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.

What the iPhone 5 says about small screen journalism

iPhone 5

Like Apple’s high-flying share price, it appears nothing can bring the iPhone 5 down to Earth. Not even what many critics pointed out were incremental improvements over past models. That smarts for the over 2 million folks who pre-ordered the 5 but it’s a boon for journalists: we’ve entered what The Times’ Nick Wingfield aptly called the age of “technological bunny hops.” After years of relentless technological shifts in the media, now may be the time for journalism to assess the mobile landscape without worrying that it will look radically different in 18 months.

As a tool for creating journalism, the iPhone 5 is decidedly a bunny hop: an added mic, a panoramic photo feature, faster connectivity. Basically, a handful of features that help backpack reporters do a tad more. As a platform for publishing journalism, it may not even be that: most serious news operations have in-house app teams and a robust—if not always innovative or classy—presence on smartphones and tablets. It seems unlikely that this, or the next, iPhone will radically change how publishers bring their content to the mobile market or what content they create for it.

So what lessons can we apply from today going forward?

Stories must work across platforms

That’s not the same as saying stories should be on all platforms. That was the mantra a few years ago when newsrooms decided that the audience should get content where and when they want it, regardless of compatibility with the medium. Poorly designed, cluttered and unusable newspaper web sites are a legacy of that thinking. Creating stories that extend to mobile means finding the bits that work best there: the most shareable, easiest or fastest to consume, or enough to tease users onto more mainstream platforms.

“Think ‘shareable’ content,” says Joe Pulizzi, a consultant and founder of the Content Marketing Institute (@juntajoe). “When you begin construction of a story, understand how many ways you can tell that story in the different platforms.”

For smartphones, graphics, video and other visuals appeal on the small screen.

“Visual storytelling is becoming king on mobile devices,” Pulizzi explains “Whereas longer-form text rules the desktop, infographics and videos rule mobile devices.”

Write better headlines

Though mobile technology has actually increased Americans’ news consumption, there’s a lot of competition for eyeballs. A 2010 study found that many adults with a smartphone check for e-mail updates, social updates, and so forth around 34 times a day; but the interactions usually only last for 30 seconds or less. Mobile content favors short and to-the-point.

Writer Nick O’Neill made a compelling case for the importance of  headlines in his article, “How Forbes Stole a New York Times Article and Got All the Traffic.” In it, he points out how a Forbes writer took a long and well-researched NY Times article called “How Companies Learn Your Secrets,” and successfully repackaged it for the web with the sexy headline, “How Target Figured Out a Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did” – garnering more than a million page views and outshining the original NY Times article in the process.

Keep it under 60 characters. Even with a larger screen on the iPhone 5, short, direct, compelling headlines will win the most traffic.

Don’t forget the story

With smartphones in the hands of 44% of U.S. adults, and an estimated 27% of the population receiving news from a mobile device according to data from the Pew Research Center, demand for mobile content is going to grow, even if technology doesn’t continue to wow. So transmedia storytelling—that is, building upon a story on a mobile screen where it left off on a stationary one—is going to become a more mainstream activity in newsrooms. Smartphones will do for great journalism and freelance writers alike, what honor boxes and above-the-fold spreads once did.

The ability to advertise content will be especially important to brands and other non-newsrooms that are just now getting into the production of serious editorial product.

“The majority of journalists and storytellers in the world, in my opinion, are now being hired by non-media companies,” says Pulizzi. “Brands need to be telling better stories, but most are horrible storytellers. They are hiring journalists to help position them as true experts and thought leaders, and to help move consumers through the buying process with great content. We’ve only seen the start of this.”

Photo used under a creative commons license.

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