Interview: Google News' Josh Cohen: Can The Aggregator Ever Win Over Publishers?

There’s no shortage of publishers who are eager to criticize Google (NSDQ: GOOG) — and specifically Google News. They accuse the company alternatively of building a business on the back of their content and not giving their original content sufficient visibility in search results. Despite high-profile efforts to reach out to publishers, including a keynote address by CEO Eric Schmidt at the Newspaper Association of America conference this spring, tensions remain high. Just last week, Italian regulatory officials searched Google’s offices in Milan, after publishers there complained that they could not pull their articles from Google News without losing their spots in Google’s search results.

As senior business product manager of Google News, Josh Cohen is the point man for Google News’ discussions with publishers. In a recent interview with paidContent at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Cohen talked about the state of relations with publishers, why Google News doesn’t look very different than it did a few years ago, and how the service could change. Read on for some edited excerpts.

paidContent: You wrote a post shortly after the incident in Milan last week that made it clear that publishers could in fact opt-out of Google News and still have their stories included in Google search results. So why are the publishers so upset?

Josh Cohen: I can’t talk to that for two reasons — one the details of the case, but the other thing is I don’t know what’s going on in that situation. I was out there this summer and had some discussions with the publishers. A lot of my job is trying to put a face to the algorithm in some ways, trying to make it a little bit more transparent. And so with the discussions there in that case in particular there was an understanding, ‘If we decide we don’t want to do this, what are my options?’ So how it got to where it did last week I couldn’t tell you.

How much of these tensions are simply a function of the fact that content producers are going through challenging times?

Obviously, there are major challenges for the news industry worldwide — with the newspaper industry and the transition into the digital space. Google oftentimes becomes synonymous with the internet and anything that happens with the internet good, (people say), ‘Oh, that’s Google,’ and we may have nothing to do with it. But there’s a flip side of it as well. People look at the challenges they are facing with distributed content and (say), well if it’s bad from the internet, then it must be Google as well.

So you’ve become a scapegoat?

I think people are going to look at us on both ends sometimes. It can be looking to us for blame in certain situations — and coupled with that is people looking at (us) to help. How can you help us get more traffic? How can you help us monetize? So I think (with) some publishers there’s no negative criticism. (It’s) ‘We’re criticizing you because we want you to do more.’ We’re doing a lot today with publishers. But that’s not to say that there isn’t more we can and should be doing.

What do these discussions with publishers amount to?

Some of those discussions are purely around the user experience: What does it look like on Google, how can we work together to improve the experience of our users who come to Google News to look for content and also think about what are the ways we can work together to help improve the product side of it. Much of the discussion today is about the business model. Do we put pay walls? Do we not? Our argument has always been you can’t forget the product side of it as well. You can put up a pay wall, that’s fine, but what’s happening on the other side of that pay wall? Are you creating compelling content? Is it a great user experience on your website?

Schmidt noted during the company’s earnings call last quarter that an infrastructure to support micropayments had yet to be built. Would you consider helping publishers create some sort of micropayment system?

There’s (Google) Checkout today. There are tools for e-commerce. Where do we go with that in terms of the technology side of it, i think that’s an open question.

For the publishers, I think, how do we want to engage the discoverability side. If you’re making content paid, it’s as important if not more important to make sure that you’re still discoverable from search. In the same way we work with people like the FT, the WSJ — people who have paywalls, how do we find ways to support those models. At the very least we’re going to want to try to find ways to continue to work with them.

If you look at Google News today, it doesn’t look that different than it did two years ago. Is there a concern that if you add features that might otherwise seem logical there would be a backlash from publishers?

I don’t think that’s a factor. In innovation, there’s a balance for any product that has a large user base. How do you continue to innovate, how do you make changes while not antagonizing your existing user base. We want to be the starting point as people start thinking about their news, but we’re not the end. If we grow significantly then at the end of the day it’s going to drive more traffic to publishers.

With some other aggregators, like Digg, there seems to be so much more user engagement. You don’t really see that on Google News.

I think that’s a fair point. There’s a lot more we can do on the social nature of news. I think Digg does a great job of that. There’s such a social nature to how information overall is consumed now. We have some things were working on in that area.

One feature that Google News did introduce but later dropped let sources in an article comment about it — on Google News. Why was it pulled?

How do you promote that to people? If we’re limiting that circle of who can comment on it, it’s kind of silly to do a promo and say, ‘Comment on that story. No, not 99.9 percent of you, just that small fraction.’ How do you let people know that can happen? The second part of it is where that interaction with the story takes place. Most of those interactions take place on the publisher’s side. If our focus is the same way it is within web search — when you find a story you don’t read that story on Google News. You go to the publisher side of it. So often times the commenting, that type of engagement, takes place on the publisher side. That was one of the challenges.

You’re now including Wikipedia entries in Google News. What other sources would you consider including?

We started that as an experiment. (It was) just incredibly successful because people obviously found value in getting those links and clicking through them. We quickly moved from the experiment stage — just because the results were so overwhelming — to push that out more broadly. And we’re always looking for different ways. It’s about organizing the world’s information, not just having a string of links but providing context to it. More things I’m sure that we can think of and we will play around with to continue that …

… As new, different sources for news and information begin to develop we will want to try to incorporate that as much as possible. What is a news source? It is increasingly gray. As much as possible we try to stay out of any sort of editorial or qualitative judgments. (The) aggregation of pubic information data — that certainly didn’t exist a few years ago. You can talk about the debates about Twitter. Is Twitter journalism or not? There’s no question it’s part of the dialogue today in news.

How are the search ads that were introduced earlier this year to Google News working out?

If you are looking for Afghanistan, there is not necessarily coverage for ads for things like that, but (in general) I’d say it’s comparable in terms of the effectiveness when we are showing results to it for certain categories. You can search for iPhone in a web search and iPhone in news.

Would you ever consider sharing some of that revenue with publishers?

I think the question comes down to what is the value that each of us are getting out of this. So if you think about it from the publishers’ side of it, we definitely feel we are delivering value to them. We get value from being able to display that content and being able to crawl that and index that. And they get value from the tremendous amount of traffic that we send in a given month. Just from Google News, it’s in the neighborhood of a billion clicks every single month. There’s value in that. You can do the math yourself — of each click, how many page views do they get on their site from that click, what are the CPMs that they are doing — and there’s clearly a value you are getting from that free traffic, which you can in turn monetize.

I think most publishers would acknowledge that they do get value from Google News. But they want more.

I think everybody wants more. We have a vested interest in ensuring that when the traffic goes to their sites, their online revenue goes up if they’re doing a better job of monetization with our help (via Google AdSense). We all win.

If you don’t like what we are doing with your content in Google News you can stop us and I think the reason why the vast majority of publishers are still in Google News is that we are delivering value to them. It’s not intended to be this all-or-nothing proposition — and robots.txt (a file Google News encourages publishers to place if they don’t want their stories crawled) actually has a number of more- fine-grain control(s).