Rumors and Risky Business: Tensions Mount Between Newsmakers and Search Engines

Jan 20, 2010

After months of cryptic foreshadowing and warnings about the future of News Corp.'s free online content, CEO Rupert Murdoch finally made a move ... sort of. In late November, news broke that Murdoch was reportedly in talks with Microsoft to negotiate a deal in which the giant media conglomerate would pull or deindex its content from Google-keeping the search giant from crawling its content and making it exclusively available to Bing.

Unfortunately, the major players are not going on the record regarding this controversial speculation. When asked for comment Microsoft responded via email: "Microsoft does not comment on rumors or speculation." News Corp. was unavailable for comment. And if you believe the blogosphere, the whole thing might just be a bluff. Ken Doctor, president of the blog Content Bridges and author of Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get, says, "It's a negotiating ploy."

"What content are we talking about? The U.S. newspapers, which are two?" Doctor asks. "The Wall Street Journal isn't going to drop its pay model. And people don't wake up wanting to see what's in the [New York] Post." In other words, Journal content is already mostly protected behind a pay wall, and, therefore, it's a moot point, while the sensational Post is hardly the kind of content readers-or search engines-would pay for online access to. What Doctor and many in the blogosphere think is simply that News Corp. is throwing its weight around to put the fear of God, so to speak, into almighty Google.

Not long after the news started spreading, it seemed that other publishers were keen to follow News Corp.'s example. MediaNews and A.H. Belo executives said they might pull content from Google as well. Surely it was no small coincidence that, on Dec. 1, Google announced a "five click free" initiative on its blog, which would allow publishers to limit users to five free clicks per day before requiring that they register or subscribe to the site. All of this unfolded in the shadows of a 2-day Federal Trade Commission hearing on "the future of news."

If News Corp. was using talks with Microsoft as a negotiating tactic, one has to wonder what's in it for Bing. According to Doctor, "Bing is trying to get some kind of edge [in the search market] and needs to continue the talk." Developing good working relationships with publishers could be just the advantage the new engine needs to compete with the giants.

However, as Doctor has said, there may be more room to maneuver here than Murdoch has let on in some of his more hard-line, paid content statements or in his Dec. 8 Wall Street Journal editorial in which he wrote, "And their almost wholesale misappropriation of our stories is not ‘fair use.' To be impolite, it's theft." If a deal between Microsoft and News Corp. were to come together, it could be more nuanced than a strict Google-ban. "If you look at the overall traffic pattern of news sites, broadly Google provides 25%-35% of traffic. About 25%-30% of traffic goes directly to sites, from things like URLs and bookmarks; the rest is other search engines," says Doctor, who does not believe that most content providers will block search engines.

"There are all different kinds of ways of doing this that don't shut off all traffic," says Doctor, who points to the Associated Press (AP) for a possible model. He says that News Corp. could work out a deal with Microsoft's Bing to allow it a 30-minute head start on crawling its content in exchange, of course, for a fee-a strategy the AP has often worked with.

As publishers start to realize that they don't need more page views, just more revenue, Doctor predicts the dynamic between search engines and content producers will change. Murdoch's actions of late-whether it be pay model rhetoric or a building of support for a digital newsstand among publishers-is, Doctor says, "all aimed at coming up with a more sustainable model." He adds, "2010 is the year of bringing some nuance to what has been undifferentiated traffic for news publishers."