Murdoch's Google gambit

11 Nov 2009

Say what you will about Rupert Murdoch and News Corp, but the man knows how to generate headlines. The news sites and blogs have been abuzz over his latest promise to remove News content from Google’s search engines.

The desire to put up a paywall is understandable – News Corp isn’t the only media company unhappy with the ad-subsidized model. Associated Press chief executive Tom Curley – who shares Murdoch’s feeling about aggregators – is also looking at a pay model, as is the New York Times (again).

But Murdoch’s obsession with Google and other search engines and aggregators as “copyright thieves” stealing News Corp content seems over the top (his own company’s blatant use of aggregators notwithstanding) and almost desperately out of touch with the 21st century.

True, Murdoch has said this before. And while search engines and aggregators have always claimed that they’re exempt from copyright infringement claims under the “fair use” doctrine, that hasn’t really been put to the test in court , and Murdoch told Sky News he was reasonably confident that the courts will ultimately bar fair use altogether.

But so far, there seems to be very little evidence to support Murdoch’s assertion that he’s better off without Google and other aggregators.

Murdoch has acknowledged that Google drives a certain amount of traffic to News Corp-owned sites like Wall Street Journal, but claims he’d rather have fewer regular paying subscribers, and that in any case, the extra traffic is “marginal”.

Not according to Bill Tancer of Experian Hitwise, who says that Google and Google news account for over 25% of's traffic. Tancer also says that “over 44% of visitors coming from Google are ‘new’ users who haven't visited the domain in the last 30 days.”

So at the very least, Murdoch could lose a valuable tool for landing new customers (even paying ones).

My spider-sense suggests he’ll lose a lot more than that, though that could just be my own telecoms-informed experience filtering his words. After all, Murdoch is essentially talking about “build it and they will come” walled gardens of exclusive content – a model that has never served the telecoms industry well (with the possible exception of IPTV).

Whether it will serve the newspaper business well remains to be seen – for the most part, it hasn’t yet, and the NiemenJournalism Lab at Harvard says it probably never will.

Either way, Murdoch’s claims about Google and other search engines ripping him off makes him sound woefully out of touch with Google’s own business affairs (though to be fair, maybe he’s never heard of AdSense, or Google’s plans to extend Google Checkout micropayments to newspaper articles, giving newspapers an easy way to charge money for them).

Moreover, his anti-search stance sounds all too similar to claims made by other media businesses whose traditional business models were undermined by the internet. The music industry and the film/TV industry have all tried to force the internet to respect their old analog business models on their terms.

Ten years later, they’ve all been forced to adapt their business models to conform to the internet’s web 2.0 model, and in some ways they’re still struggling with it. Sooner or later, the same is likely to be true of News Corp and every media company that follows its example.

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