Kill the Paperboy

Sometimes and idea gets floated that is so out of whack with current trends that you wonder if the author is just trolling for pageviews. Predicting the death of Google seems to be the latest parlor game and BusinessWeek columnist Jon Fine has the latest with his post, Putting the Screws to Google.

What if 2006 is the year big media players take aim at Google’s kneecaps? No, not with more lawsuits; the Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers — on behalf, in part, of BusinessWeek’s parent company, The McGraw-Hill Companies — and Agence France-Presse have already sued the search behemoth. Rather, picture this: Walt Disney, News Corp., NBC Universal, and The New York Times, in an odd tableau of unity, join together and say: “We are the founding members of the Content Consortium. Next month we launch our free, searchable Web site, which no outside search engines can access.” (A simple bit of code is all it takes to bar all or some major search engines from accessing a site.) “From now on we’ll make our stuff available and sell ads around it and the searches for it, but only on our terms. Who else wants to join us? Membership’s free.”

This is just nuts. Of course media companies are jealous of Google’s $450 share price. I’m sure many a publisher thinks that the site was built on the back of their content and feel they should get some of the advertising revenues sold next to the search results. But to try and build your own search engine and ask your readers to come seek you out just seems as shortsighted as previous efforts to wall off information in pursuit of higher margins.

The overwhelming trend and momentum of the information economy is towards universal access. Powerful tools such as the search engines which indexes the information and social networks such as blogs and RSS feeds which act as filters to point to and annotate the good stuff only get better with greater access and distribution. With greater access everyone gets a piece of the growing pie. The more content from a site that gets indexed and added to the ecosystem the greater the share of the attention and traffic that clicks through to read the referred to articles and the greater the chance for the publisher to engage the reader and draw them in with more related material. The more good stuff is out there, the more folks will use the ecosystem as a source of information making the pie even larger.

The newspaper sites should be focused on how to convert a casual reader that might come across their site by way of search engine hit or blog post refer to an engaged reader that will click through to more information and benefit from highly relevant advertising related to what they’re reading. Trying to choke off a search engines access to their information and force readers to come to their own search engine is like laying off all your paperboys because you can make better margins by asking your readers to drive to your downtown offices and pick up the paper themselves. “Come on by, your copy will be waiting for you!” Not likely.

The other aspect of the Content Consortium that I just don’t see working is the bickering over shared costs of the infrastructure, how to effectively cooperate on ad sales, sharing profits, coming to agreement on technology, and index update times.

Would you base profit-sharing based on the number of articles you upload into the index? That would really tick off the news weeklies that have far fewer stories than the daily papers. Would the wire services get credit for one liner “flash” headlines?

Yahoo spends lots of time continually thinking how to improve our search engine. We have an entire research team dedicated to thinking about this. I don’t think a search engine is a commodity. Who’s technology will they use? How will they agree upon relevance? I can see the publishers debating this one for decades.

I could riff on and on about this but at it’s core, pulling all the news off the search engine goes against what everyone wants, except the publishers. Putting up walls or creating scarcity by killing distribution of your product is the wrong way to build a buisness but a great way to kill one.

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