The Value of All the News Research That’s (Not) Fit to Print
While there’s little question that objective news sources are socially important, the economic quantification of the importance of news to digital services is a challenging proposition, and the topic has a history of spectacularly improbable claims.
Enter the latest: a behavioral economics study commissioned by Swiss media publishers that, according to one account, concludes that news results being displayed in response to Google Search queries account for the majority of Google’s annual revenues. Authored by FehrAdvice & Partners AG, the study concludes that Swiss media producers therefore deserve approximately 154 million Swiss francs (nearly $176 million USD) a year from Google. Logic would argue these publishers could claim a proportionate sum from other sites that similarly direct users to news content.
The basis for these numbers derives from various unverified assertions, including the study authors’ conclusion that 55% of Google searches are “information searches”. These searches, according to the paper, equate with interest in journalistic topics. This figure is nearly impossible to square with Google’s previous statement that “news queries on Search accounted for under 2% of total queries on Google Search globally in 2022”. That matters, since the 55% figure provides a cornerstone of the paper’s improbable estimate.
The authors’ behavioral experiment found that in a new “information search”, users who had just seen a version of Google without journalistic content were somewhat more likely to navigate to media websites directly than they were to use Google again. The actual change in user behavior is tiny — a percentage in the single digits, and the persistence of this change is never verified — but the paper uses an unjustifiable methodology to arrive at its nine-digit annual sum.
The methodology was to essentially ask respondents whether they are actively seeking to avoid media content. Finding that 70% of respondents are not trying to avoid media content, it then asserts that 70 percentage points of Google’s search engine advertising revenue is attributable to media content, despite the fact that much of that content may never appear in search results accompanied by advertising. The paper then asserts media companies should receive a dubious “fair share” of 40% of that 70 percentage points, equivalent to a full 28 percentage points of all Google Search engine advertising revenue. The absurdity of this approach is immediately apparent: the survey just as easily could have asked whether respondents wanted to exclude football-related content from their search results, observed that the majority are not seeking to exclude such content, and then claimed that a majority of Google Search engine advertising revenue is attributable to football content.¹
Beyond the study’s technical failings, it misunderstands how digital ecosystems work. Like the assorted link taxes that have been explored in other jurisdictions, the study begins from the costly, false premise that digital services “free-ride” off the online content that they drive users toward, when in fact the relationship is a symbiotic one. The U.S. Copyright Office, in recommending against additional statutory protections for news publishers beyond the copyright protections they already enjoy, observed that “News aggregators drive a significant amount of traffic to news sites, and therefore their activities may serve to expand the market for press publishers.”
Of course, content producers that don’t like the arrangement can opt out. News publishers have long known they can control whether they are indexed by search tools through the use of the robots exclusion protocol, and also change whether and how snippets are created from content.
More broadly, the notion that a product that shows no ads against and earns no money on news derives tens, or perhaps hundreds of millions in revenue from said news is dubious at best. It is widely accepted that search queries associated with purchase decisions are far more valuable to advertisers than queries related to current events.
Unfortunately, this study comes at a time when internet users are increasingly disengaging with news content. According to the 2023 Reuters Institute Digital News Report, 36% of users report that they sometimes or often “actively try to avoid the news,” and that number is rising. In fact, the Fehr study implicitly reaffirms that 30% of users actively prefer to avoid news content. Whatever the cause of this potentially concerning trend, it undercuts the notion that news content is the primary value proposition in search results.
¹ The nine-digit annual sum presented by the paper is particularly implausible because the paper estimates consumer willingness to pay for media content in Google Search results, and arrives at CHF 0.50, or about $0.57 USD, per person per month. Using the paper’s purported “fair share” estimate of about 40%, that comes to about CHF 0.20, or about $0.23 USD, per month per Swiss consumer, or about $24 million USD per year for Switzerland, far less than the headline estimate. The actual “fair share” figure would most likely be zero percent, as media companies can choose not to be indexed or have snippets produced in search results, and they generally do not make this choice. This suggests that publishers are gaining rather than losing from both being included in Google Search results.