Sunday, November 22, 2009

Search Wars: Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures

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Unless you've been living under a rock, you're aware that Rupert Murdoch has been threatening to remove News Corp properties from the Google index as a means of punishing the Big G from profiting from its content. Many have weighed in on the pros and cons of such a move.

Today brings an interesting plot twist though. Apparently, Microsoft is offering to pay News Corp to "de-index its news sites from Google." According to the Financial Times, "Microsoft has also approached other big online publishers to persuade them to remove their sites from Google’s search engine."

Microsoft seems to have no limits to its scramble to catch Google. After spending millions to launch Bing, it struck a distribution deal with Yahoo but everything MSFT gained in share from Bing, Yahoo has since lost.

It looks like Microsoft realizes it can't catch Google just by improving its own product or aligning with other contenders. It has to cripple Google itself. But, will paying big publishers to remove their sites from Google be enough to break the Google Habit? I'm not so sure.

Frankly, I don't think that many searchers would realize that News Corp sites are missing from the index. Google has no shortage of other sources to cite for queries related to News Corp content so people will just get their news or entertainment from other places. Google is one of the top brands in the world. News Corp is not. Google is the source the masses trust when seeking information. News Corp is not.

It would take a coalition of all major news outlets to boycott Google for this to be a meaningful coup. And I don't think others are willing to cut off their nose to spite their face the way News Corp is ready to do. (After all, if I'm Turner and I just saw Murdoch remove his properties from Google, wouldn't I be thrilled to have that traffic come my way?) And, even if they would, there's plenty more to Google than just news search. In fact, who really searches for news anymore? Don't we all just lean back and let Twitter tell us what's going on in the world?

Meanwhile, while Microsoft is putting all this horsepower into figuring out a way to catch up in search, Google is busy launching Chrome OS. If this puts a dent into the Windows franchise, it would surely be a bigger blow to MSFT than the opportunity cost of not being #1 in search.

Now I'm not suggesting Microsoft give up on search. I've always been a proponent of fostering competition in search. That said, competition means all parties have access to the same sources of information. And a strong search platform (that will continue to provide ROI for advertisers) requires having all forms of content in the search engines, including news. So I'm not a fan of News Corp or any other publisher removing their sites from the search indices, much less Microsoft paying them to do so.

So let the Search Wars continue. But let's keep it clean, aye?

Update: I just commented on a post by Mark Cuban who calls this attack by Microsoft "smart." Danny Sullivan also weighed in, breaking down Cuban's argument frame-by-frame and countering blow-for-blow.

Update 11/23: MediaPost picked up my POV in its coverage of this story -- Could Microsoft-New Corp.'s Deal Mean Sharing Ad Profits? I talk about the technical aspects of this type of deal as well as why it won't have a big impact on consumers.

Update 11/24: Another press mention in MediaPost -- Can News Corp. Syndicate Its Content For Search Engine Use? I'm cited downplaying the importance of news search inventory for advertisers.

Update 11/24 #2: Gord Hotchkiss has a very thoughtful analysis of the "conscious decisions [people make] about where they go to get their news and information" in his post, Mindless Online Behavior: Web Navigation on Autopilot. Included is a great analogy comparing Google to a refrigerator. Required reading for anyone trying to better understand the potential implications of News Corp. pulling out of the Google index.

Update 11/24 #3: Just expanded on the thread around the mindset of news searchers on the Connectual blog -- Sorry News Corp, News Not Core to Search Advertising. Even included a subtle Foreigner clip!

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