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Sorry, Tom Curley: Don’t Expect A Google Ranking Boost For The AP
Apparently talks between Google and the Associated Press aren’t going well, or so says Forbes today, with AP chief executive Tom Curley threatening to take his content and play elsewhere.
Where that will be is hard to say. Part of the AP’s original issue with Google was that AP’s own member publications would reprint AP material (which they’re allowed to do as members), causing there to be no single source that could benefit from AP traffic.
Google News Now Hosting Wire Stories & Promises Better Variety In Results covers how after a 2006 deal was struck, AP stories started being hosted on Google itself, as AP wanted (and has long hosted similarly at Yahoo). That would have seen to have solved the AP’s concerns, but apparently not.
The AP wants more money, it seems. How much more is uncertain. Terms of the original deal were never disclosed, and the best I’ve ever seen was Google CEO Eric Schmidt saying for the first time in April that it was a “multi-million deal.”
This has been construed in some quarters as a plan to create a search engine or news portal. But it’s really just an attempt to upgrade the AP’s search engine optimization strategy–that is, trying to get its stuff to show up higher on Google’s (GOOG) search results. It will do that via “search pages,” or “topic pages,” which are par for the course in the Web world. Check out this New York Times (NYT) page on Somali pirates, or this Huffington Post page on newspapers, and you’ll get an idea of where the AP is going.
If the search page plan works, the pages will be generating plenty of page views when people land on them, and it’s possible that the AP will sell ads on that inventory, Kennedy says. But their real function is to shuttle searchers to the original source material from the AP’s members.
I joked on Twitter that if you’re hoping to suck in Google traffic, it’s generally not a good idea to advertise that fact. Reason? As some point, Google will review its listings, recognized that listing 10 “topic” pages from all the publishers out there probably isn’t providing a diverse results set and change up the algorithm.
More important, Google’s web search quality team — which has nothing to do with Google’s business folks — generally does not take well to people suggesting they’re somehow going to own the search results. AP content probably will start ranking well for some things, but if it started showing up Wikipedia-style for everything, people outside the AP would start complaining about favoritism.
That’s what makes the Forbes piece so puzzling. AP chief executive Tom Curley (who the AP told me was “unavailable” to talk; nor after nearly two hours, does anyone else seem available) sounds naive enough to believe he can force Google into a deal that would give AP preferential treatment in regular search results:
Search rankings on Google News give priority to recognizable news brands like the AP. But Google applies no such algorithmic discretion to general searches. The broader search rankings spread AP content out across the Web, says Curley, encouraging misappropriation by other sites. Curley wants Google to “protect content from unauthorized use and pay us for the longtail.” By “longtail,” Curley refers to the thousands of small sites that collectively drive vast herds of traffic using AP content.
I’ve bolded the key part. Look, I don’t know who — if anyone — is doing SEO for the AP or providing them with advice. Judging from page titles alone, like this key press release about its content enforcement initiative that has no title (a key search ranking factor), they could use some help. And from the statement above, Curley either doesn’t understand how Google works or gets it and is purposely misspeaking. Or perhaps he was misinterpreted. If he’s ever available to talk, I’ll ask him myself.
Google News doesn’t give “recognizable news brands” a boost. I’ve never seen them say this, nor have I seen it actually happen in real life. Google News includes large and small news sites and lists a diverse collection of stories. I know lesser-known news sites do well because I run one of those. At times, I can have a headline story that beats the AP or other mainstream outlets in Google News.
As for the web, actually there’s a considerable debate on whether Google HAS given a brand boost recently (see Google’s Vince Update Produces Big Brand Rankings; Google Calls It A Trust “Change”). Certainly Google CEO Eric Schmidt has been stirring up the pot by repeatedly remarking what a “sewer” the internet is and how “brands” will sort it out.
Certainly if Google starts ranking brands better than other content, they’ll have issues. Brands do not equal trust. Enron had a brand; AIG has a brand — being a brand doesn’t mean that you are more trustworthy or deserve an automatic ranking boost. From my perspective, Google’s algorithm has continued to change over the past few years to reward trusted sites. Many brands have sites that Google has decided are trustworthy, but some don’t.
Curley is foolish if he thinks he’ll browbeat Google into somehow changing its algorithm in web search to reward AP as part of this deal. Google’s search quality engineers wouldn’t stand for that, any more than a journalist would stand for a newspaper CEO marching into a newsroom and demanding that certain advertisers get favorable stories written about them.
