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A recent trip to Europe brought home to me the fact that the American and European publishing worlds are divided by far more than an ocean. In Paris as in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, all publishing talk sooner or later turns to the matter of Google. But in Europe. the talk often turns ugly.

Whatever one thinks of Google (and all publishers think about Google), there is little doubt that in just a few years, Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have become the most influential people in the publishing industry, at least in the U.S., taking that distinction away from Jeff Bezos.

(Nostalgists recall when the Riggios (who control Barnes & Noble) ruled the roost, or, going back even further, when Harry Hoffman was the big dog.  I doubt that anyone currently active in the industry can remember a time when the most influential person in publishing was a publisher.  Bennett Cerf, perhaps?)

The European animus toward Google stems from many things, not least of which is that Google is viewed as very much an American company.  But beyond nationalist passions is a misunderstanding of the scope of the Google enterprise.  As fans of Star Trek know, resistance to the Borg is futile.  Google is now the defining entity in the information landscape.  To flourish, as best as publishers can hope to flourish, it’s necessary to find a place within the Google ecosystem.  There is no world elsewhere, no little pocket of commerce beyond the reach of Google’s audience aggregation, no opportunity to erect protectionist barriers or to appeal to the legacy of one’s own institutions.  To those who resent Google’s huge bulk and ambition, it has to be said:  Get over it.

Part of the resistance to Google derives from the company’s view of copyright, which, at least to European ears, sounds entirely wrong. Even for those, including myself, who have a traditional view of copyright (that is, during the term of copyright, copyright serves the interests of the producer), might pick nits.

However, it has to be said that whether Google’s view ultimately prevails or not (I think it will), obsessing about this one aspect of the Google program obscures what is happening in the marketplace and all the new publishing opportunities Google is creating.

For example, even as publishers take umbrage over the unauthorized digitization of copyrighted material in the Google Book Search project, it has to be recognized that the core Google search function, located at http://google.com, is a leading, and for many sites, the leading source of Web traffic.  Not all publishers value Web traffic as they should, which leads to an underestimation of Google’s significance.  If a publisher has traditionally worked through channels (principally bookstores, whether online or bricks-and-mortar), the implications of a direct relationship with end-users or customers may not be fully understood.

With the various Google Book Search features, publishers also have a number of intriguing ways to engage readers.  Google enables readers to search inside the book, which should yield more traffic, some portion of which can be converted to sales. Google also publishes its API (application program interface), which allows some of the features on its site, including the ability to search inside a book, to appear on the publisher’s Web site.

Let’s ponder this for a minute.  How many publishers could have created the “search inside” feature on their own?  How large does a publisher have to be to make this kind of IT investment?  And here Google is essentially giving it away to publishers.  I have heard Google referred to as “a taker, not a maker,” but if it is a taker, it’s one with an unexpected and apparently magnanimous ethical calculus.

The useful services Google provides to publishers keep growing.  Google Editions, which is expected to be introduced shortly, will enable the sale of ebooks.  Just what a publisher will be able to do with those ebooks is still something of a mystery — or at least it’s partly a mystery, making it hard to distinguish what Google plans to do with the endless speculation about Google’s strategy.  (This underscores the fact that Google is a premium brand:  the aura surrounding the company is many times larger than the company’s services themselves.)  From Google’s declared aim to allow online retailers to resell Google Editions, it appears probable that once again there will be a published API so that publishers as well as retailers can put the Google Editions on their own sites.  Google will charge for sales of Google Editions, but Google’s share is less than what publishers traditionally give to booksellers.  Google Editions will be viewable through any Web browser, which opens up intriguing questions as to whether this will serve as a form of DRM.  What happens when you close the browser?  If you can cache the ebook offline, can a browser-based solution allow copies to be shared?  We shall see, but in the meantime it appears that Google is trying hard to make their services palatable to publishers.  It’s almost as though Google is saying, “Look — you give us us mass digitization, and we will give you everything else.”

