Guardian Column: Newspapers and search

Why newspapers must ask some searching questions

Jeff Jarvis
Monday March 13, 2006
The Guardian

The World Association of Newspapers is portraying Google as an enemy of news. I wouldn’t say that. I’d call Google something between a necessary evil and a friend – and if news organisations are smart, they will learn how to befriend the beast. The Paris-based WAN, which represents 72 national newspaper associations, has joined with a posse of 11 European publishing groups to seek help from the EU and to threaten legal action against Google for excerpting members’ content on its pages and making money there. One publisher calls this “stealing”, another “napsterisation”. They are not alone in their fear, resentment and digital cluelessness. Agence France Presse sued Google to try to stop it from quoting the wire service’s content. American book publishers are also trying to stop Google from indexing their text.

At this month’s Online Publishers Association conference in London, WAN managing director Ali Rahnema asked: “Could this content exist if someone else wasn’t paying to create it?” Well, in the quaint Americanism of my hillbilly roots, I’d say Rahnema got this bassackwards. Instead, we soon will be asking, “Could this content exist if someone else wasn’t linking to it?”

The truth is that today, Google is every site’s front page. If you can’t find content via searches, or via aggregators such as GoogleNews and, or via links from blogs, then the content and the brand behind it might as well not exist. This is how online sites get traffic. This is the means of distributing your content online. If you don’t like it, there are easy ways to stop it: you can place a file on your website to tell Google and other robots to stay away, or you can put your content behind a registration or pay wall. But to cut yourself off from search and links is like taking your paper off the newsstand and making people go out of their way to find it. What sane publisher would do that?

Sane publishers are, instead, engaging in the black art of the age: “search-engine optimisation” (SEO), which means making your content easily findable via Google and company. I am a believer. Full disclosures: I work with the New York Times Company’s, which has become a top-10 site via SEO. It is a wonder. I am also working with a startup that, not unlike Google, organises news, because I believe this will help bring readers to relevant reporting. And I advise newspapers that all their content – including their archives – should be online, for every search engine, aggregator and blog to find.

SEO means changing even the content on pages so it can be read not just by humans but by machines. For example, if you’re a newspaper with witty headlines people appreciate, you also should consider writing patently obvious headlines that say exactly what stories are about so a computer robot can find and understand them and guide people there to appreciate those witty headlines. And maybe telling people what a story is about at a glance isn’t a bad idea, either.

But don’t stop there. You also want your content to be part of the conversation. Once they find that content, you want people to talk about it so more can find it. And that means you need to be comfortable with seeing your content quoted, excerpted and remixed. I am honoured when people quote my blog – even if to disagree with me – because it means I said something worth repeating. Shouldn’t every newspaper think likewise? To be quoted is to be linked and to be linked is to be read. That is life online.

My worst fear in all this is not for Google, but for the news publishers who are launching this campaign. If they succeed in hiding their content from the public they are supposed to serve, then I fear for their businesses, for the newspaper industry, and for journalism itself. For if the newspapers don’t show up in GoogleNews, who will be left there but us bloggers?

· Jeff Jarvis is a media consultant who blogs at