Marissa Mayer: Digital Promiscuity and Digital Loyalty

It was a one minute exchange (via the Valleywag) at the San Francisco Web Summit between Google’s Marissa Mayer and managing WSJ editor Robert Thomson..but it spoke volumes

Thomson accused Google of promoting “digital promiscuity” by devaluing “digital loyalty”. The bone of contention? Google’s font size for quote attributions. People get the info they’re looking for and may never see the contributing source. Moderator John Battelle quipped that he never thought he’d be moderating a panel where the debate was about font size – “Can we reach detente at 7 points?”

One might think that a quibble about font size seems inconsequential, but there’s a lot at play here. First of all, let’s explore this from the user side.

The user is looking for information and they go to Google, because that’s what they always do. They take the fastest and most reliable route to information. In the results, they see what they’re looking for. Now, one of two things is going to happen. Either they’re satisfied with the information they received on the Google results page, or they need more information and they’ll choose the best link. Thomson’s contention is that the font size is too small to allow users familiar and loyal to the WSJ brand to quickly identify the source and to weigh that in their decision. Fair enough, I guess. See for yourself. Here is a screen shot of Google News for the query “Sri Lanka”:

Screen shot 2009-10-23 at 3.09.07 PM

So, here’s where the digital promiscuity charge comes in. Each story has many potential paths to go down, most or all of them away from the original source. The user is free to choose where they go..and I suspect putting the attribution quote in 12 point type won’t really change that. I’ve looked at enough eye tracking to know that. The user is going to follow the strongest information scent, the link best aligned with what they were looking for. Google actually does the contributing source a big favor by putting that link top and in the most popular eye scan path. Mayer would know far more so than Thomson the significant advantage this gives the official source. We’re incredibly lazy when we make our online choices. A .5 inch move of the cursor is a wall too great for many users to bother climbing over.

Also, what is Google doing wrong here? Google’s job is to provide the best information source alternatives for the user. Period. Google is doing the WSJ or any other traditional publication a tremendous favor by indexing their content and introducing that content to the huge number of people that use Google every day. Yes, they get the content, but the WSJ gets the opportunity to grab the eyeballs. Obviously, traditional journalism hasn’t figured out how digital information seeking works in the 21st century.

Which brings me to why Thomson has his knickers in a knot. It’s a elephant sized case of not “Getting It”. This isn’t about digital loyalty. This is about looking for information. This is a transition of power into the hands of the user. The WSJ or any other paper no longer has sole control over a loyal readership, giving it license to push its editorial viewpoint as in days past. It’s not promiscuity..it’s freedom. Freedom to choose the path that suits the user best. Google is simply playing the role of the emancipator here. Here’s something else to ponder. Google would not be in the position to threaten anyone if we had not already made the decision that it is the place we will go for our information. And that includes all those “loyal” readers.

Thomson is in a snit because the WSJ’s revenue models are seriously out of sync with their readership’s preferences. That’s not Google’s fault. I’m guessing the blame lies in the failure of publishing to realize their day in the sun is over. And the only one to blame for that is the public. We’ve moved on. Get used to it.

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