The Coming Search Engine Media Wars

News Corp, ever the online contrarian, is considering pulling all of its news content off of Google and doing an exclusive deal with Microsoft's Bing. For this, Rupert Murdoch would receive a pittance. Welcome to the future of paid media.

For years, newspapers and other media companies have complained about Google reaping profits by indexing media content for free. Google has responded that media companies are free to remove themselves from Google's search engines if they wish. But media companies never actually did it, because the hit to their traffic would be too big. They'd prefer to just get paid by the search engines. Which is what Rupert Murdoch may now do.

Business Insider estimates that the Wall Street Journal, News Corp's most prized media property, would lose about $15 million by pulling out of Google—meaning that Bing could theoretically secure exclusive search engine rights for that price. The money is almost too small to matter. But this could be a trigger for much bigger things. Namely, the Great Search Engine Wars for media content.

Brian Lam argues that this move would hurt consumers. Instead of being able to go to Google to find everything, consumers would have to know which specific media outlets had exclusive deals with which search engines in order to track down their content.

And that's absolutely true! This trend, if it becomes widespread—every big media company hunting for the richest deal it can get from a search engine—would make life more inconvenient for media consumers like you and me. Which doesn't mean that it's necessarily bad. The fact is that the current situation cannot stand. Have you read our #layoffs tag lately? Rupert Murdoch—and other media owners—are tired of Google making money off their content, for free. The original idea was that the traffic driven to media sites by Google would provide enough revenue, through ads, to make everyone happy. That hasn't turned out to be the case. Online ad revenue is not doing the trick.

So media companies will need new revenue streams to survive. A big one will be paid content; i.e., if you want to read the New York Times online, you will have to pay some sort of subscription fee. But search engine deals like this—in which media companies make search engines pay for exclusive rights to access their content—are another online revenue stream that could become significant. News Corp's deal isn't big money, yet. But presumably if Google and its competitors realize they will have to engage in bidding wars to lock in rights to good media content, the value of those deals would increase considerably.

The bigger picture is this: Yes, the "journalism" industry will shrink. That's part of the future. Fine. But even with the wondrous world of blogs and nonprofit journalism foundations and every other new permutation of creating content, the fact remains that if people want to enjoy a fundamental baseline of serious news media in this country, they will have to pay for it, somehow. Yes, it's more inconvenient to have search engines with exclusive content deals. It's also inconvenient to have to pay to read online news. But these and other new revenue streams will have to come into place if we don't want to keep griping forever about journalists being laid off and news quality getting shittier. Everything cannot always be free and delivered directly to us on a platter when it costs money to make, okay! So try not to fear the portentous coming of the Search Engine Bidding Wars. We're just going through the bumpy phase of things now. You'll get used to it. And the annoying kid you sent to J-school might actually be able to land a job one day, too.

[My colleagues do not necessarily agree with me!]