Welcome to the cesspool of online publishing and search. This down and dirty scene reveals two armies mounting the ongoing battle to stake claim to online content. Traditional media troops pitted against the burgeoning voice of populace publishing and the medium which is their microphone.
Last week, Jim Spanfeller, Forbes.com CEO, expressed his perspective on Google's evolving role in the online ecosystem. Search guru Danny Sullivan countered Jim's views and each closed with appeals to move the state of search forward.
Out of great respect for the parties involved, I am opting to remain Swiss on the situation. Instead, I'd like to take the discussion in another direction. I have now lived in both worlds, and given that my time in this particular venue is rapidly coming to an end, I'll offer an injection of invective on our evolving online landscape.
Where is the Wisdom?
Dueling author's commentaries aside, the new army began firing away with a phalanx of anonymous and for the most part captious criticisms in the comments sections of both sites. Harsh words, if you will, flying about like machine gun shell casings, spent without care for where the lead ended up.
As Spanfeller says, "Google is only a small part of the problem."
Nothing upsets the militia of armchair word warriors more than an expression of opinion based on the experiences and perspective of an individual running a rather large company. A big company CEO must be evil. When an opportunity presents itself to exercise the Web-given right of thuggish anonymity, you'll find the erroneously empowered searching for flaws.
The only politically correct way to handle such carnage is to do exactly what Mr. Spanfeller did; thank those posting comments without getting drawn into the pit.
I question what a cacophony of biased blather does for any given party. It's virtually impossible to listen to it all, or draw any real conclusions save for one very painful item in this case. While the new army suggests that the old guard should be afraid, their own fears and uncertainty become painfully clear.
The new army is equally as intimidated by the old guard as the old rules of engagement have been shaken by the new. The major divergence between parties is varying monetization tactics deployed as the well of advertising dollars runs dry.
Journalism on the Frontline
What exactly is a professional journalist? Is that someone without bias who understands the principles and ethics associated with reporting information, a.k.a. content?
The new army touts the benefits of citizen journalists, and the old army complains incessantly about the lack of ethics and training of the new army.
The new army collects a paycheck from driving traffic to its sites, by any means necessary. They collect click dollars from ads placed within the walls of their blogs and (loosely defined) information sites. They sell webinars, tickets to seminars and the like.
The old army offers payments to their writers and the same types of revenue-generating opportunities, including selling ads in their publications.
So What's the Difference?
Here's another problem neither army seems to be willing or able discuss. Both tout the benefits of retaining top talent and yet, neither army admits to the lack of compensation of its writing talent. Of course, exploiting talent is nothing new, that's why we have unions.
What's different today -- and what has the traditional world so upset -- is that any idiot with a keyboard can be a writer. That's not to say that everyone with a keyboard is an idiot, but there are no real qualifications for the job other than lining up 100 other idiots to confirm your status as a self-appointed expert.
If you are a writer, speaker or some other type of talent and you are getting paid for the trade you admire, respect and effort, you can almost guarantee that someone is waiting in the wings to complete your assigned tasks at no cost to the publisher.
In other words, if you expect to be paid for your work, don't count on it; someone else will happily do it for free in exchange for potential fame.
Who Owns the Click?
Is the click really the discussion we should be having? I think there are more important issues at hand.
The ownership of "brand" and advertising-supported keyword search is the absolute last front in this battle. True, the technology is not perfect, and the dozens of lawsuits surrounding brand and keyword use as yet unresolved is an indicator, but we're treating symptoms, not the illness itself.
As each search site continues to one-up the other in terms of the sheer volume of sites included in their index, the armies representing each type of content continue to compete in a fruitless battle that will ultimately end in neither party having control or even inclusion in these decisions.
The Real Deal
The Financial Times reported last week that as the government investigated Google CEO Eric Schmidt's simultaneous roles in Apple and Google, Schmidt acknowledged a new phase of scrutiny of Google's dominance.
You can expect more of the same as the economy worsens and the definition of editorial continues to change. Both the old and new content armies will wage war by crying foul at every possible term. "Editorial integrity," "brand ownership," and "content credibility," arguments will be the primary instruments of the war.
On one hand, opportunities are being created for the man on the street. On the other hand, big media companies are struggling and the men on the street could care less. The everyman perception is often about maintaining the big CEO's house in the Hamptons while protecting his blue-blood buddies. Ironically, it seems the everyman is in pursuit of the house in the Hamptons.
The core issue of search's role seems to be one company's dominance of the space and its ability to make decisions that limit competition by leveraging its control. When overtly exerted control takes the place of innovation, battles ensue.
In short, while the journalistic battle may eventually regulate itself, it's clear that search will end up being regulated by big government. The process will look just like the dismantling of "Ma Bell" and it will probably be just as sloppy.
Welcome to the revolution.