The great search engine standoff

Seth Godin is one of my favorite bloggers, and I quote him regularly. He’s been a source of clear thinking and wisdom for me since long before blogs existed.

But in today’s blog, he writes about News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch’s idea to control how news content is indexed on web sites. He got it wrong. He writes, in entirety (and you’ve got to admire Godin’s brevity):

Rupert Murdoch has it backwards

You don’t charge the search engines to send people to articles on your site, you pay them.

If you can’t make money from attention, you should do something else for a living. Charging money for attention gets you neither money nor attention.

If Murdoch were just another blogger, or just another guy with another product to shill, I would agree with Godin. But Murdoch owns one of the largest news-gathering organizations in the world. And here’s the point that Godin misses:

When search engines index vast troves of original content, such as Murdoch’s News Corp., the impact is synergistic:

  • It drives traffic to News Corp.;
  • It provides the kind of top-of-the-charts, original content that makes a search engine valuable;
  • It provides a large class of users with the kind of content they’re seeking.

Here’s the nuance; there is less and less original content of the kind that News Corp. produces. Anyone who has ever used the Web has had the experience of following one good link after another to find they’re all connected to the same piece of mediocre content. The money dedicated to generating high-quality content has evaporated; it’s down by more than $1.5 billion in the U.S. newspaper business alone – not to mention all the other businesses that pay content providers to create information that people want and need.

So anyone who wants this kind of content to continue, must make some kind of investment in it.

When search engines index to content like that provided by Murdoch’s company, they profit by selling sponsored search results in the space around it.

But the news organizations’ only means of profit from this activity is to sell advertising around the content. But advertising isn’t selling – nor is it expected to significantly recover. Further, a portion of the money that marketers no longer spend to advertise in newspapers and magazines has been reallocated to the paid search function of search engines.

So why shouldn’t they pay for the right to index high-end content?

The attention that search engines generate is doing less and less good for newspapers and other free-content websites. If News Corp. can’t sell ads around its content, it has no reason to care if search engines promote the content.

So Godin has it wrong. He supposes that news media get the larger share of value in their relationship with search engines. In fact, to the consternation of anyone in the news business, it’s the other way around.

Further, the search engines may be able to extract even more value. Right now, one search engine is much like another. But if one could brag that it’s the only search engine to index the world’s largest news generators, that might make a difference to consumers. I know it would to me.

I don’t know if even Rupert Murdoch has the juice to take on Google. But he may be able to set the big search engines against each other. I don’t know if he’ll succeed in getting paid by one search engine and in locking out the rest. But to me, like it or not, it sounds like the kind of clash that isn’t likely to go away without creating some kind of change that affects everyone.

Here is more background on the issue:

Murdoch no longer alone in desire to block Google

Murdoch wants a Google rebellion

Bing not likely to outbid Google for news

Murdoch could block Google searches entirely

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