If the AP wants traffic to its own site, actually hosting content there is a good first step (and something I wrote about back last year, in Hey AP! How About Running A Real News Web Site?). If they’d done that years ago, they’ve have already earned trust in Google’s algorithms. Instead, they’re going to have to earn that from scratch just like everyone — by having content that lots of people point at with links.
Therein lies another challenge they face. People aren’t going to link to your content when you’re threatening them with your own made-up rules of what you consider fair use, as the AP has been doing and recently became more aggressive about.
In the end, perhaps the AP will walk away from Google. It’s always had the option to block off of its content from being listed. The issue remains that its member publications might continue to take AP stories and post them to the web. AP might try to sue Google for listing this content, but I’d expect legally, it would be the member publications that would be held accountable.
For more, see related discussion on Techmeme.
For a longer look from me at recent newspaper-Google issues, see my Google’s Love For Newspapers & How Little They Appreciate It post.
Postscript: Be sure to watch Tom Curley in this interview with Charlie Rose, where both he and Arianna Huffington talk about the future of news:
It’s remarkable on several fronts:
1) The AP believes that it can divide news content into headlines, lead paragraphs and full stories, each of which can be licensed for use. The essence of being listed in any search engine — not just Google and not just Google News — has been to use the title tag (usually also the headline) of a web page.
Does AP really believe it might strike deals to explicitly give search engines permission list their pages using title tags, when this has been commonly done for over a decade and without any serious legal challenge? And will it put the RSS genie back in the bottle, when RSS feeds typically explicitly offer titles and summaries to the public?
2) The AP wants to create a “newsmap” that takes people to the “authorative source” of a story — to show “who broke the news.” The implication here is that only the AP or its members, or other mainstream publications that AP wants to enlist, originate news.
Much news is originated from non-mainstream publications (yes, such as blogs), that the mainstream press works off of. There are plenty of examples where these non-mainstream publications don’t get credit as originating sources. Do they get included in the newsmap? If not, is the AP effectively doing the same type of robbing that it complains happens to it?
3) Curley asks who is going to pay for the “hard work” and Freedom Of Information Act requests and other types of in-depth journalism. That’s a good question, and I have my own concerns about that (as my Blogs & Mainstream Media: We Can & Do Get Along post covers). But again, it also suggests that only the mainstream media is equipped to do this.
They aren’t, nor are they the only source of hard work journalism. They do, however, often get better access than non-mainstream publications based on what they built over the years.
Perhaps the mainstream publications should give up some of their reserved seats in the White House press room to bloggers who cover politics to wider audiences than some newspapers currently have?
Perhaps with that better access, those bloggers might earn even more traffic, more revenue and be able to spend more time on further hard work journalism, not hindered by the fact that their old business models don’t fit the new publishing world.
Perhaps we might even see some online publications win Pulitzers? See my Time For Google To Fund An Online-Only Version Of The Pulitzers? post for further thoughts on this, as well as how when it comes to online news breaking, often various publications work together to undercover a story, rather than it having to be a huge solo effort.
4) I came away left with the feeling that Curley has no real idea what bloggers and online journalists do. There’s a stereotype the AP seems to have formed, and it’s not an attractive one. I imagine the AP view is that we’re all sitting in basements somewhere in our pajamas scanning Google News for stories from the AP that we merrily reprint without adding value or original content to (I’m actually in sweats today; normally if it’s warmer, I’m in shorts. I rarely wear pajamas to my home office, which isn’t in a basement).
I understand the serious business issues they face and the problems with content theft (which has happened to online publications for over a decade, by the way). But I desperately feel like various AP executives need to get out of their offices, get out of the executive meeting rooms at their member publications and instead roll up their sleeves and visit some actual bloggers at online publications in actions. I’ve been in newsrooms. I came from a newsroom. I know the work that goes on there. I don’t think the AP folks have any clue of the real honest hard work that goes out outside the newsroom. They should get that education, if they really want to form an educated business model for the future.
5) Finally, what exactly is the AP getting from its current deal with Google? We’re hearing it wasn’t a fair shake. OK, cough up, AP. Publish the terms. Tell us exactly what you agreed to in the first place. You’re a news organization; you’re making this an issue, so it’s odd we don’t know your current terms, in order to judge them.
By the way, if you are from a newspaper, you might also want to see my Quick Tips For Newspapers & SEO post.