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Dear News Corp & Google: An Open Letter On Their Open Letters To Each Other Over Competition
After media giant News Corp slings accusations at Google, the search & advertising giant pushes back. A close-up on the claims.
Last week, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp sent an open letter to the European Union outlining competition concerns it has about Google. This week, Google has fired back with its own open letter addressed to Murdoch. Both letters have issues, so consider this an pseudo-open letter to both of them.
The News Corp letter was sent to Joaquín Almunia, who is overseeing the on-going investigation of Google on anti-trust charges. The letter painted the image of a Google that has no interest in fighting piracy and which redirects users doing searches back to itself, in an attempt to stifle competition.
Google has now responded with its own letter called “Dear Rupert,” which responds to the accusations.
On Fighting Piracy
Google responded to News Corp accusations that it was a “platform for piracy and the spread of malicious networks” by saying it had “done more than almost any other company to help tackle online piracy” and provided stats about removing hundreds of millions of web pages.
Google also noted that it downgrades sites accused of pirating content. This is known in the SEO space as the Pirate Update. It was introduced in August 2012 and is a system that has to be periodically run to capture new sites. Google has never announced a fresh run of its Pirate filter, so citing this feels odd. It means that for over two years now, Google’s not tried to rerun that system to catch new sites exhibiting such behavior.
NOTE: Previously I’d written that Google said it regularly downgrades sites deemed to be exhibiting pirate-like behavior. That was a mistake. Google said “we downgrade websites that regularly violate copyright in our search rankings.” So Google wasn’t claiming that it regularly penalizes such sites; it was saying that it goes after those deemed to regularly violate copyright. But the broader issue remains — if Google’s going to highlight taking this type of action, then Google itself needs to be regularly doing it. And since Google has never publicly acknowledged any update to its Pirate filter, that doesn’t seem to have happened.
The One Click Away Refrain
Google pushed back on accusations that the company makes it hard for people to “access information independently.” Google employed its oft-used defense that Google’s competition is “just one click away,” pointing out that huge numbers of people go to News Corp properties directly and highlighted what it says is growing competition in both the social and search space.
True. Especially true that social has risen as a new and sometimes larger way that people locate sites, hurting the whole “Google is gatekeeper” argument. But as I’ve written before, Google is also this:
Google is a habit, one that can be as hard to break as smoking — and one that people often have little interest in breaking, since for huge numbers of people, Google does a great job helping them find what they want, for free.
So yes, the competition is one click away. But people rarely click away, because of that habit — and a habit made stronger as they keep using Google, and as it keeps learning more about them, which makes it possible for Google to do a better job providing them with what they want.
Shooting Itself In The Foot Over Direct Answers
Google oddly decided to defend its practice of showing direct answers in its search results, something that News Corp didn’t raise, by saying that this is much “quicker and easier” for users. Unfortunately, there’s a strong argument that Google’s increasing use of direct answers is worse than the limited usage of material critics have mainly complained about.
Consider this search for “how to reset iphone,” shown below:
It certainly is easier for users doing that search on Google to get the exact step-by-step instructions on how to reset their iPhones. But that’s not information Google somehow inherently knew. It’s information Google copied off another site. And while that site gets a link credit, there’s very little reason for many to actually click through to the site. Google gets an answer; the site gets nothing.
Let’s Talk News Corp Idiocy
If I’m sounding like I’m bashing Google at this point, well, Google’s making some bad points. I’d also have bashed the News Corp letter when it originally came out, but News Corp has a long history of saying stupid things about Google.
At this point, personally I find it makes more sense to just ignore the latest absurdities from News Corp rather than waste the time treating them as serious charges. Here’s a recap of some past analysis I’ve done:
- Dissecting The AP & Murdoch Speeches Against Those Internet News Thieves
- Would Someone Please Explain To News Corp How Google Works?
- Google’s Love For Newspapers & How Little They Appreciate It
- Garlic For The Google Vampire
- If Newspapers Were Stores, Would Visitors Be “Worthless” Then?
Google & Killing Baby Businesses
If I had done a write-up of the News Corp letter last week, when it first appeared, this part would have made me spit whatever I might have been drinking all over my monitor:
Sudden changes are made to the ranking and display of Google search results, which inevitably maximise income for Google and yet punish small companies that have become dependent on Google for their livelihood.
Why yes, small businesses, News Corp cares about you and is now fighting on your behalf to stop those Google changes that might cost you traffic. That’s what this is all about!
