Is Google Scavenging on News Corpse?

PushON | September 19th 2014

With the nation’s news media obsessing about the Scottish referendum, what’s the best way to find out a little more about News Corp’s latest attack on Google? Well it turns out it’s by Googling [news corp google] and clicking News. You’ll find that outside a UK that’s still a little giddy after renewing its marriage vows, the story has had a decent amount of coverage on the websites of “old” media outlets around the world. #irony

In case you missed the story yesterday, this week, News Corp’s chief executive Robert Thomson took to his keyboard and furiously bashed out a letter to the EU’s Vice President Joaquín Almunia, who is overseeing the long-running antitrust investigation into Google and who has recently offered to reconsider their settlement. Thomsen doesn’t hold back:

[Google has] evolved from a wonderfully feisty, creative Silicon Valley startup to a vast, powerful, often unaccountable bureaucracy, which is sometimes contemptuous of intellectual property and routinely configures its search results in a manner that is far from objective … The shining vision of Google’s founders has been replaced by a cynical management … A platform for piracy … Readers have been socialized into accepting this egregious aggregation [of free news content] as the norm.

To the cynic it could read a bit like the letter a T-Rex might write complaining about the Chicxulub asteroid. You don’t need too long a memory to recall a time when Murdoch’s empire was the most powerful beast in the jungle, disembowelling all competition and claiming responsibility for unlikely election victories. But twenty years ago, while Murdoch was concentrating on sheets of printed paper distributed by child labour, the real competition was the geeks and bedroom warriors conjuring up the internet. While he was a pioneer in multi-channel TV streaming sports and blockbuster movies, he probably took his eye off the ball with news – and News Corp’s acquisition of MySpace in 2005 wasn’t exactly well advised or followed through.

So fans of schadenfreude – and the enemies Murdoch has made during his remarkable career – could be wryly smiling at what appear to the death throes of the corporation.

But there’s a real argument here, and it has nothing to do with News Corp’s bottom line. Sometimes it feels like Google has gathered so much power that it doesn’t know what to do with it except nudge its way ever further into ubiquity. Newspapers might seem like yesterday’s news, but behind the stories there has to be journalism and that takes time, expertise and guts in abundance (when it’s done well). It doesn’t matter if it’s a national paper or the free local rag: without the news, there’s no reason to buy it and look at the ads.

If people really are getting their news from Google and bypassing the paywalls and ads of traditional media, there’s a question about who’s going to pay for the news-gathering in the first place. Not every publication can fall back on the kind of trust fund that supports the money-leaking Guardian. The Mail has become the world’s most successful online news website by serving up a diet of clickbait, bikinis, royal stories, bikinis, controversial opinion pieces and bikinis (not a huge amount of news though). Trinity Mirror launched usvsth3m, an amusing semi-satirical site with news-based quizzes and games that gets shared extensively. All use Google and social media to push their stories. 

The Times and the Sun opted for a paywall model and have been dwarfed online – the Times lost 90% of its online readership when it first went behind the paywall, and hasn’t exactly encouraged its rivals to try the model since. Nobody links to stories in the Sun any more, and Times articles usually come with a pound-shaped caveat that filters out most would-be clickers – a great shame when there’s so much talent over the wall.

It’s easy not to sympathise with the once-great (and still not exactly struggling) company and blame a perceived short-sightedness or a poor business model … or even to sneer that Murdoch had it coming. But there’s a truth in what Thomson is saying and it’s in no one’s interest to ignore it. It certainly isn’t in Google’s interest to stifle good, original news-gathering.

It’s probably good idea to put emotions and allegiances to one side and look at how the EU/Google/News Corp row pans out. It’s going to affect our window on the world.

“The above tweet popped up on my timeline this morning. Whilst this actually referred to the press pushing for details of the corruption around the Qatar 2022 World Cup bid, there were similarities to the story about News Corp vs Google. It’s, perhaps, a little too much to suggest that Google have necessarily been corrupt, but the greed of News Corp certainly fits the statement. As much as they bemoan the influence of Google they have not helped themselves with the decision to put their sites behind a payroll in August last year.

The immediate aftermath of the Sun’s paywall, which itself was a purely financial driven move, saw the Daily Mail swoop in and claim the lost visibility. Whilst Murdoch and co may feel that Google penalised their organic positions out of spite, they can hardly complain. Google have always focused on delivering quality user experience so why would they rank sites with content that’s unavailable to the majority of visitors, let alone the crawling complexities it brings.

Eric Schmidt counter argued News Corps complaints by suggesting that most newspapers receive the majority of the traffic via direct channels, but for the Sun to lose over 75% of it organic visibility following the introduction of the paywall can hardly have helped performance. It seems almost naïve of News Corp and Murdoch with their large UK product to neglect a search engine with 89% of the market share.

Attacks on Google appear to be coming from all angles, with Apple CEO Tim Cook unfavourably comparing the two companies approaches to privacy, this despite recent positive security moves from Google. Meanwhile Germanys justice minister Heiko Maas has also ambitiously called for more transparency around their ranking algorithms.

comment by:

Jonny Pennington, Senior Online Marketing Consultant

Without trying to toe the party line when it comes to Google, they do after all dominate our approach to online search, some of the recent disputes seem to be driven by bitterness from other corporate giants who’d love to be in their position. It’ll be interesting to see what legislation Google get slapped with next (following from the EU’s right to be forgotten ruling) and whether the competition commission will ever attempt to break Google up, as has been suggested by the Germans. The hot topic at the moment however relates to privacy and security, so it’s unlikely that News Corps “piracy” complaints will realistically be listened to just now.”