With the invention of the motion picture by Thomas Edison, the book lost its place as the center of the media universe.  All other innovations, from radio to television to the Internet, helped to push the book out further.  Now we live within a media landscape that has no center, but which does have a dominant issue, and that is the matter of online discovery, for which search engines, and Google in particular, are the dominant modes.

Google does not always behave the way publishers would like it to, but that’s true of any large company.  Nor is it always respectful of the media types that preceded it — the prerogative of the young, brash, and successful.  The question for publishers, however, isn’t whether Google sits up straight in class with its hands folded on the desk, but whether any publisher can afford to ignore this upstart.

For publishers, this is the Google century, or maybe just the Google decades, but either way, not to engage this extraordinary organization is likely to lead to obscurity.

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Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.

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Discussion

17 Thoughts on "Publishing in the Google Ecosystem"

Google is in some ways magnanimous, but it’s important to note that for everything they give, someone is paying a steep price. Google’s business model is to drive the price of everything on earth towards free, everything except for one thing that is, Google Advertisements. That’s it, that’s pretty much the reasoning behind everything they do, selling those ads. If you’re a paying customer of a service that Google decides to offer for free, then they’ve been magnanimous to you. If your livelihood is based on selling that service, then “magnanimous” is probably not a word you’d use to describe them. Just ask GPS manufacturers how thrilled they are with Google’s recent generosity.

Doing business in the digital age means that there will always be someone else willing to give away the thing you’re selling in order to sell something else. No matter what business you’re in, this is something you must be aware of and prepare for. You must find reasons your customers would continue to pay for your product rather than use the free alternatives or look for another job. Google is the prime operator in this realm.

You ask whether a publisher can afford to build expensive IT infrastructures. The answer comes from a posting Kent wrote a few days ago. Yes, publishers can afford these things by forming coalitions and spreading the cost among many. Many scholarly publishing houses are already in such coalitions, outsourcing our IT work to companies like Highwire or Atypon. These companies are able to build in state of the art technology at costs that are amortized across hundreds of publishers.

The other question you raise is the value of the attention economy. I think there’s often a huge mistake made in equating traffic with revenue. Is it of any benefit if Google sends a huge number of freeloaders to your website? Very few websites are selling all of their ad capacity. Adding more viewers who aren’t paying doesn’t add any additional revenue. This is starting to get attention given Rupert Murdoch’s recent announcement that he’s planning to block all his properties (WSJ, Fox News, NY Post, etc.) from Google. There are those who think he’s insane for even suggesting it. But there also arguments that Google is losing importance in realtime news reporting to things like Twitter and Facebook (follow-up here). If Murdoch blocks Google and traffic drops by 75%, but revenues remain the same (or increase), has he lost anything? Personally, I think it’s all part of a ploy on his part to get search engines to start paying for website spidering. He’s seen that Google and others paid to index Myspace and Twitter. Why not other websites? If you want your search engine to be the most authoritative, it needs to be as complete as possible. Perhaps Bing, Yahoo or some startup will start paying sites for exclusive rights to spider their content. If that happens, and Google is less comprehensive, does their traffic and level of influence drop?

I did like your first comment –it’s balanced and it’s true. But if the alternative to Google is Kindle and Amazon, I’m sorry to say that I’m not willing to travel to prehistory in order to stop Google from its goals. I’m not sure on what we are going to make a living in the near future and for we I mean publishers, editors, publicity editorial people and authors! yes, authors, but I’m sure the answer is not a proprietary platform like Kindle.

I’m no fan of Amazon and the Kindle platform, and I’ve regularly called for open formats and standards for e-books. But I trust Google even less than I trust Amazon. Amazon’s core business here is selling books. Google’s core business is selling ads. If Google found a way to sell more ads that destroyed the entire bookselling market, they’d do so in a heartbeat, whereas Amazon doesn’t have ad sales as an ulterior goal.

