Google is the Boogeyman
On Sunday, the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed from Googler David Eun, in which the vice president for content partnerships argues that Google is a valuable ally -- not a competitive "boogeyman" -- for mainstream media companies.
"Some are concerned that we're going to become a threat to media companies -- essentially by becoming a media company ourselves," Eun wrote. "This couldn't be further from the truth. We don't own or create content (which we think is an essential part of being a media company) -- nor do we intend to."
To those who have spent long hours explaining that Google is a traffic driver, not a traffic taker, Eun's argument seems downright obvious. Google helps people find things. They help consumers find what they want and send them along quickly and efficiently. Thus we're agog when a traditional media company, such as a Belgian publisher, says Google is profiting at their expense. Don't they understand that Google is sending them traffic?
Of course they do. But they also understand something else: Google is insinuating itself between them and their consumers. Google doesn't have to produce media to compete with media. Google simply has to control the attention that leads to the media.
Thus Eun's argument that Google "isn't a media company" obfuscates the real issue. While the benefits of attention still accrue to content producers, a greater benefit accrues to the companies that direct that attention. In other words, Google is the new middleman between media companies and their customers. And as any good businessman will tell you, he who owns the relationships, owns the customer.
This point was made to some effect in a recent Bear Sterns report titled "The Long Tail: Why Aggregation and Context and Not (Necessarily) Content are King in Entertainment," in which analyst Spencer Wang argues that the importance of aggregators will likely increase in the future. Consumers need filters, and Google is a great filter. (Wang also notes that media consumption will increase, which is why Google can argue that they are a partner, not a competitor.) To illustrate the modern entertainment supply chain, Wang developed the graphic below.
As you can see, Wang groups Google and other Internet properties in the content packaging part of the supply chain, alongside traditional broadcast and cable networks. However, that's not the best depiction of the reality. Google should be listed between user interface and content distribution. Because as more and more of life is lived online, Google will be the gateway to all forms of content. In fact, it's Google's business plan to make its applications the primary user interface for all the world's information. Google wants to be the most popular aggregator ever. That alone should scare media companies.
There's one final point I'd like to pick with Eun's op-ed, and that's the contention that Google doesn't create content.
Technically, according to the definition of a media company, that's correct. But Google subverts that definition by owning the means by which produced content becomes visible. In other words, if you consider user-generated content (like the videos on YouTube) to be like kudzu, Google owns the ground on which that kudzu grows.
Google also owns a new form of content too: Every doc and spreadsheet created, every e-mail sent, every chat logged, and every custom search results page built creates more content for Google to sell ads on. Those ads direct more attention.
Mathematically speaking, Google is the world's biggest and fastest content creator. Ever.