Irony alert: Google is all about preserving the context of offline content

I surrender. I’m now officially retiring from trying to convince anyone that making online content replicate the offline version it mirrors “misses the point.”

When one of Google’s most senior executives suggests that online content needs to preserve the context of how it appeared in print, any logic in my argument is toast. In this video, Google’s Marissa Mayer argues that online content mirroring content offline publications is best understood when the offline context is preserved: Same headlines, same page numbers, same linear navigation that starts with a front page and ends with a back page. You know, the kind of media where you don’t have the luxury of search to help you navigate through.

In the linked-to video (from TechCrunch 50), Mayer demonstrates a new initiative of Google that will scan newspapers to add to the results one finds on Google’s News Archive Search. The business model is this: The newspaper archives will display Google Adsense ads and the revenue will be shared with the newspaper’s publisher. The service will also have links “to drive off-line subscriptions to the newspapers,” she said (with a straight face).

In what I would have considered an unintentionally ironic comment had she not repeated it so many times, Mayer says in the video, “(scanning the full page of a newspaper) is important because the news articles can be seen in their original context.” In the demo, she shows how one can see the relative placement of the stories and what ads were appearing next to the article and what was on the front page of the newspaper on that day.

Why is that ironic?

Google has just spent the past ten years creating technology and one of the world’s largest businesses that is based on getting you to the exact word or phrase you are looking for — not the sentence, or paragraph, or article, or page or issue you are looking for, but the precise nugget of knowledge you are seeking. Context, be damned.

As someone who loves research and history, I am delighted that Google is bringing online what I used to search for using microfiche. I think it will be a great academic research tool. Indeed, I’m already a huge fan and I’ve only spent five minutes testing it out.

However, let’s be honest. The only reason Google is doing this is to shovel a vast inventory of archival content online on which to run Google ads. The notion that Google is about preserving the “context” of content is, at best, ironic, at worst, cynical spin.

Google is an advertising search company, not a context preservation company.

Later: One of my favorite Googlers has let me know they think this post is mis-guided. That Google has always pointed back to the the place where the content can be found — this merely adds another dimension wherein Google can point to where content is found in a medium first created offline.

I agree that this new project is a great research tool and can benefit academics and anyone doing historical research. However, my original post is influenced by the number of years I’ve spent trying to explain why content online does not have to replicate the same format and conventions of its offline version. There’s an entire industry of web-apps people who are trying to convince publishers they should produce exact, PDF-like versions of their magazines online. I think that’s fine in certain instances and for certain publications. But I don’t think it’s an effective online strategy. My argument is nuanced and esoteric and of interest to very few. So I’ll stop there.

Note: I removed the UStream embedded video (here’s a link to it) because it automatically started playing whenever I landed anywhere on this blog’s front page. Very annoying.

  • I agree that this has almost nothing to do with why I use Google for searching, since newspapers rarely place related articles together, except perhaps for the way the New York Times sometimes runs an analysis piece adjacent to a breaking news article. Much more interesting would be so see the thread of related stories so I could search backwards in time to find out how something got started.

    That said it is kind of a cool feature for avoiding real work – like in the days before styrofoam packing material where you could read the newspapers stuff was packed with.

  • Good point, Christopher. The feature could prove to be a very enticing time sink.

  • Interesting points in the post and I see where you base your position on. But I have a feeling that a context in this case is more of a tool to preserve the atmosphere of doing an original research in a library – since as many people have already noted such a tool will only have a limited user base and that user base will really appreciate this original feeling. As for the context to put ads, I guess Google has enough of that anyway – and the audience this product is targeted at is hardly one to bring significant revenue to Google.

  • Hudge

    Washington — The Justice Department has quietly hired one of the nation’s best-known litigators, former Walt Disney Co. vice chairman Sanford Litvack, for a possible antitrust challenge to Google Inc.’s growing power in advertising.

    Mr. Litvack’s hiring is the strongest signal yet that the U.S. is preparing to take court action against Google and its search-advertising deal with Yahoo Inc. The two companies combined would account for more than 80% of U.S. online-search ads.

    Google shares tumbled 5.5%, or $24.30, to $419.95 in 4 p.m. trading on the Nasdaq Stock Market, while Yahoo shares were up 18 cents to $18.26.

    For weeks, U.S. lawyers have been deposing witnesses and issuing subpoenas for documents to support a challenge to the deal, lawyers close to the review said. Such efforts don’t always mean a case will be brought, however.