Putting The Screws To Google

How Old Media could take back its share of search's ad bounty

What if 2006 is the year big media players take aim at Google's (GOOG ) kneecaps? No, not with more lawsuits; the Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers -- on behalf, in part, of BusinessWeek's parent company, The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP ) -- and Agence France-Presse have already sued the search behemoth. Rather, picture this: Walt Disney (DIS ), News Corp. (NWS ), NBC Universal, and The New York Times (NYT ), in an odd tableau of unity, join together and say: "We are the founding members of the Content Consortium. Next month we launch our free, searchable Web site, which no outside search engines can access." (A simple bit of code is all it takes to bar all or some major search engines from accessing a site.) "From now on we'll make our stuff available and sell ads around it and the searches for it, but only on our terms. Who else wants to join us? Membership's free."

A Content Consortium would wreak havoc with the Web as we know it in its bid to restore the role of content owner as gatekeeper. It could shrink some opportunities for lucrative targeted search ads à la Google's AdWords or Yahoo! (YHOO ) Search Marketing, applications that seriously rankle more than a few media executives. (You're selling ads against free access to my content?) Aggregating many powerful brands -- The Simpsons, ESPN (DIS ), Law & Order, and The New York Times, for starters -- under one rubric would give them the heft that no individual editorial entity possesses in the search-engine economy. (For help in assembling what you may think is an unspeakably Old Media idea, I thank newspaperman-turned-wireless-executive Art Howe and Slate.com's editor-at-large, Jack Shafer.)

"FOR THE LIFE OF ME, I CAN'T IMAGINE why they haven't done it," says Tom Curley, CEO of Associated Press. Here's one reason: Doing it would require spinal implants for intimidated media barons. But the notion that some pushback is pending is not far-fetched. Curley says he is talking with potential partners about setting up subject-specific Web packages -- say, for travel or basketball -- that will include content from multiple media. Once partners are on board and packages are finalized, search engines will be invited to bid for that traffic.

One ethos governing Web content holds that content owners must be respected and paid. Call this the traditionalist view. Another contends that future value lies not in content but in the conversations and communities formed around it. Call this the Web commons view. Its adherents say pulling back from today's Web has hideous implications. "The ecology produced by [a Content Consortium's] set of rules is a poorer environment than what's produced by the leaky, relaxed set of practices" of today, says Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig. A Content Consortiumed Net, he says, would resemble one of 10 years ago, dominated by proprietary services such as Prodigy. (Show of hands: Anyone hot to go back to that?) And would it work? Much of Google's juice comes from searches for product data; a key selling point for AdWords is catching consumers while they're avid to buy. Would news or entertainment drive the rates for search ads as high?

A content consortium has failed before. In 1995 nine newspaper companies joined to create something similar: the New Century Network, which failed spectacularly amid internal dissension. But 1995 was long before the Web was anything, back when Microsoft (MSFT ) wore the black hat and Yahoo posted directories of links, not billion-dollar earnings. Facing the gallows, the saying goes, concentrates the mind, and traditional media today are grappling with slowed growth -- or worse. "I'm trying to think of someone who isn't under siege," says Howe.

Any such moves would bring serious side effects. Walling off search engines could reduce the Consortium's traffic to a trickle and anger the open-Web crowd. But perhaps traditional players are too busy enjoying a delicious frisson to worry -- imagining that even though Old Media's fortunes are waning, it can still put some hurt on the new guys.

For Jon Fine's blog on media and advertising, go to www.businessweek.com/innovate/FineOnMedia

By Jon Fine

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