Why Google is buying content—and Apple and Facebook aren’t

Frommer's Guidebook

Frommers guidebook It’s hard to miss the growing tension between Silicon Valley giants Apple and Google—the latest and most public episode being Google’s sudden absence from the iPhone 5 and the iOS 6 mobile operating system. But while the brouhaha over mapping technology caught all the headlines, there’s another front line in this clash of the  titans, and it’s a territory that tech companies once shied away from fighting over: content production. Among Google’s acquisitions of late—and there are a lot of them—were dining guide Zagat and, recently, travel guidebook publisher Frommer’s.

In the distant past—2006, for example—Google was best known for scooping up operations full of computer scientists and software engineers to get at fancy new algorithms and winning user interfaces. So why is Google quietly going after the green eyeshade crowd whose user interface is ink-on-dead-tree? In fact, a few years ago owning franchises such as Frommer’s and Zagat would have made Google a card-carrying member of the publishing community. Only  the rise of Yelp and TripAdvisor, and the declining relevance (and price tags, if not quality) of legacy operations such as guidebooks, has media watchers shrugging off these recent buys.

“The way you keep attention is through content”

“What I really think Google is going after with all of these acquisitions is to slowly get more and more of our attention on Google and the way that you keep attention is through content,” says social marketing strategist Nate Riggs of the Karcher Group.  “Whether it’s a review on Zagat, whether it’s using Google apps to write a word doc… It’s all about making sure that we’re on site all the time.”

That’s a subtle but radical shift for the search giant, which historically relied on its technological savvy to cement its middleman role as a portal through which users find  content. Gmail was the initial departure from that strategy, followed by Google Finance, Maps, Docs, Google Plus and so on, says Riggs. But those products function as services that rely on data, algorithms and user input—editorial content is something else entirely.

Financial columnist and Forbes contributor Chris Versace says Google’s purchases of Zagat and Frommer’s, while a departure, sync well with the company’s existing services and products.

“The advantage of buying Frommer’s and snapping up other similar content is the ability to overlay that with Google maps,” Versace says. “So instead of just becoming a mapping service, all of a sudden it becomes a contextual information/geographic service. That becomes far more compelling.”

An on-again-off-again affair with content

Though Google made online mapping ubiquitous, it was slower to create local revenue sources, a direction which many analysts agree the online ad market is now headed. Its purchase of Dodgeball, an app that preceded Foursquare, didn’t work out. Likewise, Google’s attempt to buy Yelp for an estimated $500 million in 2009 failed. Established publishing brands look cheap right now, relative to young technology and software companies: the 45-year-old Frommer’s went for $25 million and the ubiquitous maroon covers of Zagat guidebooks (purchase price: $100 million) have been around since 1979.

But Silicon Valley has a tortured relationship with the editorial crowd (see: AOL-Time Warner merger) and even though no one would mistake Zagat or Frommer’s for The New York Times or Vanity Fair, both properties have more in common with the latter than they do with the engineering crowd that is the heart and soul of Google. For now, at least, the old Zagat editorial board will continue to oversee the dining reviews and the company has no plans to stop printing its slender, quote-filled volumes. The same goes for Frommer’s.

Apple’s strategy: First search, then destroy

So if Google, Apple and Facebook—once squarely in different corners of the tech ring—look likely to duke it out, and content is one area of contention, can we expect the latter two to follow in Google’s footsteps. Surprisingly, probably not, say both Riggs and Versace. Instead, with already substantial content offerings of their own, Apple and Facebook are more likely to attack Google’s core business of search, where it currently has a dominating 66% share of the market.

While Apple’s roll-out of it’s own mapping service to replace Google maps drew heated criticism from customers, the overall strategy—if not the execution—made perfect sense, says Versace. He believes Apple will continue to hone, refine, and improve the in-house services planted on its devices to chip away at Google’s dominance in those areas.

Riggs says search is the ultimate target for both Apple and Facebook and that Siri, the iPhone’s voice-activated assistant, is the link. “Facebook search is not very good,” says Riggs. “So it will be interesting to see if Siri merging with Facebook, now integrated with the iPhone, makes a play to change the search market.”

