What Google did next - and why publishers need to watch out

What Google did next - and why publishers need to watch out

With Google increasing its dominion across arts and culture content, publishers would be foolish not to consolidate their digital strategies and keep a very close eye on the primary-coloured behemoth's next moves...


When I worked at Penguin, my IT guy would refer to books as data. As you might imagine, this didn’t go down so well with the editorial teams. Fast forward a couple of decades though and his terminology can be seen as prophetic of how some big tech companies see the arts, culture and books. 

In July, Google Arts & Culture launched a new app and website which allows you to “immerse yourself in cultural experiences across art, history and wonders of the world – from more than a thousand museums across 70 countries”. You can also subscribe to the new Google Arts & Culture YouTube channel.

With the launch of this channel barely 90 days after the US Supreme Court denied the American Authors Guild right to appeal its copyright infringement case against Google for scanning library books, it is not unreasonable to take another look at Google’s relationship with the creative sector in its broadest sense and question its seemingly altruistic approach to museums. After all, The Authors Guild President, Roxana Robinson, said after the Supreme Court verdict: “We’re witnessing a vast redistribution of wealth from the creative sector to the tech sector, not only with books but across the spectrum of the arts.”

Google is a search and advertising company. Its primary profits come from advertising, and its unparalleled ability to tailor its advertising to an individual segment of one – you.  And the advertising it displays is the trade-off that allows you to see its search results, its YouTube videos and its Maps for free. As you use its services, it builds up a profile of you which it sells to advertisers.

As Google puts it, when you use any of Google’s services (which include Arts & Culture and Google Books), “we process information about that activity - including information like the video you watched, device IDs, IP addresses, cookie data, and location. We also process the kinds of information described above when you use apps or non-Google sites that use Google services like ads, Analytics, and the YouTube video player.”

And that activity is used, among other things, to “deliver ads based on your interests, including things like searches you've done or videos you've watched on YouTube”.  Blogger Andrew Lewis’s comment from 2010 sums it up: “ If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”

On the face of it, the Google Arts & Culture initiative is a non-profit platform that displays works of art that many people around the world do not have the chance to see. Some believe that seeing the artwork online will then lead to an increase in visitors who might not have been aware of the art museum beforehand. Amit Sood, the director of the Google Cultural Institute, said in a recent article in Wired that one of the museums’ fears was that the project would reduce the number of people walking through the door. Having seen the detailed images of a painting, or a virtual reality walk-around of an antique train in India, why spend extra time and money to see the original? “We worked very hard to debunk this,” he said. “The only way we could do it was wait. The Art Newspaper reports year-on-year records in museum visits”. For an organisation with such a relentless focus on real-time personalised data, ‘waiting’, and relying on a generalised newspaper report to gauge their progress is a surprising strategy.

The potential problem here is a difference in strategic thinking between Google and arts organisations in general. Arts organisations – especially smaller ones - are focused on funding rounds and relatively short term sponsorship strategies to bring in visitors and survive. If they were playing a game of chess with Google, they would be focused on the third row of the board, whereas Google is focused on the eighth row, and is playing simultaneous games with museums, galleries, book and magazine publishers, authors associations, TV networks, cultural institutions and opera houses. 

In addition, Google has a perspective that spans all industries, and for each cultural industry to understand its own position on the board, it must understand what all other industries are doing as well to know how to play the game. ArsTechnica’s review of the Google Books case commented that “in the long run, the ruling could inspire other large-scale digitisation projects”: clearly there is more eighth row thinking likely.

Looking at Google’s new Arts & Culture app and website, there is still a significant gap between these and the immersive experience of being in situ. “You can duplicate the object, but you cannot duplicate the experience,” Martijn Pronk, head of digital and publishing at the Rijksmuseum told me. “People buy fake Louis Vuitton bags on beaches around the world, but it is not the same as having the real thing, and people can tell. Louis Vuitton’s profit is growing year-on-year. Duplicates are marketing for the real thing.” 

True, the marketing strength that Google brings to large and small art museums creates a global awareness that could only be dreamed of before digital media. But look ahead: virtual reality is a new technology that is all about immersion, and Google is a key player in its development. As this technology is adopted worldwide, the experiential gap between visiting a museum in reality and visiting it virtually will diminish, and with it, the reason for people to visit the physical space. VR will allow for the emotional connection with art to be recreated from the digitised versions. Once an artifact has been digitised, it does not matter to Google’s service whether the physical location stands or falls. 

The Rijksmuseum is placing its images in the public domain as part of an advanced digital strategy that creates worldwide creative usage of its content. Both small and large art museums can benefit greatly from partnerships with large tech companies, but any partnership needs to be a part of a holistic digital strategy, not a stand-alone experiment. The StreetView 360 version of the Rijksmuseum that Google photographed is copyrighted Google – so the virtual tour of the museum belongs to Google. This fits the Rijksmuseum’s strategy, but might raise eyebrows for creative industries where copyright protection is important.

All creative sectors have been wooed by Google with varying results. In 2012, YouTube’s head of content announced its plans to “invest in 60 new European channels”, and that anyone involved in content production should be building channels on YouTube. After the keynote announcement, I spoke to production companies who were ecstatic about developing content for YouTube and creating new revenue streams but not one of them could say what the revenue share was or how much profit they would be generating. One of the highest profile brands in the 2012 announcement was Jamie Oliver’s food channel. Fast-forward two years and even his channels were way off profitability. “I’m still in deficit. I’m burning more than I’m earning” he told The Drum, revealing that up to £1m has been spent “every three or four months” on the channels. 

YouTube stars with low production budgets and content styles that match the medium fare better, with the top stars able to bring in £300,000 per month. New players are dominating screen time and are nimble, innovative and able to spot opportunities that traditional broadcasters are not structured to see. The television industry has also been looking at row three of the chess board, focused on terrestrial platforms or OTT services such as Netflix and Amazon. Vice Media’s Chief Executive Shane Smith used this year’s McTaggart lecture to describe how mainstream media is heading for chaos and that “as many as 30% of content companies that exist this year will go away this year, will merge or sell their URLs…anyone with half a brain in digital is making strategic alliances”.

Without a doubt, the internet has been the fastest growing creative and technology platform in history, and its rapid evolution will only accelerate in the coming years as ideas travel faster around the world and with the advent of quantum computing. Companies like Google are exploiting their own position to the best of their ability, and creating the highest profits possible through their advertising platforms. In its desire to be relevant to every aspect of our lives, it is natural that Google would look to increase engagement by bringing emotionally powerful traditional content onto its platform. Expanding humankind’s awareness of all our cultural and creative endeavours is a valuable and important mission, but not when it comes at the expense of the creators and curators of these endeavours.

It should come as no surprise that Google sees media and the arts as a honeytrap to further their own ambitions in user profiling and advertising. It is entrepreneurial and strategic in its approach to the chess game, and plays it well. The Google Books case in the US has proven that it also plays it very seriously.

I believe the game is now is about longer-term digital strategies that are sustainable and future-focused. The time for short-term experiments has passed. I also believe that a consolidated digital strategy needs to be created across all creative sectors – publishing, the arts, television, film - to share common goals and protect common interests. It is vital for the creative industries to broaden their understanding of digital strategies across all sectors, including Google’s, to make sure they remain in charge of their own products, not part of someone else’s.