News is a lousy business for Google too

There is a widespread myth that search engines have taken profits away from news websites. A few months ago, Rupert Murdoch said: “Google has devised a brilliant business model that avoids paying for news gathering yet profits off the search ads sold around that content.”

The reality is that news is a lousy business. Period. Even Google doesn’t make money on it. For example, here are Google’s search results for the phrase “afghanistan war”:

Notice there aren’t any ads on the page. This is because ads for “afghanistan war” generate such low revenues per query that Google doesn’t think it’s worth hurting the user experience with a cluttered page. Google can afford to do this on news queries (along with many other categories of queries) because their real business is selling ads on queries where the user likely has purchasing intent. Big money-making categories include travel, consumer electronics and malpractice lawyers. News queries are loss leaders.

It’s an historical accident that hard news categories like international and investigative reporting were part of profitable businesses. The internet upended this model by 1) providing a new delivery method for classified ads (mainly Craigslist), 2) increasing the supply of newspapers from 1-2 per location to thousands per location, thereby driving the willingness-to-pay for news dramatically down, and 3) unbundling news categories, making cross subsidization increasingly hard.

The internet exposed hard news for what it is: a lousy standalone business. Google arguably contributed to this in many indirect ways, including by helping users find substitute news sources. But the idea that Google takes profits directly from newspapers is simply misinformed.

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