Sunday, September 16, 2007

Google's plan to poach election traffic

Google is road-testing a major initiative capable of hijacking a good deal of the web traffic the mainstream media ordinarily would get during the 2008 election in the United States.

Fortunately for the MSM, Google’s ambitious new online publishing project went on public view last week in Australia. So, American newspapers interested in preserving as much of their flat-lining web traffic as possible should waste no time in taking a look at Australia Votes, the up-and-coming way of presenting the political news from Down Under.

Australia Votes signals a significant strategic shift on the part of Google to become a primary web destination, as opposed to restricting itself to its historic role as a supplemental, though highly valuable, research tool. As such, it eventually could compete head to head with not only the likes of CNN, the Washington Post and all the other media biggies but also with the tiniest of tiny weeklies.

If you don’t think the mainstream media are vulnerable to Google’s greater growth, look at the data.

As you can see in the graph below from Alexa.Com, Google and its new subsidiary, You Tube – respectively the third and fourth busiest sites on the Internet – have been gobbling market share over the last three years at the expense of the mainstream media (and, of course, certain other competitors, too). The combined traffic of Google and You Tube would lift them well above Yahoo and Microsoft, the top two sites.

Meanwhile, ABC, the highest-ranking MSM site, has dropped to No. 48 today from a position in the 20s three years ago. And the New York Times, the highest-ranking newspaper site, has fallen to 209 today from the top 50 in the early part of 2006.

The Google election project, an elegant mashup of Google’s arsenal of search, mapping, video, widget and other technologies, is a preview of how all but the most technologically recalcitrant consumers will expect to get political – and many other types of – news in the future. In addition to delivering a wealth of well-packaged election information and interactive tools, Google has created four content-pushing widgets and a number of ways for users to express their opinions via forums and home-brewed video.

I’m going to save myself a bunch of typing (and you a lot of reading) by linking here to the promotional video on the project that Google has posted at the explosively growing You Tube. Before you go, however, let’s consider the implications of this latest affront to the once-unchallenged power and glory of the legacy media companies:

Australia Votes – and the all but certain sequel, America Votes – demonstrates emphatically the lopsided competitive advantage Google (and similar but less formidable web publishers) has over the traditional media companies.

While the MSM bear the enormous costs of producing content and delivering it via capital-intensive print or broadcast infrastructures, Google (a) pays nothing for the content it scours off MSM web sites, (b) incurs essentially no costs in selling advertising and (c) spends a trivial percentage of its more than $13 billion in annual sales on the 24/7 data centers that require human intervention only when they go awry.

Although Google is brilliant at finding, aggregating, indexing and rapidly presenting the collective wit and wisdom of the web, dozens of libraries worth of books and a growing array of public documents, Australia Votes, like all Google products, contains zero original content produced by Google, if you don’t count the promotional video. Instead, Google is populating Australia Votes with original content provided for free by the mainstream media companies whose lunch, as previously reported here, it already has begun to eat.

Now or in the future, Google can make money off the large and expanding audience of sites like Australia Votes by selling advertising to marketers who use a totally automated, self-service system that gives them immense control over their buys and the instant gratification of minutely tracking the success of their campaigns. What Google does not have is the sort of large, highly compensated sales staff that is employed by every newspaper, magazine and broadcast outlet in the country (save for public broadcasters, who rely on the support of listeners and viewers like you).

Unlike the humans creating content, selling ads and producing products at the legacy media companies, Google's massive computer arrays do not require lunch breaks, sleep, vacations or union representation. To be clear: I’m not against lunch, sleep, vacations or union representation, each of which I have enjoyed to a greater or lesser extent in the course of my career.

But Google’s boldest-yet intrusion into the formerly sacred space of the MSM underscores the urgent need for legacy operators to cut their embedded costs to be able to compete in the future with Australia Votes and the many similar initiatives surely coming down the line.

Among other efforts, the MSM need to take a page from Google by learning to publish efficient, compelling and customizable database-driven sites like Australia Votes or Chicago Crime. And they need to emulate the frictionless online advertising platform that fuels Google’s high-margin success.

