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September 27, 2006

Should Google’s policy be opt-in?

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On the heels of the Belgian court decision, Google has decided to clarify its philosophy on content (though Google told Danny Sullivan the two were unrelated). The general idea behind the post is that Google applies fair-use to what it includes in its index. Google clarifies:

“Because we don’t own this content, over the years we’ve come up with three primary principles to ensure that we respect content owners and protect their rights:

* we respect copyright;
* we let owners choose whether we index their content in our products;
* we try to bring benefit back to content owners by partnering with them.”

I think it’s important to note that Google has no plans to be a content producer. That’s not their role. All they’re doing is organizing the information already out there. If you don’t want your content indexed, all you have to do is opt out. It really is that simple.

When Google indexes content via Google News, they’re not displaying that article in its entirely on the Google site. They give users a headline, a snippet and perhaps a thumbnail. If the user wants to read more, they’re directed back to the original site. In this scenario, everyone wins. Google, the publisher and the user.

Does Google make money off this system? Yes (indirectly through AdSense and AdWords because there is no advertising on Google News), but so do the publishers. Often pride gets in the way when publishers realize that Google is making more advertising revenue off their content then they, the content producer, are. But as John Battelle notes in his blog, you can’t fault Google for having larger profit margins. Google is a bigger beast than most content providers, and in return, they make more money through their advertising. That’s just how the system was created.

Google has always ran an opt-out system, but with all the recent legal trouble, some people are asking if Google should change its opt-out policy to opt-in? Should they?

No.

That would be ridiculous.

A spirited commenter over at John Battelle’s blog likens Google’s opt-out policy to the opening scene in Hitchhiker’s Guide where Arthur Dent finds out that his house is slated to be demolished. The analogy is rather lengthy so go read it and come back.

Good? Okay, in case you cheated, the gist of the comment is that Arthur Dent wakes up to find out his house is being demolished after he had received no notice. Only he had, sort of. The plans for the demolishing had been “on display” in a dark, stair-less basement for nine months. It was up to Arthur to know it was there.

While I see the commenter’s point, there’s one big difference between this scene and what Google actually does. Google’s not hiding their intentions in a dark basement only findable through torchlight. Content publishers know about Google News. If you don’t want Google to index your content, say it in your robots.txt file.

Google’s system has to be opt-out. It would be impossible for Google to contact every book publisher in the world to let them know they are about to launch a service called Google Book Search and ask if they want to be a part of it. However, if you’re a responsible book publisher, you’re probably keeping an eye out for services that compete or complement your own. If you hear rumblings that Google is about to launch such a service, make sure your content is guarded by your robots.txt file. Better yet, be proactive. Anything that you don’t want indexed, ever, should be guarded. That’s why the robot.txt is there.

Whether or not the post effects any immediate change, I think it was important that Google lay out their policy the way they did. From today on out it will serve as their guidepost whenever an individual or company threatens to file suit against them for content stealing. It may also help soothe fears of rustled content providers now on the defensive.

Whether or not it was done in response to Belgium (I can’t believe it wasn’t…), having this framework available on the Google blog for all eternity will no doubt help them in their next court case regarding the issue. And yes, there will a next one.

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