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September 19, 2006

What YouTube can learn from Google

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It was widely covered yesterday that Google was ordered by the courts to remove all articles produced by Belgian publishers out of their index and cache. Well, Google won our hearts and did them one better. They removed Belgian publishers completely from Belgian search results. Heh. Good for you, Google.

Here’s an example of Google’s genius in action (via Nathan). You’ll see Google returns zero results for the “site:www.lesoir.be” and includes this clause at the bottom of the empty SERP.

“In response to a legal request submitted to Google, we have removed 1224 result(s) from this page. If you wish, you may read more about the request at ChillingEffects.org.”

There are two ways this can play out. Either Lesoir and other Belgian publishers will see the error of their ways once their traffic drops and ask to be let back into Google’s index or Google will become irrelevant in Belgium. I’m not one for placing bets, but I’d say choice A is more likely.

YouTube, are you watching? You are the Google in this equation, and I hope you consider that before launching into your next deal. Just as Google isn’t stealing copyrighted content from Belgian publishers, you’re not stealing copyright content from record companies. You’re simply directing users to the videos on your site. If people like Doug Morris want to bellyache that you owe them tens of millions of dollars, I say you pull a Google and remove them from your index.

I understand that YouTube has to protect itself but it makes me nervous to see them enter into deals like the one they dove into yesterday. What is YouTube really gaining here? Warner Music group gets to share YouTube’s revenue, decide which artists YouTube can and cannot feature, and in effect, turns YouTube into one giant Warner Music TV commercial. Is that really in YouTube’s best interest?

The difference between Google and YouTube is that Google realizes its own strength. Google knows that ultimately newspapers need them more then Google needs Belgian newspapers. And it’s in the same way, and for the same reasons, that music labels need YouTube more than YouTube needs record labels. YouTube brings the traffic, and ultimately, the revenue.

I think Doug Morris’s lamenting comes down to the issue of control. Universal Records is losing control of their shop. At the rate YouTube is growing, it may not be long before artists don’t need record labels anymore. Why give Universal a percent of your earnings when YouTube is happy to distribute and promote your songs for free? Why pay Universal when your audience is on YouTube? Why pay a record label when it’s YouTube spreading your buzz and driving people into music stores? It doesn’t make sense.

YouTube has replaced the small coffee house that artists used to have to play at to gain a following and create initial buzz. Now, someone uploads a video of Band X playing in their garage, and within a few days thousands of potential fans may have seen it. YouTube has changed the way bands attract and interact with fans.

Like newspapers need to embrace Google, record labels need to embrace YouTube. YouTube isn’t Napster. They’re not robbing artists of customers by giving them high-quality versions of their music; they’re giving them low-grade videos to get potential customers excited and drive them into record stores. Just ask OK Go.

Instead of launching into bad deals, YouTube needs to take the Google approach to their index. If Universal Music wants YouTube to stop allowing users to infringe on their copyright, ask your users to stop uploading videos by Universal Music’s artists. I bet you they’ll by very inclined to help the cause, if only to prove a point. (Susan disagrees, but I think users are just that vindictive (I mean, loyal) and would be more than willing to make an example of Universal Music.) Remove them from your index and let Doug Morris see his artists’ sales drop. Let him alienate his artists and his company from its core demographic. We’ll see how fast he asks to be let back onto YouTube.

Obviously, there’s a chance that this could produce a dangerous chain reaction where multiple record labels demand their artists’ videos be taken off the site, but I think that’s unlikely. A smart record executive knows the power of YouTube. They have seen the increase in the numbers that occurs after the YouTube audience grabs a hold of a video. They’ve seen OK Go’s treadmill dance. You can’t dismiss its effectiveness for getting music out to the users.

There’s a lesson here: If you anger the people responsible for bringing you traffic and making you money, they’ll stop.

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