Will Metadata Help Solve Publishers' Woes?

Jul 21, 2009


The conflict between publishers and search engines heated up once again when disgruntled publishers put Europe's media commissioner, Viviane Reding, on notice last month. Publishers from across the continent got organized and signed the "Hamburg Declaration Regarding Intellectual Property Rights" at a meeting of the European Publishers' Council and the World Association of Newspapers on June 26. This is just the latest in a string of complaints from publishers about search engines making money off the work of others. However, it has once again brought up the all-important question: How do publishers get their web content in front of readers without losing out on monetizing opportunities?

The Hamburg Declaration reads, in part: "Numerous providers are using the work of authors, publishers and broadcasters without paying for it. Over the long term, this threatens the production of high-quality content and the existence of independent journalism...Universal access to our services should be available, but going forward we no longer wish to be forced to give away property without having granted permission." Critical bloggers view the proposal as little more than sour grapes, but there may be more to it than petty complaints.

"Apparently, what the publishers want...is to get legal approval of a regulation system they have developed themselves, ACAP (Automated Content Access Protocol)," according to Susanne Bjorner, founder of Bjorner & Associates, a provider of contracted services to publishers, authors, researchers, and librarians. However, many deem the restrictions ACAP proposes to be harsh, and even outdated. Bjorner adds, "For example, I understand that ACAP prohibits changes in font, conversion to PDF, and the addition of user comments, tags, and ratings. In other words, it does not recognize the way people use the web now. A Web 1.0 solution is not going to work in a world moving into Web 3.0, and I trust the EU will not adopt ACAP in this format."  

ACAP isn't the only proposed solution to the publisher' problems, though. Notably, the Associated Press and Media Standards Trust have been putting together a common format system that could, if adopted, change the way web users search and view results.  Martin Moore, director of Media Standards Trust says, "The proposed draft microformat, hNews, is very straightforward. It makes basic information about a news article--who wrote it, who published it, when it was first published, etc. --machine readable."

A conversion to the hNews format not only has the potential to change the search experience for users, but also to ultimately change the relationship between publisher and search engines. "Publishers' content will be labeled better, meaning people can find their stuff more easily and have more information on which to decide whether it is useful or trustworthy. Search engines will be able to tailor and filter search better, including adding more substantive information to search snippets," says Moore.

If publishers worldwide adopted this format, search results could change, revealing the metadata attached to each article under the result listing, rather than a few lines from the story or web page. It's often thought that readers who get their answers from those first few lines don't click through to the actual content, leaving publishers struggling to make money from their work while search engines flourish.

"This plan to assign metadata...to every news story could be a compromise between ACAP and no change at all. It's significant that it involves both American (AP) and European (the UK's Media Standards Trust) journalism organizations, but it would be a lot better if they could get some Germans on board," says Bjorner, who adds that Germans made up a vast majority of publishers who signed on to the Hamburg Declaration. "This effort seems to be more in keeping with the 'rich snippet' microformat encouraged by Google for its News search results."

Moore, of course, has high hopes for hNews. "Most search engines are--entirely understandably--pragmatic about new formats. Anything that helps search is, from their perspective, a good thing," says Moore. "Google announced in May that it would be supporting microformats and RDFa. Yahoo has supported microformats for some time. If lots of people start integrating hNews then it will, inevitably, become more and more useful."