Blocking Google isn’t the answer (or why Murdoch has it wrong) November 11th, 2009
Rupert Murdoch’s recent interview with Sky News in Australia has raised more than a few eyebrows this week. In it, he claimed that once his papers started charging for online content, they’d give the boot to Google, along with other search engines and news aggregators. With the exception of Mark Cuban, who lives in a fantasy world where more people find news content through Facebook and Twitter than through search engines, the general reaction online has been predictably hostile to Murdoch’s approach. If you watch the interview, though, Murdoch actually makes some noteworthy observations on the future of news.
Of course the move to block search engines is ill-advised. Google sends over a billion visitors to news websites every month. And whether you’re monetisation strategy is based on advertising or direct payment, the first step is getting enough traffic to monetise. Removing your news site from Google (or, more importantly, Yahoo News) is akin to taking your newspaper off the stands because you’re afraid people will read the ledes above the fold instead of buying the paper itself. Like a newsagent, search engines are an integral part of news distribution … only they don’t charge for connecting you to your readers.
Murdoch’s real beef is with changes in consumer behavior: he wants loyal readers for his news sites. But he’s forgotten that the medium affects the content. A newspaper is a discrete editorial artefact, but the web is an atomized collection of individual pages, and nothing will change that. A newspaper will have regular readers who buy the paper every day, whether through subscription or regular purchase. Others will buy a particular paper on a particular day because the splash is appealing. Online behavior is, in some ways, analogous. Those who consume online news regularly will visit certain sites (or read certain RSS feeds) with some frequency. Casual news consumers are more likely to seek information about a particular topic through search. Regular news consumers use search engines, too, when they’re interested in learning more about a topic of interest (in part because even some very good newspapers on the web today have very poor site search).
Two things differentiate online behavior from its offline counterpart. First, non-unique content is commodified. Before the Internet, most people only encountered one newspaper in a given day, so even a healthy padding of stories from a newswire was tolerable (or even welcomed). The same is not true online. The second difference is that switching is extremely easy online: it’s literally a click away. Unless your content is unique, making it difficult for your users to find and/or read your content means they’ll quickly find similar information elsewhere. Offline, people who buy a newspaper may not like the coverage of story x, but they’ve paid for the whole package, and even if they buy another paper to learn more about story x, the first paper is no worse off in the short term. The same isn’t true online, where a single disappointing story will drive users to other sites.
Fighting changes in consumer behavior is a losing battle, so it will be interesting to see how News International navigate the waters ahead.