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m is for missing

Rupert Murdoch/Newscorp are threatening to block Google from indexing their content, and it’s looking like they have a real incentive to do so, since Microsoft might pay them for it. (It’ll be interesting to see the zeros on that check since Google currently provides ~25% of traffic to Newscorp’s sites such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post.)

To anyone that works in the search, and most of us in the even broader web development industry, this sounds absolutely ludicrous. There must be some fundamental misunderstandings of the mechanism (search) at play for this to even be considered:

1. Misunderstanding What People Are Searching For

Murdoch thinks that people are using search to look for Newscorp sites, but they aren’t. People use search to look for information. When we type in the topic of a late breaking news story we don’t try different engines and key phrases until a source we recognize pops up in the results. That’s optimizing our information intake and it’s hard, we went to Google in the first place so we wouldn’t have to do this. Instead of optimizing our information intake, the majority of us will satisfice.  We click through on one of the results that’s provided; the one that looked like it might solve our problem in the three to five seconds we cared to spend scanning the page. We do this because the penalty is low and we know it usually works.

2. Underestimating The Quality Content Supply

Taking Newscorp’s content out of Google will only strengthen Newscorp’s rivals. As a content provider myself, I would love for Newscorp to remove themselves from Google’s index. And I’m not alone. There’s an army of new media publishers that have been doing a good job of slaying the print media dragon over the last few years and they would be overjoyed if a monster like Newscorp just took itself out of the online content provider gene pool.

Thousands of people will fill that void left by all the Newscorp results disappearing. Yes, a few loyal followers will follow the Wall Street Journal and New York Post content to Bing. (Or will they-if a user is specifically searching for a New York Post result, why not just search directly on the site itself? Why keep querying various third parties until you receive a result from the site you want?) People will keep using Google because it’s what they know, they deliver high quality results and they’ll keep clicking on the relevant search results that Google has always delivered, but non of them will be Newscorp results, and that’s a lot of clicks – people that are knowledge-hungry and primed to discover new information sources, ones that will replace Newscorp sources. It’s an opportunity that many online content creators will jump at.

3. No One Will Pick You Over Google, Even If You’re Google*

People trust Google. People trust Google so much that when a competitor’s search results are compared with Google’s and the brand names are switched, people pick the Google-branded results. No one thinks that Google is bad at search. When something is not included in Google’s search index, users don’t go looking for it or wonder, “gee why isn’t that Wall Street Journal article in Google, Google must be broken.” They think that the article in question is what’s broken, or that the website is down, or that it’s not included because it’s poor quality. This could be partially remedied by a traditional media marketing blitz, but that kind of marketing doesn’t work so well with the search savvy crowd that makes a conscious decisions about the engine they use; which makes that an incomplete solution at best, and at worst, an expensive waste of time. Either way, there will be serious damage to Newscorp’s various brands. (Damage to the tune of 25% of their current audience.)

*Yes, this brand bias will go away eventually, but that’s a long road; combined with the other factors above, Newscorp may never see the end of it.

Whither Bing?

This is a raw deal for Newscorp, but what about Bing? It would be great publicity for them and help keep the momentum they’ve generated, but it’s definitely not the high road. Paying 3rd parties to remove themselves from competitors’ search results isn’t a sustainable strategy and smacks of desperation.

It’s also a credibility issue with web developers and tech industry insiders: some prominent people are complaining that this is the start of a sky-is-falling scenario for the state of the current web. Microsoft is already much maligned in these circles because of the havoc that their deliberately non-standards compliant browsers continue to wreak on the web. This will just be one more notch on Microsofts let’s-piss-off the-community-we-operate-in-and-hire-from. Not that Microsoft cares, or at least they haven’t in the past.

3.1 The REAL Reason Newscorp Should Be Scared

You can take all of the above as biased rambling (I do work in search), but the real reason that Newscorp should be extremely concerned about the success of a search pullout is that Google’s response has essentially been, “we don’t care.”

“Google News and web search are a tremendous source of promotion for news organisations, sending them about 100,000 clicks every minute… Publishers put their content on the web because they want it to be found, so very few choose not to include their material in Google News and web search. But if they tell us not to include it, we don’t.”

And there isn’t anyone who knows more about the internet, or making money from the internet, than Google. Yes, they could be* are bluffing, but my money says they’re just looking at the future instead of the past, along with most of their users.


Google just announced it’s First Click Free program, allowing publishers to limit users to no more than five pages per day without registering or subscribing.

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