Can 20th-Century News and Newspapers Survive in a Digital World?

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The Google Blame Game: Publishers vs. Google

While newspapers have been slow to adopt the linking culture that fuels the web, they have been even more conflicted about their relationships with search engines-Google in particular. Last spring at the Newspaper Association of America Annual Convention in San Diego, publishers directly attacked Google. Rupert Murdoch accused it of being a copyright thief. The Associated Press (AP) threatened to go after content aggregators (such as Google) that used its content without permission.

But was Google really the right target for this frustration? Josh Cohen, a business product manager at Google responsible for building relationships with publishers, insists that it's a symbiotic relationship that benefits both parties. Google delivers traffic directly to the sites while the publishers provide quality content, the fuel for a search engine such as Google.

"We really do see it as a partnership where we are also delivering value directly to publishers. One of the most obvious ways-in something that's specific to Google News-is from the traffic side of it. We'll send just about a billion clicks to publishers who are in Google News every single month." Cohen adds that Google shared $5 billion in revenue in 2008 with publishers, so there is money flowing directly as a result of the relationship with Google and having the content on Google News. He also points out that if publishers really don't want to be on Google News, they can easily stop the spiders from indexing their content with a couple of lines of code in a robots.txt file.

Charlie Terry, principal at CWT Group, says Google has done many things well for which it deserves credit, including solving the indexing problem and all of the scalability issues. However, Terry also sees how web publishers could be annoyed by Google's omnipresent role in finding information on the web. He says relying on Google takes the process out of the control of the publisher, and that can be both frightening and frustrating. "If someone is spending $50,000 a year on your site and they are still going to Google to find you, you lose the branding because you're not the one that's always facing them. Your user experience becomes what you can fit on [that landing] page. And the other issue is if Google changes their formula or you misbuy keywords for whatever black magic reason, all of a sudden your $50,000-a-year customer who goes through Google ends up going some place else."

Cohen doesn't argue that the newspapers have lost control of their business model, but he says it's not Google's fault or responsibility. Google is just one search engine. He says it's about the transformation to a digital content world and newspapers' inability to adapt to and take advantage of that change. "The internet-not Google, rather digital distribution itself-has changed the way news gets distributed. That's not Google's doing. You remove Google and that form of digital distribution still exists."

Cohn agrees and sees newspaper publisher complaints about Google or craigslist as nothing more than whining. He says that while Google might have stemmed from the work of a couple of brilliant Stanford University students, craigslist didn't require a high level of technological innovation. "craigslist was not a work of genius. Any newspaper could have done that. Blaming craigslist is like blaming a competitor for beating you." But by the same token, he also thinks a consortium of newspapers could have gotten together and become Google News, which is precisely what Scott Karp, co-founder and CEO at Publish2, Inc., thinks it is still possible to do. He's built a business on that idea.

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