December 3, 2009

Google vs news corporations

"Information wants to be free" is an adage that is frequently quoted these days when discussing the question: should we (the public) pay to see information online or not? I guess the information itself doesn't really care whether it is free or not. After all, information is in the eye of the beholder and, thus, an interpretation of online data.

Up until now, it seems that Google has taken the position that its search engine should show searchers whatever it can find on any given topic, whether access to the source is free (as in: available without registration) or not. As of yesterday, it seems that Google has changed its policies and has given in to the powerful lobby of traditional media. See e.g. this article from the L.A. Times

To make this more concrete, consider the case where you're searching for the string "google access news media". Let's say that there are 100 webpages available on this topic, half of which require a subscription. Let's consider this situation from different perspectives.

From the perspective of searchers: whether you want to see the 50 pages that require a subscription depends on your personal preferences. Some searchers wouldn't mind subscribing to see a well-written article by the NewYork Times. Others would. In other words, the aptness of the NewYork Times article - which requires a subscription - depends on the individual searcher (see e.g. my dissertation on the topic of Aptness on the Web for more details).

From the perspective of news agencies: news agencies have traditionally operated from a business model where selling (access to) content is the primary revenue stream. This originated from the old days where physical newspapers were sold. The transition to the Web has been difficult as the competition from ‘free’ news items (in the Netherlands from e.g. nu.nl) is high. Search engines and other portals with access to news are, to say the least, a major source of concern for the traditional news media.

In short, the old business model doesn’t seem to work anymore and should be replaced. Having not yet found a good new business model, news agencies hang on to the old way of doing things.

From the perspective of Google: Google is in a tight spot. On the one hand, searchers benefit mostly from high quality content which may include (references to) news items which require subscription. For example, some searchers may not want to see articles that require subscriptions at all, whereas others wouldn't mind as long as it's obvious that they have to subscribe in order to see the content. On the other hand, Google benefits from a good relation with news agencies which may be a source of revenue in the form of advertisements.

It appears that Google has bent for the power of the dollar, resulting in limited access to content that used to be free. Several interesting questions remain:

  • What will be the impact on user perception? J. Random Searcher has grown accustomed to the fact that Google is a one-stop-shop for online content, be it in the form of websites, blogs, or news.
  • Will newspapers really benefit from the new situation? I personally doubt it as, in my busy life, I just don’t have the time to surf to the websites of many different news agencies to search for a specific bit of news.
  • On a more technical level, what will Google do with its cache? So far, the cache made it (sometimes) possible to see content which may have required a subscription in its original form. What will they do now? One option would be to provide access to cached versions of news after e.g. 2 weeks.

So far I’ve seen many blogposts and media cover this story. The topic seems to be buzzing on Twitter and other social media also. I’m not convinced that this is a good move by Google. But then again, I prefer (access to) information to be free! I can't help but feel that Google trails behind 0-1 in the 'battle' with news corporations.

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