And here’s one more out-of-the-box idea: The MSM may want to start thinking about charging Google for their valuable content before they discover they can’t afford to produce it any more.

UPDATE 9/17/07: The cautionary note in the above paragraph goes double for the New York Times, which announced today that it will stop charging for access to its premier columnists.

The decision sort of makes sense, given the steady deterioration in the newspaper's web traffic since Times Select launched two years ago this month (see graph below). While this decision may arrest the declining ratings of the Times web site and create a decent number of new premium advertising opportunities, the comparatively small amount of fresh ad revenue generated by this decision will not sustain over the long term the formidable expense of generating the content for which the Times is rightfully admired.

Accordingly, the Times and the other MSM need to work harder than ever to cost-effectively produce engaging new-media content to compete with initiatives like Australia Votes that threaten to take ever-more-meaningful chunks out of the mainstream media business.

4 Comments:

Blogger T Heller said...

For the most part, I agree with your criticism of Google raking in money from the news & information laboriously assembled by tradional media. It does constitute an 'imminent threat'.

But in this instance, election data is NOT produced by the MSM -- it comes from local election systems.
So, the election data itself ('tho not the context or interpretation of such) is an electronic commodity not needing any (or much) human intervention.

However, it is undeniable that Google and the Web enjoys an immense advantage in the *distribution* of that data.

1:32 PM  
Blogger Newsosaur said...

Contrary to the comment above, the data on Australia Votes is not from local election systems, although some material comes from public proceedings.

The overwhelming body of information indexed bu Google was produced - and paid for - by news organizations.

5:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mark, you are ignoring the real tragedy. Probabily because you are on the techno side of things.

This will kill journalism. There will only be bloggers.

Who are these bloggers? Are these bloggers going to make a great effort to get the facts right? Are they going to strive to display facts objectively? Or are they just going to use information to shore up their opinions, which even the good bloggers do, like the bloggers at public address.

You can't expect the public to trawl through public documents. Journalists are by in large not interested in expressing their opinions or the opinions of the legacy papers, which, by the way, don't exist anymore or hardly do; if by legacy you are referring to the family run papers of the past, which, were actually quite good at defending journalistic values if you look at the history. Better than Murdoch and co, who can hardly be said to be running family papers in the old fashioned sense.

Who is going to write the news? The NEWS, not the celebrity columns. Do you REALLY want to get your news from celebrity columnists and egotistical, banded, bloggers?

Public funding may be the key. But who wants the state to control news, even in the most benign country. Even here, the Labour government are doing their best to control media with the little bit of control they have (e.g., control of cameras in the house).

This is an aspect of Western culture's final decent in fascistic narcissism. You can say that it follows from technology. Technology is just speeding the process up.

Great article, but you leave some major and very serious questions alone that need to be answered. Who is going to write the NEWS.

ie.

This happened. He sad, she said. End

And don't come back with specious stuff about everything being relative. Most journalists do what they do because they believe in it - otherwise they would move on to better paying jobs. All professional journalists, when they are writing hard copy, stick very fast to definite rules as to how a news story should be arranged. It's not perfect, but it is a dam site better than blogging.

Without news we are doomed. Why should advertisers advertise in newspapers when they get more revenue on porno sites?

We are going to be living in a state with two systems. Personal Fascism and State Fascism. State opinion vs personal opinion. Personal opinon which will, I guarantee, be wide open to pay offs by loaded corporations. Where the middle voice of the ordinary working journalist working with professional standards?

The legacy days, if I take you to mean what I think you mean by that, will be looked upon with longing in the future. The local newspaper owner of the past will look like a saint before this process is through.

Can you give me an answer or should I get a posse together and start smashing computers now? More seriously, what practical things have to happen to save the integrity of NEWS? Should papers start charging google for using their text? How could they do that? Google would surely just cut them off if they attempted it.

6:12 AM  
Blogger newshare said...

To anonymous:

Can you identify yourself? Your comments are worth of broader exposure.

-- bill densmore,
media giraffe project
413-458-8001
densmore@journ.umass.edu

5:56 PM  

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