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Turns out it's Google's fault, after all

Submitted by yelvington on April 20, 2009 - 10:38am

Once upon a time, you couldn't find much of anything on the Internet.

Oh, there were a couple of ways to do it. Gopher tried to hook everything into a big menu tree that you could follow to the point of exhaustion. Mosaic's homepage was set to automatically open the National Center for Supercomputing Applications "what's new" document, which announced three, four, even five new websites a day. If you were smart, you bookmarked the good ones.

In those days, newspapers had a powerful position.

In every city, a newspaper was the Number One brand when it came to news, and being Number One was important. If you really wanted to know what was happening, you'd read one or maybe even two newspapers. TV had only a couple of newscasts a day. That was changing, of course; the Gulf War had sold a lot of cable subscriptions and CNN was suddenly taken seriously, but there was no MSNBC and no Fox News.

There was news on the Internet -- and classified ads, and even some businesses (which newspapers call advertisers) had sites.

Theoretically, the Internet made it cheap and easy to publish. Almost anybody could do it. Theoretically.

Practically, publishing something on the net didn't have much impact, because of that problem of finding it.

Then came the catalogers (Yahoo, Looksmart, the Open Directory Project) and the search engines (Lycos, Infoseek, Alta Vista). And eventually one search engine to rule them all: Google.

They ruined everything for the aristocrats of news and information. They transformed the Internet's theoretical revolution into fact. Google played a particularly important role in destroying the Old Order. Google's search doesn't just look at text. Its ranking algorithm counts the links that point to a resource, replacing a hierarchy of brands with a meritocracy of content. When you link to something, you're voting in an election.

So ultimately, the plight of newspapers is Google's fault, after all. But not because Google (and fill-in-the-blank "others") are "stealing" news. It's because Google (and fill-in-the-blank "others") have helped fix a broad array of information-scarcity problems.

For some of those problems -- such as finding a used car on Saturday morning -- newspapers used to be the best solution, but no more.

We could rant, I suppose, about how the Internet stole this or that, or how newspaper management was blind and let the Internet steal this or that, or how the online guys at the newspapers gave away this or that. But it's pointless, isn't it? Newspapers never owned the news, or the advertisers, or the readers. It might have looked that way, but don't let appearances deceive. Blame it on Google, if you want, but let's please move on.

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