The French fancy making life hard for Google, but are they kidding themselves?

After the revelation that withdrawing from Google News seems to do little (if any) damage to publishers, Eric Schmidt has been in France trying to persuade the President not to allow news publishers to charge Google for including their content on Google News.

Google says such a move would “threaten the very existence” of Google. A feeble protest, and an overblown threat. As if anyone thinks such a thing could kill Google; but even if it could why should anyone care? If Google isn’t smart enough to know how to innovate their way past challenges then maybe their days are numbered anyway.

Google also say that if the French persist with this they will just stop including French content in Google News. Based on the Brazilian experience that’s not much of a threat, since the French publishers probably wouldn’t feel much impact at all.

More intriguing is why the publishers don’t just withdraw their content rather than ask their government to get involved. They can do it any time they like; nobody forces them to be included in any Google search.

It might sound like a wizzard wheeze to get the law changed to force payment but there’s a flipside. If such a condition is imposed by law rather than negotiation, it could end up making Google’s access to their content a right, as long as payment is made.

I think control should stay with publishers, they should set terms and prices, the government should provide the framework within which they do so and then stand well back.

As soon as government start interfering, treating different categories of content differently, setting prices or terms or anything else bad things happen. The market, such as it is, gets locked in to a particular way of working and it destroys future innovation and competition. And this market hasn’t even got started yet, we shouldn’t force old age on it quite yet.

I know French (and German, and other) newspaper industries are desperate for revenues, and easy quick ways of getting them are attractive, but this sort of thing is a last resort. Traditionally they are reserved for when everything else has failed.

There are a few things to try first. Here are some suggestions for beleaguered newspapers trying to work out how to deal with search.

Be brave.

Withdraw your content from Google News. Maybe even from Google search (leave enough behind so people searching for your title can find it). And other search engines too. Since you get so little money from those sources, you’ll be risking little. And you can turn it back on easily enough.

If a search engine offers to make it worth your while to include your content in their product, negotiate with them. Do a deal which works for you – payment, helping sell subscriptions, ad share, whatever.

Tell your readers about it, why your content is in one place and not another. Point out the gap in the results they get from the search engines which don’t want to do a deal.

If none of them want to pay you, use them to deliver what you need, not what they need. Put enough stuff in them to attract the attention you need, and no more. Experiment with the best way to do that, and constantly refine your approach. Use other channels and relationships to attract users. Ask your users to pay, and work hard to make sure your product is worth paying for. Spend your SEO budget on other kinds of marketing, or just save it.

Just do something. Stand up for yourselves and the value of what you do.

Make a market.

Stop being so impotent and stop asking governments to load the dice in your favour.

The law you need is already there; just start using it.

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