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The Next Big Headache For Digital Publishers

Originally in: PaidContent.

August 6, 2009

With Google (NSDQ: GOOG), many media companies have come to see an insurrection everywhere they look. Last month, it was the Google Books settlement. Before that, it was the Associated Press crying foul on Google’s aggregation practices. Next month, it will probably be Flipper. (Can Google be both a “vampire” and “tapeworm”?)

But one of the search giant’s quietest moves could lead to one of the most important changes yet for news sites and other content aggregators. As some have noticed, Google is, without a lot of fanfare, rolling out the integration of related Wikipedia articles to Google News entries.

Topic pages are the banks of the link economy, and some media companies are certain to see in Google’s latest move something akin to a masked man strolling up to a teller with a gun and a note to empty the vaults.

If Google decides to go from pilot to full implementation, and Wikipedia becomes the default, algorithmic content source for related topics on Google News entries, a quiet milestone in digital publishing will have been achieved: Google will have used its collective indexing weight to help Wikipedia achieve the kind of dominance in topic search that the site already enjoys with individual searches—and Wikipedia isn’t even a news organization! All of this at a time when real news organizations are scrambling to make their own content libraries topical-content contenders.

While wide-scale content-aggregation plays—-and their associated ad revenue-supported SEO strategies—-were once the province of nontraditional media companies like About.com, today almost no major media property is without its own vault of topic pages, such as the Times Topics of the New York Times (NYSE: NYT). Meanwhile, a plethora of topic engine vendors such as Evri and Daylife are capitalizing on the interest by these traditional publishers, badly in need of ad revenue, to cement their own standing in a world defined by the Googleplex ecosystem of search and pagerank.

What’s more, within the digital design-agency environment in which I consult, an increasingly prevalent argument holds that news sites need to leave their old section taxonomies behind and move full-scale to dynamic topical aggregation of their content. Productizing their exceptionally deep content archives is seen as one of the more promising bids for competitive differentiation.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the realtime Web and its implications for the practice of online newsgathering—-the river metaphor of a “newstream” that journalists must now curate for their audience. Part of that paradigm shift calls on publishers to establish topic pages, a bank of the so-called link economy.

Google’s move to anoint any one external content source for a wide array of related links across its News entries is unprecedented. On the one hand, it is a wonderful vote in favor of the cultural commons that Wikipedia represents. But on the other, it raises some troubling questions: Will Google one day put topical related links up for exclusive licensing on its news platform? Who else might follow? As news sites increasingly move towards greater levels of content automation, the commercial implications of such an agreement, nevermind the brand value, could be enormous.

The takeaway here is that next to Google, media properties of every size are dwarfed as link-stained wretches. In David Carr’s memorable coinage, Google is the Wal-Mart of the internet. Before you raise your pitchfork, keep in mind that Google isn’t incapable of level-headedness on the value of news content. Just expect the company to continue tinkering, relentlessly: It won’t rob your bank, but it will effectively regulate it.

There is nothing resembling a paper of record online, Wikipedia included. But in banking on that site, Google News has set in motion an interesting, clever and unsettling new dynamic. For publishers increasingly pouring their content into topical molds, they may find themselves in a new battle to be seen beyond that crowdsourced house on the hill.

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