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Ms. Mayer went to Washington the other day to defend Google against recent attacks that it is responsible for the ongoing problems of newspapers. Marissa Mayer, who is the Vice President, Search Products and User Experience at Google testified before a Senate sub-committee on 'The Future of Journalism.' Not surprisingly she vigorously countered arguments that Google was siphoning off profits from news organizations, a position taken recently by AP, Forbes and the Newspaper Association of America.

While Google makes a convenient scape goat for the troubles facing print journalism these days, it would be gross over-simplification to suggest if Google didn't exist, newspapers and magazines would be doing just fine. Lots of factors have lead to the current crisis in journalism (as I wrote in The News Business Declined Due to Lack of Vision) and I'm inclined to agree with Mayer's assertion that Google drives traffic to the news web sites. If the news organizations don't know how to exploit that traffic as well as Google, that can hardly be Google's problem can it?

What's Link Love Got To Do With It?

Mayer pointed out that Google is a search engine. Job one is to index information and make it available for people when they conduct searches. If a news organization shows up near the top of the results for any given story, they are going to get traffic. Mayer had this to say specifically about link love:

Together, Google News and Google search provide a valuable free service to online newspapers specifically by sending interested readers to their sites at a rate of more than 1 billion clicks per month. Newspapers use that Web traffic to increase their readership and generate additional revenue.

She also pointed out that if the news organizations want to opt out of the indexing process, they can do that using the industry standard robots.txt file to block or control how much of the site gets indexed. Of course, the whole idea is to get picked up by Google, but if you wanted to block Google you could.

Show Me The Money

Mayer goes on to point out that the Google revenue machine giveth as well as taketh away, so while news organizations can whine all they want about Google siphoning revenue, lots of sites are making money by playing the Google Ad Sense game. This may be the hardest argument for news organizations to swallow and while I know you can make money with Ad Sense, a large news organization probably needs more than that to thrive. But what has always shocked me about the failure of the news business to thrive online is the fact that the online model is should be so familiar.

You create good content, people come, you sell ads, you make money. It's the way the news business has always worked, but instead of ink and paper we are dealing with bits and bytes. Mayer goes onto to explain major differences between the online world and the paper one and how news organizations can use that to their advantage to keep a story alive and keep readers coming back. Mayer says:

When a reader finishes an article online, it is the publication's responsibility to answer the reader who asks, "What should I do next?" Click on a related article or advertisement? Post a comment? Read earlier stories on the topic? Much like Amazon.com suggests related products and YouTube makes it easy to play another video, publications should provide obvious and engaging next steps for users. Today, there are still many publications that don't fully take advantage of the numerous tools that keep their readers engaged and on their site.

And there lies the rub doesn't it. It's easy to blame Google for all the problems in the news business, but it doesn't solve the fundamental underlying problem facing news organizations today. They need to figure out how to exploit the web as well as they have exploited paper and ink. Instead of blaming Google and desperately flailing against the changing market, they should be thinking creatively and looking for solutions. Unfortunately, like many of our failing institutions they seem incapable of doing that.

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