Badda Bing! Microsoft woos newspapers by funding their stick to beat Google

As Microsoft shed its beta tag for the launch of the UK version of Bing today, TechCrunch Europe has learnt that it held a secret meeting with a group of big European publishers, mainly newspapers.

The meeting came literally days after Rupert Murdoch said he was considering withdrawing his vast newspaper empire from Google’s index, despite the possibility of losing a lot of traffic.

What was discussed provides a glimpse of what newspaper publishers may do next, and how Bing will collude in this new war on Google.

We’ve confirmed with our sources that on Tuesday this week, Microsoft’s Peter Bale, Executive Producer of MSN UK, walked into the meeting flanked by two Microsoft lawyers. He made a presentation to representatives of newspaper publishers such as the Financial Times, News International, Associated Newspapers, Germany’s Axel Springer and publishers from Poland and Italy, among others. Bale is possibly the perfect man for the job – a respected, well liked former journalist who headed up the Times Online before jumping to MSN. As such he is Microsoft’s point man when it comes to talking to big publishers.

From what we understand from our sources, the pitch was clear. Microsoft plans to launch an assault on Google’s flank, by cosying up to major content providers, especially newspapers, that feel hard done by Google News. It plans to use Bing as a way to entice them out of the Google eco-system, into one where, increasingly, the content of major newspapers could well be found more often on Bing than on Google.

First off, Bing plans to put its money where it’s mouth is. Our sources say Microsoft has pledged to help fund research and engineering into ACAP to the tune of about will put £100,000. This is the more granular version of the robots.txt protocol which has been proposed by publishers to enable them to have a more sophisticated response to search engine crawlers. However, we understand that Microsoft won’t be involved in developing the protocol, just the financial funding.

For years, Google has characterised the debate about search engines as “you are either in our index or not in it, there is no half-way house.” But the Automated Content Access Protocol (“ACAP”) proposes a far more layered response, allowing full access or just access to some content of a site. Unsurprisingly, it’s been developed by a consortium of the World Association of Newspapers, European Publishers Council and International Publishers Association. Proposed in 2006, it has been criticised as being biased towards publishers rather than search engines, specifically Google, and few non-ACAP members have adopted the protocol. Some call it the “DRM of newspaper web sites”. That said some 1,600 traditional publishers have signed up to using ACAP.

But if Bing starts to play ball with ACAP, this could change the game. Suddenly newspapers will have a stick, and a heavyweight enforcer in the shape of Bing, with which to beat Google. Google would have a choice – either recognise the ACAP protocol in order to get some level of access to newspaper sites, or just ignore it.

Back to that meeting in London, and during the discussion our sources say Bale talked about the possibility of giving big print publishers ‘premium positions’ on the Bing search engine. However, there is little detail on how this would work in practice or what revenue share would apply.

A further point of potential conflict is how Bing dolls out the search sweets to publishers. Our sources tell us that Italian and Polish publishers were hopping mad that the Bing European rollout – which started with the UK this week – will likely concentrate on the big European markets like France and Germany while leaving smaller markets to a much later stage.

In addition, the rise of the ACAP protocol could well signal new battles. The question is, will ACAP – the development of which is so far being controlled by newspapers – be used by Microsoft Bing simply as an indicator of how to treat a publisher’s site? Or would Microsoft help the publishers engineer ACAP into a kind of a rights management engine – with Bing becoming the central clearing house for content from traditional publishers? That’s not the case at the present, of course, as Bing wants to be a trusted partner. But it’s worth asking if it could happen in the future.

And who gets to decide who is a favoured traditional publisher and who isn’t? Bing, or a newspaper-heavy body like the European Publishers Council? By the sounds of how discussions went this week, it’ll probably come down to a simple question: do you have a big printing press, or don’t you?
We contacted Microsoft for comment but a spokesperson said that they had “no comment” to make.