Murdoch’s Google Play A Long Term Loser?
There’s been a lot of talk lately about Rupert Murdoch’s claim/threat/taunt/plan to block Google from the Wall Street Journal. All props to Jason Calacanis for jumping on the news first with the interesting idea that this is actually something that could have real impact on Google, which until now has never encountered a situation where publishers could find a monetary incentive to disinclude themselves from the Google index, and thereby cut themselves off from millions of searchers and millions of dollars.
Calacanis makes the point that the top publishers on the Web could pool together into a bargaining conglomerate. This conglomerate could elect to remove themselves from the Google index in exchange for an offset payment from Microsoft. The Microsoft agreement would cover their losses from ending their Google traffic in exchange for exclusive rights to index content in Bing. Michael Arrington followed up with a slightly more tempered opinion than JCal’s. And then Jeff Jarvis chimed in with his ever-open doom-saying prediction for the newspaper industry as we know it, arguing that these domains that would disinclude themselves don’t represent enough of the top results within SERPs (search engine results pages) to make a significant dent in Google’s offerings – enough so that the users would actually notice the difference.
When I first heard Calacanis’ argument it was really interesting, and I was on board, but it started to stick in my craw like a piece of spicy shrimp off of Rupert’s barby. I think I’ve finally figured out why… I’m with Jarvis – this would still be a bad move for publishers… maybe not in the short term, but definitely in the long term.
Short Term PR/Marketing Win, Long Term Loss
In the short term I can see Bing winning big in terms of PR against Google, and the publishers winning big on PR with the bonus of a moderate financial gain by way of a premium payment from Bing above and beyond the value of their Google traffic. Just the announcement could set off a mini wave of publishers of all shapes and sizes looking to be paid for the right to index their sites, and while some see this as a potential revolution, setting the stage for bidding wars or a free market of paid access to index the content of the Web, I just don’t see it.
1) The vast majority of the content out there just isn’t going to spark a bidding war.
2) Twitter & micromessaging are replacing the importance of search for distribution of breaking news, making that portion of news distribution less lucrative for Google in any case, so why pay a premium for it (okay, only marginally so for the time being, but certainly trending in that direction).
3) The long tail of aggregate news articles ranking highly for searches about news items whose peak has already passed still represents a huge volume of search and ad revenue with regards to the overall pie of news traffic, but the presence of the major publishers for these SERPs is minimally important at best. For the long tail the information has already hit the Web forcefully and there are now secondary, tertiary, quaternary, etc. sources such as well-known and trusted blogs who will have either broken the news before the big publishers in any case, or regurgitated the content so well that the user won’t miss the big publishers one bit.
But there are even bigger problems than that…
No Way to Establish Value to Bing After Disinclusion
Now that Yahoo! is more or less defunct as a search engine (though there are weak signs of a pulse yet), as soon as these publishers remove themselves from Google’s index there is essentially no way for them to reestablish a market value for their voluntary disinclusion at a future date, except to re-include themselves. There’s no other competition aside from Bing to gauge that worth by, and so they will have two choices – to either choose to re-include themselves temporarily in Google’s index to establish a baseline value for a renegotiation with Bing, or let Bing dictate that value based instead on their contribution to market share versus Google, or estimated loss of market share were those publishers to once again be available on either Google or Bing. But the effect of these publishers on the market share battle between Google and Bing will be more discreet than continuous, and perhaps even temporary. Any large shift will be immediate and any affect on market share will decline over time, approaching a number much closer to zero that flattens out on the Wall Streeters, business grads, and old-timers who just can’t give up their traditional and comfortable news sources.
Disinclusion Isn’t Just From Traffic, But From Mindshare & Therefore SEO
But that’s not even the half of it… Who isn’t going to switch from Google? Young people. Also, most people. They are going to establish trust in other sources, and the young searchers will grow up not caring about the Wall Street Journal, just like they already don’t care about Edward R. Murrow, or Walter Cronkite, or even Dan Rather for that matter. The point is that this is hubris on the part of these brands to believe that they are so important that people can’t get by without them, and in the end it might prove fatal.
If these publishers pull themselves from the Google index they won’t just lose a way to establish the value of exclusive indexing to Bing, they’ll also be sacrificing significant mindshare for the future readers of America (and the world, or course), and perhaps more importantly they’ll be sacrificing SEO equity. The loss of traffic by pulling out of Google will most certainly turn into a loss of inlinks directed at them by the blogosphere and other parts of our lovely interwebs ecosystem, and this constitutes long term damage, especially to the long tail of their offering – the archive of thousands and thousands of articles that continue to serve ads over time. This will also affect them if they try to re-include themselves in the Google index at a future date – they will be crippled from whatever time they spend catering to a minority of searchers, and therefore a minority of content creators (because of course we are all both consumers and creators at this point, right?). So even if they do re-include to try to establish a new baseline value for a new contract with Bing, their search share from Google will likely have declined at that point, and so too will their value to Bing. (Not to mention that it provides Google with a perfectly good explanation as to why their rankings have dropped upon their return, not that they’d ever do anything evil like purposefully tweak down the performance of those rogue domains! Heavens, no!)
At that point these publishers, in a worst case (for them) scenario, could essentially only be worth the value of a Bing marketing campaign to prevent them from returning to the Google index, and they will be selling out their own futures in order to save face in the present (which kind of sounds familiar with regards to newspaper Web strategy up to this point, doesn’t it?).
Web Censorship and the Streisand Effect
In the end the people on the Web are looking for information, and these publishers will never have a monopoly on information. John Gilmore once said that “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” This will happen with the publishers as well – the information will come out through other sources, and their departure from the Google index will potentially create a vacuum for lesser-known sources, bloggers, journalists, etc. to establish their credibility and speed up the transition from old news to new news. In fact, the Streisand Effect states that an attempt to censor information inevitably backfires and causes that information to be distributed much more than would have otherwise occurred. And if the publishers were to announce their disinclusion from Google tomorrow, while I can’t expect that the news would stay relevant to the average consumer for very long given the half life of anything on the Web these days, they could just be creating a whole platform and ecosystem for bloggers and secondary reporters to repackage their information on other sites that are included in Google and easily sop up all that money they’re leaving behind.
While this certainly seems like an interesting play, and believe me when I say I’m eager to see what takes place, it still strikes me as a short-sighted short term win with huge negative impacts over the long term. It would be fascinating if he proved me wrong, but it still smells like Rupert is trying to be the Pied Piper and lead the heavyweights of old newsprint into a revolt… My guess is if he gets anyone to follow him they’re going to be lemmings instead of rats, and when he gets to the edge of that cliff (the one Jeff Jarvis keeps trying to warn him about) he’s going to get pushed off by all those furry little morons riding his tail. How’s that for imagery?
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