David, I see Google like the Schmoon created by Al Cap in post-war America. They reproduce asexually, they are terribly gentle, they taste like oysters and are eager that you eat them. They are, though, terrible dangereous for established values and for chains of added value. But they are over here; we adventured ourselves, like Li’l Abner, in the Valley of Schmoon and we are eating them voraciously.
The Google Schmoon are not good nor evil, they are different and, although they seem so generous and oblivious of their own good, they are pitiless about the changes they are introducing in our lives and economies. Pitiless and relentless. As they tell us in the 7th commandment of their decalog, they prey on our gusto for immediate satisfaction. Amazon has nothing to do in a world of schoon.

That’s a great metaphor, and perhaps a better one than the commonly used “Borg” Star Trek reference. I like it because the Borg were generally seen as evil, whereas the Shmoon, like Google are in some ways neutral.

On a side note, it’s interesting to see Google wresting the Borg nickname away from Microsoft these days, and it certainly says something about their places in the technology world.

Great post, Joe. Google’s goals, like them or not, are clear enough, and, yes, they sometimes challenge established systems. While Google will not always be Google (unless they remain hungry and competitive), it will be a long time before our online search and discovery changes dramatically. As someone whose traffic is greatly enhanced by Google, I happily accept the trade-offs created. I could easily block Google from indexing my site. It wouldn’t hurt them; it would harm me.

Suggesting that content providers withold content from Google assumes people will blithely traipse to another search engine if results turn up blank. Given the reputation for quality and completeness Google has earned, it’s more likely that people will assume the information does not exist (at least not in the way publishers desire — as we’ve seen with withholding ebook editions, there are no legitimate options in search results).

Nothing is stopping the greater publishing industry from coming up with better tools; I don’t see that as likely, though I watch all innovation avidly. The commenter who suggested forming coalitions to spread the costs associated with investing infrastructure ignores the fact that it’s been over a decade and nobody’s stepped up. It’s not too late.

As for the value being pushed to zero? I have problems with the analysis.

There are two equations that make sense in terms of withholding a site from Google. If, like the publications where I work, you make money by charging for access, then it makes no sense, as more awareness means more customers buying access. But if you’re a site like the NY Post, and you give your content away for free, what does increased traffic mean to you? If you have X number of visitors per day without Google, and Google increases that traffic to 5X, does that mean you’re making more money? Most websites only sell a small percentage of their ad capacity. Adding more capacity does not mean more ad sales. Traffic does not immediately equal revenue.

The other equation involves getting some other search engine to pay you for your content. I’m not the only one suggesting that this is Murdoch’s plan here:

If other media companies joined Murdoch Google could actually find itself in a very difficult position, where Bing had content that Google didn’t. If you knew that Wall Street Journal and, say, New York TImes content was only in Bing search results, mainstream search users would suddenly have a big reason to go to Bing.

As for coalitions, they don’t necessarily have to innovate, their point is to keep resources in-house at an affordable level for small publishers. I work for a small, not-for-profit publishing house. We can’t afford a huge full-time IT staff. Relying on other companies, particularly ones whose business models may conflict with yours is a recipe for disaster. Two recent examples: The URL shortening company tr.im recently announced they were going out of business. If you relied on them for producing short versions of all of the URLs in your publication, you would be in big trouble. If instead you were part of a group that provided such solutions internally, you wouldn’t have to worry about the status of tr.im’s finances in order to keep your own business running. Friendfeed was recently bought by Facebook, which has upset quite a few communities that have built themselves around Friendfeed, which will soon change into something else entirely. Again, if your publications relied on this third party, you’d be hosed, but if you had your own affordable technology solution, one that wasn’t innovative but provided a comparable service in-house, you’d be in better shape.

And I’m not sure how much further analysis is necessary to understand that Google’s business model involves giving things away for free in order to sell ads.

An excellent overview of how Google’s “less than free” business model is brutally disruptive to other businesses can be found here:

“if a disruptive competitor can offer a product or service similar to yours for ‘free,’ and if they can make enough money to keep the lights on, then you likely have a problem.”

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