Is Google a Media Company? In a Word, Yes.

The New York Times ran a story today entitled Is Google a Media Company? In my estimation the answer is simple: Yes, Virginia, Google is a media company and in reality always has been.

The Times story is about knols, Google’s “unit of knowledge,” about which I’ve previously written in (one of my more cleverly titled posts, if I do say so myself): Google as Publisher, The Grassy Knol.

It all comes down to buttermilk pancakes. When you phrase search “buttermilk pancakes” in Google, hit #3 is a knol by Scott Jenson.

Hey — wait a minute — who the hell is Scott Jenson and why is his pancake recipe #3 on Google? The answer: Scott Jenson is “a user interface designer for Google … avid cook and traveler.”

Oh. That explains it.

Now you might like your pancake recipes to come from Google user interface designers (and I’m sure they look pretty), but I have trouble believing that mainstream society wants recipes that way. If they did, I suppose we’d be watching UI designers all day on the Food Network, instead of Bobby Flay, the ever-profane Gordon Ramsay, or Iron Chef Morimoto.

But Scott wrote a knol. And Google can, and probably will, decide to prioritize knols over other content sources, and certainly will, ceteris paribus. Hence the conflict of interest between Google the indexer and Google the content owner. (Do you think it’s an accident I run this blog on blogger? One hopes for whatever advantage one can get.)

Where, for example, do we find the venerable Martha Stewart’s buttermilk pancake recipe?

She comes up, in total obscurity, at #18. And here’s what the co-CEO of her company, Wenda Harris Millard, has to say about it:

Although Martha Stewart’s buttermilk pancake recipe appears lower than the Knol recipe in Google’s rankings, Ms. Millard does not believe that Google unfairly favors pages from Knol. But she said that Google’s dual role as search engine and content site raises an issue of perception. “The question in people’s minds is how unbiased can Google be as it grows and grows and grows,” Ms. Millard said.

I suspect Ms. Millard is so polite because she doesn’t want Martha’s recipe at #180.

Google, predictably weighs in with claims of neutrality:

“When you see Knol pages rank high, they are there because they have earned their position,” said Gabriel Stricker, a spokesman for Google.

Yes, I’m sure. By the way, John Edwards is faithful, the Chinese gymnasts are all 16, and there really is a Santa Claus.

Google can say they are not in the content business, but if they are paying people and distributing and archiving their work, it is getting harder to make that case,” said Jason Calacanis, the chief executive of Mahalo, a search engine that relies on editors to create pages on a variety of subjects. “They are competing for talent, for advertisers and for users.”

The sooner publishers realize that Google already is a media company and becoming more of one every day, the better. Call knols the smoking gun, or the smoking pancake. But realize the inherent conflict between index neutrality and content ownership. Then consider how businesses over history have managed such conflicts.

“If I am a content provider and I depend upon Google as a mechanism to drive traffic to me, should I fear that they may compete with me in the future?” Professor Yoffie asked. “The answer is absolutely, positively yes.”

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