More Google Sound and Fury
In the last two days, Google has made some changes to Google News, allowing publishers more control over how articles can be viewed for free. Yesterday, Google said it will let publishers limit readers to five free articles per day, a modification to its First Click Free program, and offered to crawl and index preview pages made available, labeling them in search results as Subscription. This morning, Google unveiled a web crawler specifically for Google News, allowing publishers to tweak their robots.txt file to exclude Google News but not regular search, or to further slice and dice what’s visible where.
All very interesting given the war of words between Google and publishers calling the search engine giant all manner of nasty names (nobody likes being called an intestinal parasite), a charge now led by Rupert Murdoch, who’s elbowed the Associated Press aside to head the brigade. This war has intensified of late, with word of talks between Murdoch’s News Corp. and Microsoft that could see News Corp. remove its news from Google in favor of Bing, Microsoft’s new search engine — and mutterings that News Corp. might challenge whether fair-use laws apply to aggregators. Google has fired back, in its blandly live-and-let-live way — I was amused to note that Google couldn’t resist making publishers look backwards by noting that they’d already been able to request being left out of Google News.
This is interesting political theater, but like a lot of political theater I maintain it doesn’t mean much.
First off, publishers’ paywalls aren’t fixed now, but then they weren’t cracked before in any meaningful way. On Computerworld, Seth Weintraub notes that “it is only going to be slightly more difficult to get around paywalls using the Google trick” — for instance, you could evade the five-articles-per-day limit by using a different browser in which you’re not logged into your Google account. Weintraub notes that “you know your sneaky little trick of getting around the Wall Street Journal’s paywall is mainstream if they demonstrate it on the NBC primetime show the Office,” which naturally leads to an embed of the now-famous clip in which Jim gets through to a paywalled Journal article in seconds flat. All true, but I think this misses something: In the show, only two of the assembled Dunder Mifflin employees know the paywall trick. As long as those percentages hold up, publishers with paywalls aren’t actually concerned about leaky paywalls, except for their usefulness in crying woe and trying to extract something from Google. This is the same misconception I objected to when NBC consultant Jeff Gralnick recently raised the specter of “some smart 12-year-old” getting around technological barriers — folks interested in digital journalism like playing around with technology, and so we tend to forget that most people don’t. (And I bet Computerworld bloggers run rings around us.) The idea of technological barriers isn’t to keep out the Jim Halperts of the world — that never works. Rather, it’s to keep out the Oscars and Dwights.
Nor am I worried that alliances between publishers and Bing would lead to a world of Balkanized search, a scenario raised by Ken Auletta in a New York Times conversation between him and Fred Wilson, moderated by John Markoff. The reason is the growing power of social search, which I explored in my last post. Auletta discusses social search too, asking, “Would you rather have the advice of 20 friends whom you know and trust and who share their experience with cameras, or 20,000 or so links from a Google search?” He’s right that we’ll opt for the former, but it’s not an either-or scenario: As Wilson notes, “I don’t see search and social as disconnected islands. I see them as connected important features that complement each other.” I’d take the metaphor a step further and say social search is the water that will connect all the islands. The speed of social search is uncanny — a good Twitter news feed will deliver the desired information from a vast range of sources, making the question of which engine indexes that information irrelevant.