Murdoch, Microsoft, and Google

Getting paid for indexing news wouldn't amount to much

So Rupert Murdoch is indeed trying to squeeze the search engines for some cash, something we figured a couple of weeks ago.

This is all well and good—the press can use any extra revenue it can get these days—but it’s hardly going to save the industry on its own. Even if the press could get Google to fork over 5 percent of its total revenue this year—something that would never happen—it would come to just $1.1 billion or so.

That’s nice, but even an outlandish number like that wouldn’t be nearly enough to fundamentally change the dismal economics of the Web for the press. Newspapers alone took in more than $3 billion in online ads last year and that doesn’t come close to cutting it.

In second-day coverage, The New York Times writes that such a pact could be a “watershed moment in the history of the Internet.” Well, maybe, but it would have been worth noting that such a thing is not without precedent. News Corp. itself got a $900 million contract from Google to index and provide ads for MySpace (though it will end up short of that because of traffic declines). Microsoft a few weeks ago said it would pay Twitter to index its content. That should have made the NYT story, too.

The story’s kicker is strange:

Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, argued that the Internet had tended to favor entities willing to share information rather than those trying to build barriers.

“The spirit of the Internet is about people working with each other, and that is part of the Google ethic. I think this move would strengthen Google.”

Say what? That doesn’t make sense.

But Danny Sullivan, who’s quoted in the piece, does:

“My reaction is that this is probably more of Murdoch trying to put pressure on Google for a deal than anything else,” Mr. Sullivan said.

Yep. This move seems more likely to be an incremental one for the news industry as far as revenue goes—even if it backfires. The implications for the search industry longer term, however, could be more interesting.

What’s interesting as a tangential news angle is something that venture capitalist Albert Wegner points out (h/t Josh Young): There’s a ton of room for competitors to come in and take business from Google:

But one thing that I have missed from everything I have read (and it may well be that it’s there and I missed it) is what this is truly all about: the immense competitive pull of Google’s amazing profits! The big challenge for businesses with network effects is how to split the profits pie between themselves and others.

I mentioned this in comments a couple of weeks ago:

Much as I don’t think Google would much miss the WSJ alone in its search results, Eric Schmidt has bemoaned the “cesspool” of poor information out there, and he wouldn’t want to see an exodus of professional content providers to a fat-pocketed Microsoft willing to lower its margins or even lose some money in order to weaken the Google search monopoly.

No (non-monopoly) company with gross margins of 63 percent and operating margins of 35 percent will keep them that high for long. That’s evidence of inefficiency in an industry and someone, sometime will come along and undercut such a company, cutting into those margins.

Whether for Google that comes from having to share revenue with the content creators (including non-professional ones) it makes money off of or something else no one knows. But Sullivan points out that Microsoft has already tried to give searchers themselves cash when they purchase something via a Bing ad—with little results (although I saved a few hundred bucks last year with it!).

What Murdoch seems to be trying to do is to find a way to de-commodify his news offerings, what with his talk of paywalls and extracting search-index payments. But it’s unclear if the two strategies could mesh. Why would Microsoft pay to index news that only subscribers can see? That would only work if News pursued a WSJ-style hybrid strategy where search clicks get one article free but navigating the site requires a subscription, but some at News, including Murdoch, have said it doesn’t like that model.

Basically, this is hardly a silver bullet for the news.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.