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Is Google a Media Company?

Miguel Helft|The New York Times
Monday, 11 Aug 2008 | 10:56 AM ET

Type “buttermilk pancakes” into Google, and among the top three or four search results you will find a link to a detailed recipe complete with a photo of a scrumptious stack from a site called Knol, which is owned by Google.

Google envisions Knol as a place where experts can share their knowledge on a variety of topics. It hopes to create a sort of online encyclopedia built from the contributions of scores of individuals. But while Wikipedia is collectively edited and ad-free, Knol contributors sign their articles and retain editing control over the content. They can choose to place ads, sold by Google, on their pages.

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While Knol is only three weeks old and still relatively obscure, it has already rekindled fears among some media companies that Google is increasingly becoming a competitor. They foresee Google’s becoming a powerful rival that not only owns a growing number of content properties, including YouTube, the top online video site, and Blogger, a leading blogging service, but also holds the keys to directing users around the Web.

“If in fact a Google property is taking money away from Google’s partners, that is a real problem,” said Wenda Harris Millard, the co-chief executive of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

Money, of course, is very much at issue. The lower a site ranks in search results, the less traffic it receives from search engines. With a smaller audience, the site earns less money from advertising.

Although Martha Stewart’s buttermilk pancake recipe appears lower than the Knol recipe in Google’s rankings, Ms. Millard does not believe that Google unfairly favors pages from Knol. But she said that Google’s dual role as search engine and content site raises an issue of perception. “The question in people’s minds is how unbiased can Google be as it grows and grows and grows,” Ms. Millard said.

Google has always said it will never compromise the objectivity of its search results. And it says it treats Knol pages like any other pages on the Web. “When you see Knol pages rank high, they are there because they have earned their position,” said Gabriel Stricker, a spokesman for Google.

There is little evidence that Knol has received favorable treatment. Many of the Knol pages that rank high on Google rank similarly high on Yahoo. (The Knol buttermilk pancakes? No. 4 with Yahoo search.)

Google has long insisted that it has no plans to own or create content, and that it is a friend, not a foe, of media companies. The Google search engine sends huge numbers of users to the digital doorsteps of thousands of media companies, many of which also rely on Google to place ads on their sites. “Our vision still remains to be the best conduit that we can be, connecting people between whatever their search is and the answer they are looking for,” Mr. Stricker said. “For that reason, we are not interested in owning or creating content.”

Knol is merely a tool for others to create and publish information, and once they do, Mr. Stricker said, “our job, which is to organize that information, kicks in.” Google does not own copyrights to the Knol content, and the site will not carry the Google logo, he added.

Knol is not Google’s first foray into content hosting. The company has long owned Blogger, one of the most popular blogging services. It is digitizing millions of books, which it makes available through its search service. It owns the archives of Usenet, a popular collection of online discussion forums that predates the Web. Google also carries some news stories from The Associated Press in Google News, and it publishes stock market information through Google Finance. And of course, Google owns YouTube, one of the largest media sites on the Web.

Critics say each new Google initiative in this area casts more doubt on the company’s claims that it is not a media company.

“Google can say they are not in the content business, but if they are paying people and distributing and archiving their work, it is getting harder to make that case,” said Jason Calacanis, the chief executive of Mahalo, a search engine that relies on editors to create pages on a variety of subjects. “They are competing for talent, for advertisers and for users” with content sites, he said.

Knol has been called a potential rival to Wikipedia and other sites whose content spans a broad range of topics, including Mahalo and About.com, a property of The New York Times Company that uses experts it calls “guides” to write articles on a variety of topics.

Asked whether Knol posed a threat to About.com, Martin A. Nisenholtz, senior vice president of digital operations at the Times Company, said, “About.com is very well positioned in the marketplace.” Knol could also compete with many Web sites that specialize in single topics, like WebMD in medical information or the smattering of how-to, do-it-yourself or cooking information sites and other instructional sites that are proliferating online.

Some online media companies say they are unconcerned about the prospect of competing with Knol.

The risk of alientating advertising clients

“Assuming that Google treats Knol just like it treats other Web sites, it is just another company out there producing content,” said Richard Rosenblatt, the chief executive of Demand Media, a fast-growing online company that owns how-to content sites like eHow and ExpertVillage.

Mr. Rosenblatt, who was the chief executive of Intermix Media, the parent of MySpace when it was sold to the News Corporation , said that if Knol became a popular Web destination, he would consider posting content from Demand Media’s sites on it. The company, like many others in the media business, posts many of its videos on YouTube.

“We have an enormous amount of traffic on YouTube,” Mr. Rosenblatt said. “It hasn’t cannibalized ExpertVillage.”

Other media companies, like WebMD, have already begun posting their content on Knol.

“We participated in Google Knol as a test, as we’ve done with other, similar offerings,” a WebMD spokeswoman, Jennifer Newman, said in an e-mail message. “We are evaluating its effectiveness in further building brand awareness for WebMD .”

Ms. Millard, the Martha Stewart executive, said she had considered posting content on Knol but decided against it. “You are continuing to build their business if you do that, versus building your own.”

Google’s growing reach into the content business could create conflicts similar to those faced by Microsoft in its dual role as a provider of an operating system that others run their software applications on and a maker of applications, Mr. Calacanis said. It is possible that with YouTube, Knol, Blogger and other company sites, Google could take 3 of the top 10 results in some searches, he added. That could alienate Web publishers that are Google’s advertising partners, even if there is no indication that Google artificially favored its sites, he said.

While Google helps drive the success of other content providers, it is clear that the company will not shy away from entering what it considers “high-value” content areas, said David B. Yoffie, a professor at the Harvard Business School.

“If I am a content provider and I depend upon Google as a mechanism to drive traffic to me, should I fear that they may compete with me in the future?” Professor Yoffie asked. “The answer is absolutely, positively yes.”

Google has appeared even-handed with search queries, Professor Yoffie said. But he, too, believes that if Google further expands into content, it will meet some of the conflicts Microsoft faced more than a decade ago.

“A lot of the issues that we saw play out between Microsoft and its ecosystem in the 1990s will play out again between Google and its ecosystem,” he said.

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