Google Gap and Finding Free content on the Internet

Austin Business Journal, July 2003

When I visit Amazon.com's website, the screen greets me by name and they have book and music recommendations for me, based on my past purchases. Because I've ordered business books from Amazon, they frequently suggest the latest best-selling business volume.

Lately they've been also recommending magazine articles that they sell directly through the Internet. For instance, they recently tried to sell me Michael Porter's classic article "What is Strategy" which first appeared in Harvard Business Review in 1996. For $7.00 I could buy a PDF copy of this article and download it to my computer.

The ability to buy a copy of a magazine article from seven years ago might sound like a routine development in the integration of the Internet into our daily lives. But what's interesting is that Amazon is selling a file that I was to obtain for free by looking in the right place on the Internet. And not from some shady website that offers bootleg copies of intellectual property. From the website of the Austin Public Library!

Granted, I had to do a little work to find the article through the library website, and I had to enter my library card number to access the on-line databases. But I was able to find the same PDF file that Amazon was selling, and I didn't have to pay for it.

Similarly, I read an article in Scientific American several years ago about lambic beer. After drinking a glass of lambic at a local pub recently I thought about that article and tried to find it at the Scientific American website. However to provide articles from the mid-1990s Scientific American wanted me to subscribe to their digital service. A quick visit to the public library website and I had the article I was looking for without paying a penny.

These examples point to a major challenge of selling information on-line. Both legal and illegal sites often provide for free the same information that merchants attempt to sell. And despite attempts to control intangible intellectual property, there appears to be no stopping the transmission of information.

The music publishing industry's on-going struggle against peer-to-peer file sharing services shows how difficult it can be to charge money for easily copied products. Despite the shutdown of Napster and Austin-based Audio Galaxy, music continues to float around the Internet without the consent of the copyright owners. Indeed, whole television programs and feature films are available on the Internet if you know where to look.

The other issue raised by my experience with the library website is a casual assumption shared by many computer users: that everything accessible on the Internet can be found through search engines.

Typing "Michael Porter 'What is Strategy' " into the popular search engine Google yields several websites that, like Amazon, are trying to sell the article, and many more websites that refer to or comment on Porter's article. But I did not see a website that actually had a copy of the article on-line.

A search for "lambic beer Scientific American" on Google yields several websites that refer to the article I was looking for, but not the article itself. However, by looking at the website of my own city's library, I was able to find these publications without leaving my office.

This discrepancy is something for the business researcher to keep in mind. It's wrong to assume that Google can find all available content on the Internet.

Search engines are much superior to what they were a few years ago. They cover more websites and return more accurate results. But even the best search engines only cover a portion of what is available on the Internet.

The almost unconscious assumption of Internet users that Google has access to everything sells short the many information resources that are not available through search engines. Observers have dubbed this disparity the "Google Gap".

Useful business information is available for places that do not necessarily show up on general-purpose search engines.

When Internet businesses were expanding a few years ago, many sites offered free information with hopes of inducing "stickiness" and loyal visitors. Some of these sites now charge subscriptions in an attempt to cash in on that loyalty; others have gone out of business. For the diligent searcher, however, a wealth of information is freely available.

The business researcher should seek out resources relevant to his or her geographic location or target market or production technology. Many small industry-specific directories and websites can be valuable sources of information and contacts to other people who can point you in the right direction.

In addition, federal and state government websites have improved vastly in past several years, and they are now valuable resources to citizens looking for marketing, competitive, and regulatory information.

 

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