Why Google need to start paying websites for the content they harvest and how this model could be fair for everyone.

Google has lost its legal battle with French regulators and now has just three months to agree on a deal with French news organisations for how it will compensate them for using their content in Google News.

This battle started some time ago and, at one point, it looked like Google were going to pull Google News out of France and possibly all of the EU as a consequence, something that was viewed as been punitive and retaliatory by many observers. Instead, Google kept the product available but stopped featuring any content from French news organisations. Even in France.

Inevitably, they found themselves at loggerheads with French media regulators but, in a twist only a few predicted, Google lost their case in the French courts and now face a difficult negotiation, against the clock, against disgruntled French news providers who know that they (for a change) hold all the cards.

What’s the problem with Google News?

The problem news agencies have with Google News is that being in the Google News feed generates very few clicks through to the websites that Google scrapes its headlines from.

Skimming through Google News this morning, as I often do over breakfast, I’ve noticed how much news I take in without actually clicking through to the real article to read the detail. I got my news intake, at least at a headline level, absolutely for free.

As a news organisation, this is a problem. You’re still paying journalists and other staff, you’re still paying for infrastructure, you’re still running a business… but Google’s taking your content and giving it away.

The problem with Zero Click Searches

Zero click searches are on the rise. In fact, some reports estimate that up to 50% of all searches on Google now don’t result in a single click to a website.

The reason for this isn’t that the index is bad – if 50% of your searches with Google didn’t turn up a result, you’d soon consider a different search engine. No, it’s because the search engine results page now contains a panel of “Featured Snippets” – immediate answers to questions that often mean that you don’t need to go to a website to find the information.

This is good for users and underpins a lot of the ready answers we’ve gotten used to receiving from Google Home and Alexa, but it’s terrible for content creators because they are the source of these answers, not Google themselves.

Are Google biting the hand that feeds them?

Google’s business model was to be the best search index, which gives them the most customers and therefore allows them to sell the most adverts. It’s a good model – it’s made them one of the biggest and most important companies on the planet.

But, at some point, that mission got lost. Google started to want your attention not for the search results or the adverts alongside them, but for themselves. Their mission to “organise the worlds information” was set aside in favour of owning all the world’s information.

Featured Snippets are the latest example of this, but not the first.

  • Google Maps put route planning software out of business
  • Google News has crippled news sites
  • Google Shopping made paid-for advertising the only guaranteed way to generate sales online

Each of these innovations came under the guise of improving the search experience for the user but every single one has exhibited the same strategy – Google takes ownership of the user and you have to pay Google, either in cash or content, for access to them.

Is it time for a change?

There appears to be increasing appetite for change in the way interment giants like Google behave.

If other countries follow suit with France, could we see an inversion of the current model? Instead of contents creators clamouring for Google’s attention, Google would be negotiating with content creators for access to their content?

It seems unlikely, but the need and the desire for change are there. What form could it take? Well, perhaps sometime a little like Google Ads, but it reverse…

How Google can fix its content problem

Google needs content. No content = no index = no business. (Nothing else in Alphabet’s portfolio of companies comes close to the earning power and profitability of the ad business).

So, maybe it’s time for Google to start paying for that content…

Google have a market-leading piece of tech for finding the “best” websites relating to any topic. It also has the technology to track and charge for clicks through its search engine and to track when people searched but didn’t click. All of this exists.

My suggestion is for Google to open up a marketplace for content that works in the same way as their ad business but instead of us bidding to be the 1st place against a particular phrase or question, Google tells us what the information on that topic is worth to them.

This value should, perhaps, be linked to what people are paying for ads against the topic – after all, this is the going market rate for traffic relating to this term, traffic that Google is trapping inside their system rather than passing on to websites as they once did.

A simple eggs-example

I have a website all about eggs. Possibly, I’m the world’s authority on them. Google wants to be able to tell people how long it takes to boil an egg, and I’ve got the perfect answer to this question.

If I wanted to advertise against the term “How to boil an egg”, Google would be able to tell me how much I need to bid for that search.

But, I don’t want to pay people to come and read my website. I want to be paid for the high quality information I’m providing. So…

  1. I log into the “Google Content Marketplace” and submit my site.
  2. Google scans my site (changes are it already did) and decides what “Featured Snippets” I might be able to provide.
  3. Google offers me a price for this information.
  4. If I accept then I have an opportunity to be the Featured Snippet and earn some money, if I decline then my site remains in the organic listing and someone else gets the Featured Snippet spot.

Of course, there may be more than one person who wants to bid for the “How to Boil an Egg” Featured Snippet. In that case, we need a way to make it fair and to maintain the quality of the Featured Snippets…

Picking the best Featured Snippet

To keep things fair, bidding cannot be a part of this system. Google needs to set the price for the content. If the price is too low, then nobody accepts being the Featured Snippet and then, no Featured Snippet exists. If Google has a problem with that, they’ve got two options – increase what they are prepared to pay or hire some content creators to make content for them. Either way, they’re going to have to pay market rate for content creation – something that’s going to be new to them, as they’ve paid absolutely nothing so far to anyone.

But if all this sounds like I’m just out to bash Google, there are a few things I think should also be part of this system to make it fair for all parties.

  1. Featured Snippets always include a prominent link to the site that was the source of the information.
  2. If the user clicks an advert or an organic listing when the Featured Snippet is also on the page, Google don’t pay anything.
  3. If more than one site is bidding to be the Featured Snippet, the one that most often generates a zero-click response should be the one shown most often – but there should be multiple in rotation.
  4. There should be an option for users to report a snippet as incorrect – if this happens repeatedly for the same snippet then it is suspended pending human moderation.
  5. Users should be informed that Google is paying the site to provide that content.

With this structure in place, the usefulness of Featured Snippets increases and the pricing model is fair. If Google services its user with my information, I get paid. If my information doesn’t fully answer the user’s question, I don’t (Of course, my site might be the one that gets clicked on – so I can earn revenue there.)

Applying this model to news… and everything else.

News is a slightly different model that requires a different approach. With news, we are not answering an explicit question like “how do you boil an egg” but something far wider – what is happening on Planet Earth today?

More direct profit sharing is the most necessary model here. According to some sources, Google made $4.7bn in advertising revenue from traffic based on news searches and news content in 2018 alone, a figure which just a little under what everyone else in the online new industry made put together. Google certainly has the wherewithal to work out which news sources are driving content and driving revenue – shouldn’t profits from simply be shared directly with these sources?

Of course, it’s possible that this model is applicable far beyond the remit of just news. I don’t search on Google for information because Google has that information – I’m searching on Google because its the best available gateway to information other people have. When Google provides nothing more than a link to that content, that’s perfect – it’s down to individual sites to monetise (or not) however they chose to. Things go wrong when Google takes content from publishers and uses it to generate revenue for itself and itself alone.

What do you think? Is it time to re balance the way in which content is monetised online or do Google provide such a vital service we should all just be pleased to be there?


Original coverage of the Google News Cour Case: https://www.searchenginejournal.com/google-suffers-major-defeat-must-pay-french-publishers/360992/