Apple’s latest mobile operating system, iOs 6, fully integrates Facebook into the user interface, rather than requiring it be downloaded as a separate app. Siri uses its own proprietary (i.e. non-Google) indexing system to retrieve results from the web and that lets Apple  mine user’s requests to build up its own search algorithms to compete with Google. Integrate it with Facebook’s social data and algorithms and, says Riggs, you might just have a battle on two fronts—content and search.

This Week’s Headlines: Murdoch Steps Down, Matter Gets Funding

Yet another fortysomething journalism figure passed away this week, and Here’s a look at this week’s notable headlines in the journalism and media industries:

This Week’s Headlines: Google Glasses, Gannett Puts up Paywall

This week, journalists were buzzing about the Google glasses, which will be available later this year, according to the New York Times. It may sound like something of a cool sci fi novel, but as NPR reports below, there are a few potential drawbacks. Meanwhile, the Independent Publishers Group is in a dispute with Amazon and Gannett announced plans to charge for online content.

  • Update: Amazon Yanks 5,000 Kindle Titles In Fight Over Terms: Independent Publishers Group (IPG), a Chicago-based book, has refused Amazon’s demands for better terms, prompting Amazon to turn off the buy button on almost 5,000 Kindle titles. Can IPG maintain this stance long-term? Time will tell.
  • It’s a trend: Newspaper buildings are worth selling: Although newspapers themselves are struggling to demonstrate their value in an increasingly digital world, several newspaper buildings have recently changed hands, and many web content writers are shifting gears. As Poynter reports, The Seattle Times and Des Moines Register are considering sales, while The Athens Banner-Herald and The Fort Worth Star-Telegram have already sold buildings.
  • Gannett to charge for online content: The publisher of community newspapers announced plans to start charging for online digital content. The new paid subscription model is expected to bring in $100 million a year beginning in 2013. Other publishers have had mixed results with paid subscription models, so we’ll be curious how this one plays out.
  • Google Glasses: Frightening Or Fantastic?: Although it sounds cool in theory, some worry that the new Google glasses, which will “stream information to the wearer’s eyeballs in real time,” according to the New York Times, could create safety and privacy issues.

What journalism or media news was on your mind this week? Leave a comment and let us know!

Opportunities for Digital Journalists and Social Media Mavens

digital fellowship 445

digital fellowshipLooking to hone your digital or social media skills? A slew of fellowships, scholarships, and internships with upcoming application deadlines offer an opportunity to do just that. Here’s a look at opportunities offered by ProPublica, Google, and more, listed according to application deadline:

ProPublica News Apps Fellowship: If you’re a savvy journalist who’s curious about developing news apps, then this could be the fellowship for you. The New York-based fellowship runs through the end of the year with the goal of answering the following question: “Can a smart, technical journalist with excellent and proven skills in other nerdy newsroom disciplines like graphics and CAR become a news app developer?” Coding skills are helpful but not required.
Application deadline: January 20, 2012

New York Times Social Media Internship: The Gray Lady is recruiting a social media intern for the spring semester to assist with social journalism projects and on the paper’s social media accounts including Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram. According the Times’ website, “Candidates should understand the journalistic opportunities presented by social media … You should also have an excellent eye for detail and great news instincts.” Graduate students are preferred.
Application deadline: January 20, 2012

AP-Google Journalism and Technology Scholarship: Open to college undergrads or grad students with a minimum 3.0 GPA, the AP-Google Journalism and Technology Scholarship will provide $20,000 scholarships to six students who are “pursuing or planning to pursue degrees at the intersection of journalism, computer science and new media.” The goal of the scholarship program, which is administered by the Online News Assocation, is to foster innovation and build the skills of digital-minded journalists and article writers who will ultimately become industry leaders.
Application deadline: January 27, 2012

The Nieman-Berkman Fellowship in Journalism Innovation: This year-long fellowship is a collaboration between two Harvard programs: The Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. Applications are asked to submit a proposal outlining “specific course of study or project relating to journalism innovation.” The Niemen-Berkman Fellow will receive a $60,000 stipend over ten months, plus additional allowances for housing, childcare, and health insurance.
Application deadline: February 15, 2012

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This Week’s Journalism and Publishing Headlines

Here at Ebyline, our goal is to help you stay current in the rapidly changing journalism and publishing world. Here’s a look at some key headlines from the past week:

What do you think of these new developments? Any other journalism or publishing happenings you’d add? Leave a comment and let us know!