Opinion

Shock! Why Murdoch may be more right than wrong about Google

Want to know something ironic?

I wrote a story earlier this week about Rupert Murdoch. At the time of writing, I thought that he was pretty much wrong. But based on what happened when that story went viral, I think he may have a point.

It was hard (if you’re a media-watching nerd like me) to miss the fact that Murdoch had given a good interview to Sky News. They certainly promoted it hard enough before airing it.

Despite the fact that Sky News part of the News Corp family, political editor David Speers gave him a testing interview.

And where it got interesting was when it came onto the Google parasite/ aggregator debate…

Speers: “You’ve been particularly critical of what you call the ‘content kleptomaniacs and ‘the plagiarists’. Are you particularly talking about Google here?”

Murdoch: “The people who just simply pick up everything and run with it, steal our stories, just take them without payment. There’s Google, there’s Microsoft, there’s ask.com, there’s a whole lot of people.”

Speers: “Their argument is that they’re directing traffic your way, that when somebody goes to Google and searches a topic and gets a link to a news website that’s somebody who would not otherwise go to your website.”

Murdoch: “That’s right.”

Speers: ‘So isn’t it a two-way street? Aren’t they helping you?”

Murdoch: “What’s the point of having somebody come occasionally who likes a headline they see in Google? Sure we go out and say ‘hey we’ve got so many millions of visitors’ . But the fact is there’s not enough advertising in the world to go around to make all of the websites profitable. We’d rather have fewer people coming to our website but paying.”

Speers: “Isn’t it the job once they hit your website to keep them there? It’s got to be a good enough website for them to come back.”

Murdoch: “If they’re just search people and there are  ten, 20, 50 references on that subject and they look through and see an interesting headline and hit that… when they click it, sure, they get a page of a story that’s in my paper. Who knows who they are or where they are? They don’t suddenly become loyal readers of our content.”

So good, so far. We’ve heard those moans from him before. But many have suggested he’s bluffing – after all – News Corp could always use the robots.txt protocol to tell Google not to index any given page. Up to now, he’s never really answered that point.

This time, he did…

Speers: The other argument from Google is that you could choose not to be on their search engine. You could simply refuse to be on so that when someone does do a search, your websites don’t come up – why haven’t you done that?”

Murdoch: “Well. I think we will. But that’s when we start charging. We do it already with the Wall Street Journal.”

Which seemed to me to be a bit of a bombshell, that hadn’t had the attention it deserved when the interview was broadcast on Saturday.

I wrote about it on Monday, and embedded the interview, which was on the Sky News YouTube channel. (Note the irony, by the way of the fact that I got my content from a NewsCorp-affiliated TV network and then effectively aggregated it with the help of a Google-affialiated file sharing service).

After I flagged it up on Twitter, the story of Murdoch’s threat to Google was vigorously retweeted. And overnight it was picked up in the US. Among others, digital comment king Jason Calcanis linked to our story, describing it as “the biggest news of the year”. It also went big on content-discovery site Digg.

Mumbrella Google MurdochI came in the next day to find that rather than our typical weekday 7000 or so visitors, we’d had 34,570. And they’d gone from being mostly Australian to predominantly overseas on that particular tale. We had links to the story from about 40 sites, the last time I looked. Google was listing 413 related news articles. The Sky News interview had been viewed on YouTube more than 74,000 views (compared to a more typical for the channel 74)

It also generated comments in the triple figures on our story, mainly of the view that Murdoch was an ageing idiot who didn’t get it. As I say, I kind of agreed: without Google, how on earth will the world know what you’ve got? We talked about it in this week’s Mumbrella podcast.

But do you know what? Almost without exception, those fickle new readers bounced away again after looking at that one page.

The traffic was nice as far as it went. Big traffic makes you feel special (and relieved that you’d recently upgraded your server). But it also left us with something of a dilemma. Some of our advertisers are on a cpm deal, which is relatively high, justified by our specialist industry audience.

Clearly we couldn’t really justify that to local advertisers when it’s an international audience. So we decided that our cpm advertisers could have that traffic for free, and emailed them to that effect before they started querying our startling analytics for that day.

So in this case this disloyal audience was, in all practical terms, not much good for us, or our advertisers. (Although,  it will be good for us in the long term for us in SEO terms of course)

But it makes me start to wonder whether Murdoch doesn’t have a point after all – not just in the direct value of a small, but paying audience, but also in the higher level of engagement this would bring to advertisers. It then becomes a conversation about engagement – and persuading advertisers of the value of that.

There is however a further flaw to Murdoch’s plan- these days, many users treat Google as their navigator and home page, even when they know what they want. For instance, if I want to see The Australian’s media section online, I’ll type those words into the Google search box on my navigator’s tool bar, then click though.

But equally, there’s nothing to say that News Ltd would apply robots.txt to every page – arguably some pages could sit, visible, the other side of the pay wall.

The move still may not work. But I do believe it is nowhere near as suicidal as many people believe.

And for the first time in the last few months, I no longer wonder if Rupert’s lost it.

Tim Burrowes

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