NSFW: 1200 words absolutely, definitely not about Rupert Murdoch and Google

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murdochOne of the most tiresome group of people you encounter when you write a weekly column is the “suggesters”.

Throughout the week, my inbox receives a steady flow of emails; from friends, from colleagues, but mostly from total strangers – all containing useful links to stories they “assume I’ve seen”. And always with the same suggestion: “you should write about this in your column!”.

Worse than the suggesters are the “trusters”. They’re even more irritating because of their belief that they wield some kind of editorial influence. “Trust you’ll be writing about this in your column this week. Can’t wait to hear your take on it!” they say, blithely assuming that their lack of patience will ultimately be rewarded. Some of them even add a ‘LOL’ to further underline what total and utter wankers they are.

In truth, it rarely pays to indulge the recommenders or the trusters. If a subject has blipped across their radar then chances are, by the time my weekly deadline has come around, it will have been done to death by other bloggers and columnists. By Saturday even the person who ‘couldn’t wait’ to hear my take on a subject will be utterly bored with it.

The perfect example of this is Rupert Murdoch’s “threat” to remove News Corp content from Google, and his “negotiations” with Microsoft to make articles from The Wall Street Journal and the rest “only available on Bing”. It’s no exaggeration to say that the entire fucking universe has emailed me to say how much they’re looking forward to hearing my opinion on the prospect. Apparently my criticism of the aborted Microsoft adverti-raping of Family Guy means my views on Microsoft and Murdoch somehow matter a damn, and the fact that I’ve worked for old and new media means that I have some unique additional insight. Also, I swear a lot when I talk about Rupert or Microsoft, and people dig that shit.

After the eighty-six-millionth email dinged into my inbox, I did almost consider surrendering to popular pressure and dedicating an entire column to my analysis of whether such an arrangement is ever likely to happen and what it would mean for Google, and the wider world. But then I realised that I’m paid to write long, and that a column like that would read as follows (in its entirety)…

Will News Corp Remove Its Content From Google, And If So What Will It Mean For The World?

No.

And nothing.

…which feels lazy, even for me.

The fact is, as a Brit, I’ve seen Murdoch pulling this crap countless times before. The News Corp-owned Sun is the biggest-selling newspaper in the UK, and second biggest-selling English language newspaper in the world. In every national election for as long as anyone can remember, the candidate backed by the Sun has gone on to win. (And not just in the UK – the paper backed Obama for President, even though Murdoch also owns Fox News.)

The Sun’s endorsement of winners is, according to some, evidence of Murdoch-as-kingmaker; a man with the ability to shape opinion and to win (or lose) elections. Sure enough, the Sun’s recent shift from supporting Prime Minister Gordon Brown, to Conservative rival David Cameron coincided with a spike in opinion polls for the latter to become the next Prime Minister.

But to assume that Murdoch’s backing of Cameron lead to the spike is to flip cause and effect. Murdoch doesn’t create winners, he’s simply adept at spotting where public opinion is heading – waiting until he’s absolutely certain who the winner of a fight will be – and then endorsing them so loudly that when they inevitably win, he can share all the credit. “It’s The Sun Wot Won It”, the paper once declared after an election, when in fact a more accurate headline would be “it’s the Sun wot noticed it”.

The idea that Murdoch removing his content from Google will be the beginning of the end for the latter’s dominance is just nonsense. Sure a few smaller news rivals might be dumb enough to heed his rallying cry for a mass-boycott of Google News, but that will just be an added bonus to Murdoch. The numbers show that most searchers wouldn’t even notice if the Wall Street Journal and every other News Corp publication vanished from their results. What would definitely happen, though, is a huge drop in eyeballs and ad revenue for News Corp, which would certainly cost Murdoch far more than he could hope to recoup from a deal with Bing. Again, anyone familiar with the Sun (and its New York-based cousin, the Post) will know that Rupert will always put his hunger for eyeballs above his insistence that people pay for news – to the point where he is happy to slash cover prices to economically-suicidal levels to win readers.

But fortunately Murdoch doesn’t need to make that decision: unlike in politics where you can’t endorse both candidates, there’s really no reason for him to pick a horse in the search race. His ideal scenario is to continue to make News Corp content available via both Google and Bing, but to encourage both to display it in a way that drives the maximum monetizable eyeballs. Which is exactly what his current strategy will achieve.

By convincing Bing that there’s a chance he might drop Google – for the right price – Murdoch suddenly has a new partner falling over itself to give him prominence in their search results, on his terms. Sure enough, Microsoft has just agreed to help fund the next-generation search crawling protocol, ACAP, which gives content owners like News Corp more control over how their news is indexed.

Meantime, Google might not be worried about a mass exodus to Bing, but as more publishers start to consider alternative search services they have to at least begin to take ACAP seriously. After all, if you want to index the world’s information, you have to accept that a big chunk of that information belongs to Rupert. Again, this is win-win for Murdoch who can keep his content on Google, but with the option of locking some of it away behind un-indexable walls in future.

And that’s where we see Murdoch’s real genius: he has managed to use his illusion of influence to get all of these benefits without having to commit himself to anything, or expose himself in any way. There is no way in hell that News Corp content will vanish from Google and yet with every headline asking whether Google should be worried or suggesting that other companies might follow Murdoch’s lead, his image as a kingmaker is strengthened. It’s bad enough that he has millions of readers and viewers for his own outlets, without the rest of us doing his dirty work for him.

And it’s for that reason that I won’t be swayed by the recommenders and the trusters, no matter how many emails they send. I know Murdoch’s game, and unlike my poor misguided TechCrunch colleagues, I refuse to play it.

So, sorry Rupert, I don’t know what my column will be about this week, but one thing’s for sure: it won’t include a single word about you or your….

…oh.

Damn you’re good.

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