The reality is someone over at News Corp, compiling a grab-bag of complaints to light and place on Google’s doorstep, said “let’s toss in how they devastate all those small businesses.”
Here’s the thing. Those ranking changes aren’t sudden, if you mean in terms of constantly happening each day. The biggest shift tends to be associated with Google’s Panda Update, which tends to happen lately every few months and targets content that’s deemed to be of poor quality or “thin.”
NOTE: A few hours after this was posted, Google coincidentally released its latest Panda Update.
Google has also taken action against sites that do more egregious things to rank in its search results. Those actions also tend to happen on a periodic basis. But are they killing small companies overall? Absolutely not.
Over ten years ago, people complained that a major Google change known as the “Florida Update” was killing small companies. Today, when Google makes other changes, the same accusations come out. So as I’ve written before, how is it that there can be any small companies left for Google to kill, after all this time?
The answer is that plenty of small businesses get tons of traffic from Google, have done so for years and continue to do so.
The answer also tends to be how you want to define “small business.” If small business is that you have a site earning money online teaching people how to make money by having sites that teach others how to make money online, you’re probably are having a tough time with Google. But if small business is that you have valuable products and services, you might find things are easier. That’s especially so for local businesses, which get more of the Google search results than ever before.
The Undocumented “Well Documented”
Anyway, Google itself responded to the accusation it’s hurting small businesses by saying that it’s about helping users, not punishing small companies. It also said that it is “well documented” that its Panda Update “actually reduced our advertising revenue.”
I don’t know that it’s that well documented, actually. Certainly Google didn’t document the claim that it was well documented. It was well known that several major Google partners that carried its AdSense ads — like Demand Media — were hit with traffic losses that reduced their revenues. There probably was some blowback against Google itself, and it’s a fair point to make that Panda may indeed have cost it short-term revenue. But the company best able to document that, Google, never has, that I know of.
Postscript: Thanks to Enrico Altavilla, who at Google+ pointed me to Google itself talking about the impact of Panda on its earnings. It’s the type of documentation that I’m saying Google itself should have provided in its post. From its Q2 2011 earnings call, Google said:
Google Network revenue was also up 20% year-over-year to $2.5 billion, 2% quarter-over-quarter. Network revenue was again negatively impacted by the Search quality improvements made during the latter part of Q1, as you will remember, and know that Q2 reflects a full quarter of this impact. This impact is to be expected in the short-term, given that it is now different publishers that are receiving traffic and may not have yet optimized their sites for our advertising programs.
Google’s network advertising grew, but not as much as it might have if Panda hadn’t been put into place. Later, Google went on to say specifically:
Panda was a change made by the search team with the goal of improving overall search experience. There was, as we talked about last time, some negative effects from the AdSense partners. However, Panda does — or any search quality that we make, does have a change of ranking, which means that there are different sites that wind up getting traffic. And that those sites may adjust their monetization strategy over time.
And Google’s CFO summarized:
Panda, once again a great example of putting the user first ends up benefiting everybody in the end, the publishers, the advertisers, and the users.
The Panda move is indeed a good example of Google’s search team doing something without regard for whether it will hurt the advertising side of Google’s businesses. I have no doubt about that. And I think Google deserves praise over this, though the cynical may (and have) write it off as almost a sacrificial lamb being done by the company to make itself look better.
But if you’re going to say something is well documented, then document that — at least a little.
You Say Android, I Say Android, Let’s Call The Whole Thing Android
News Corp also raised the issue that Android has to be certified, allowing Google some competitive advantages. Google responded by playing the game that Android is open for anyone to do anything with.
Android is not open. The Android Open Source Project is — but if you want to use AOSP to produce an Android phone, with the Android trademark and make use of Google services like the Google Play app store, you do indeed have to go through Google. What Is The One True Android & How “Open” Is It? explains this more.
Yes, Google Has Issues — But Not As Bad As News Corp Says
There are a few other issues and responses raised by both sides, but the takeaway is this. Yes, there’s plenty Google does that raises concerns. The growth in showing direct answers taken from other sites, the inability for people to understand if they were hit by an automatic penalty, the failure to update some of its automatic filtering systems in a timely manner are some of these. And Google deserves criticism over them.
But News Corp has a long history of lashing out at Google in ways that exaggerate some concerns way beyond reality. For a media giant that could take a real leadership role, its latest more-of-the-same letter is a disappointment.