Microsoft were somehow able to gain control of consumer search, publishers would be right back where they started after any such exclusive deals with the devil expired.

What Murdoch and Curley seem unable to grasp is the simple fact that fewer people are walking up to a newsstand or opening their front door to find the newspaper on the doorstep. Instead, they are going online to find news, and that's just an elemental fact of life. The medium has moved away from print to online. Murdoch does, on some level, understand this. But what confounds him is the revenue shift. With newspapers no longer controlling the information access game, they can no longer charge whatever they want. The numbers have shifted away from them. The ad dollars are flowing elsewhere, and they're probably never coming back. It's a different value proposition now, and no amount of complaining can change that.

Frankly, some of that revenue has moved to Google because Google was smart enough to come up with a system to get us to online content. But if it weren't Google, it would have been someone else (such as the aforementioned Microsoft). As I wrote on the FierceContentManagement blog, in "It's Time for the News Business to Seize Control," Scott Karp, CEO and founder of Publishing 2.0, believes it was always possible for newspapers with their means to be that distributor. They just never took the initiative to do it.

He believes the newspaper business has basically just capitulated to Google. He says, "Forget Google! Do it yourself. Compete with them." And that's what Karp's business is about-creating that alternative news aggregation engine to Google News.

But don't think Google isn't listening or feeling complacent. It got creative in December when it teamed up with The New York Times and The Washington Post to launch the Living Stories project in Google Labs. This project is an effort by Google to be more of a partner with the publishers by supplying both an interface to present complex news stories and a central place for readers to keep up with all of the articles on a given subject. How well this works in practice and how Google and the publishers will share revenue as it develops is unclear. But it's an important first step, and it shows that Google recognizes it has a constructive role to play.

For today, however, even though Murdoch and Curley may hate it, the world has changed. If they don't like it, they should have banded together and created their own search engine. News Corp. certainly has always had the resources to do it, and, as Karp says, it still could. Instead, they whine like some media version of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, complaining that they have been cheated. The fact is if Google went away tomorrow, we would not suddenly go back to newspapers' glory days. Another search engine (or perhaps some distribution system we haven't even envisioned) would supplant Google, and Murdoch and Curley would probably vilify them. The web is both the problem and the solution. Time to accept reality and move on.