Super-sizing Google News
Weblogs are the Rodney Dangerfield of the media world. They just can't get no respect. "Hey, I knocked off Trent Lott and people started to notice. I broke the whole shuttle crash thing, and it didn't make a dent. When are they gonna listen to me?" But then came the news that Google is buying weblog pioneer and hosting service Pyra, which built Blogger. Nothing could have given bloggers more street cred than this. The seemingly only cool pre-IPO Silicon Valley company validating the online self-publishing revolution. The birth of a new cyber-cool in a time when gee-whiz technology has taken a backseat to the boring old bottom line.
My knee-jerk reaction was to find out who broke the story, how it spread, what the blogs were saying, how the mainstream press reacted. And this was indeed an interesting story within the story; one that's already been told so many times it feels like ancient history already (thanks to bloggers). The San Jose Mercury News' Dan Gillmor broke the story on his weblog while Pyra co-founder Evan Williams was on a panel at "Live from the Blogoshere," who then updated his weblog and projected it to the audience. Another blogger on the panel, Tony Pierce, later complained that the Los Angeles Times reporter in the house didn't even write up the buyout story. (Pierce does a much better job than I could tracing the breaking story online.)
As for the blogosphere reaction, it was overwhelmingly positive. Dave Winer, who oversees Blogger competitor UserLand, said he wouldn't be surprised if deals for other blog tools were in the works. The rare sour notes came from blogger Anil Dash, calling it "Google's first mistake" for losing its search focus, and from the hecklers at Slashdot, who feared their Google searches would be "diluted with blog drivel." But then again, Slashdot folks can always gum up online opinion with their own brand of cynical drivel, especially when something so underground-hip gets broader recognition.
In this case, the more mainstream media had a better view of the buyout, turning the table on bloggers and commenting on them and their world this time. Bloggers are known for their piss and vinegar, and are not exactly equipped to comment on a story that basically boils down to: Company A buys Company B because it fits into part of its business. But that's what the vanilla media can do best. First, you have the Mercury News breaking the story -- albeit on a blog. Then you have InternetNews.com putting the business deal in plain old business terms: "the company [could] begin selling targeted news packages (including niche weblog content) to large-scale enterprise clients looking to plug feeds into intranets and internal news services."
Finally, the cheeky Guardian says it all so simply: "powerful pairing," "match made in bloggershere heaven," (and best of all) "it could make mergers respectable again."
What does it mean for Joe Searcher?
I love this kind of stuff. The blogger reaction, the mainstream press excitement. But there's one nagging worry in the back of my brain as I surf for more comments, more articles, more blah blah blah. Let's say the simple bottom line of this buyout is that Google now has blogging software and access to hundreds of thousands of blogs it can index to super-charge Google News searches. If that's the whole story in a nutshell, what is all the other babble I've been reading endlessly?
In other words, Google might use the Blogger-sphere to figure out how to help Joe Searcher find what's hot and happening in the blogging world, what story has yet to break, what's bubbling up from the online underground. But what if this Holy Grail is nothing more than the unreal Holy Grail? Just a cyclical, gossipy, self-congratulatory "link me and I'll link you" world based on lazy Monday morning quarterbacking? Yesterday, you had a worst-case scenario on M.I.T.'s Blodgex, where the top stories are all about Google/Pyra while war lurks in every corner of the world.
History teaches us that when search sites, especially uncool portals like Yahoo and Lycos, decided to buy up hot "personal Web site" growers, GeoCities and Tripod (respectively); the results were less than astounding financially. Can Blogger and UserLand and Movable Type bring in sizable revenues for portals or potential buyers? And what exactly are they buying? More to the point: Is blogging just another passing fad, due to fade away when no one can make more than Amazon-enabled handouts?
Some online squawkers felt that Google was just doing charity to a fellow cool company on hard times -- throwing fellow hipsters a financial bone. Nonsense. Google sees a business opportunity, a way to convert bloggers into a profit center, or they wouldn't have done it. But how they can do that, despite all the conjecture, remains a mystery.
Mark Glaser currently writes technology features for TechWeb, occasional features for The New York Times' Circuits section, marketing material for Comcast Online, and a bi-weekly e-mail newsletter for the Online Publishers Association, whose membership includes most major media companies online. That won't stop him from taking cheap potshots at these outlets, when necessary. You can contact him with any juicy tidbits about online journalism at firstname.lastname@example.org.