We’ll know soon whether the proposed Google-Yahoo! advertising deal will be challenged by the Department of Justice. Certainly there are signs, most notably the hiring of antitrust litigator Sanford Litvack, that it may do so.
But figuring out what is, and is not, in restraint of trade is kind of tricky these days. In 2002, antitrust concerns derailed the merger of DirecTV and Echostar, a union that would have reduced the number of satellite TV companies from two to one. Yet just this summer, the two companies that comprise the whole of the satellite radio industry were allowed to merge.
So the opinions that follow aren’t informed by any special knowledge of what the DOJ will do, or even by the factors that will carry the greatest weight within that agency. By whatever market analysis the DOJ employs, the deal that some refer to as GooglyHoo either will or will not be allowed to go forward.
The question being addressed here is narrower. It is what the deal might mean to online publishers. Because of the inherent uncertainties in a deal not yet consummated, much less experienced, we don’t have all the facts. But there’s a difference, as someone once said, between a lack of complete knowledge and a complete lack of knowledge. We don’t know everything about GooglyHoo, but we know enough to be worried.
Importantly lurking in the background of this matter is the parlous state of journalism and the legacy media. In the introduction to its State of the News Media 2008, here is how the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) put it: “The crisis in journalism, in other words, may not strictly be loss of audience. It may, more fundamentally, be the decoupling of news and advertising…. Online, the problem is that the revenue model is in search, not conventional, advertising — and journalism sites are now already lagging behind other Internet sectors financially.”
In a Perspectives piece published by The Media Institute earlier this week, attorney Stephen Kinsella suggests a number of ways in which the Google-Yahoo! ad deal could harm the interests of publishers. Most directly, he says the deal would mean that “online publishers will earn less revenue from their search syndication and contextual advertising deals.”
“Google and Yahoo!,” Kinsella notes, “are currently the two major players in syndicated search and contextual advertising, and compete with each other for these deals with online publishers. This competition is what pushes both companies to offer more advantageous terms to online publishers. A Google-Yahoo! agreement will weaken Yahoo!’s competitiveness in bidding for these deals, simply because Yahoo! will have fewer of its own ads to serve as advertisers increasingly migrate away from Yahoo!’s higher prices following the implementation of the deal.”
A similar argument was made by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN). On Sept. 15, this umbrella organization for some 18,000 newspapers worldwide asked competition authorities in Europe and North America to block the deal, saying it would have a negative impact on the ad revenues that the search firms provide to newspapers.
Quoth the WAN: “The competition that currently exists between Google and Yahoo! is absolutely essential to ensuring that our member titles receive competitive returns for online advertising on their sites…. In our view, the proposed advertising deal between Google and Yahoo! would seriously weaken that competition, resulting in less revenues and higher prices for our members.”
Concerns about the prospective anti-competitive effects of the deal have also been expressed by the leading U.S. advertising association, the Association of National Advertisers, and with less vigor by the American Association of Advertising Agencies.
The concerns and objections raised by these individuals and organizations do not, of course, prove that the Google-Yahoo! ad deal would be ruinous to online publishers, or that the deal would mark the beginning of the end for Yahoo!. But given the current state of the legacy media, and their future reliance — if they have a future — on online advertising, it is not surprising that this deal has alarmed many people.
Judging by some of its business practices and policy positions, as posted here in July, Google the company (as distinguished from Google the search engine) disappoints in many ways. And at the end of the day this disappointment, if shared, may be a matter of some moment. Because given the opacity and potential harm of this proposed deal, the question of support for it may come down to a matter of trust. And the view from here is that Google hasn’t earned that trust.