The Digital Skeptic: Google Can Even Fail Seeking Its Own Content

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Joel Barish thought he was getting the email all entrepreneurs dream of.

"I opened my inbox and there's a note from Google ( GOOG)," Barish told me over the phone. "But it was not about an email account. It was about buying my library of content."

Barish is founder and owner of DeafNation, an Austin, Texas-based video, news, social networking and special events service for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. It's a business that clearly should interest Google. The three-person firm hosts roughly 10 to 15 events per year in cities across America that some 800,000 people have attended since 2003. The company's Facebook ( FB) page has roughly 50,000 fans. Its Twitter account has about 15,000 followers. And fetches roughly 2 million views per month, mostly from several hundred three- to 10-minute videos Barish self-produces about remarkable people from around the world who happen to use sign language.

"We focus on uplifting stories my friends want to see," he said.

Getting paid to listen to what his audience wants
Barish makes money the old-fashioned way: National advertisers such as Sprint ( S) pay around $5,000 for live event sponsorships. He says he gets $2,000 a month for the banner ads on his site.

"I do the deals myself, in fact. I just call the companies up and sell them," he said.

When Google representatives began emailing him last year, he initially figured he'd hit Web gold. Like other content producers, he had gotten wind about Google's plans for forging relationships with producers such as Barish, especially to get those videos of his onto YouTube.

Robert Kyncl, the company's vice president for content partnerships, talked this year about initiatives in which Google would put real skin in the content game.

"We're putting money at risk to catalyze the creative community," he told Peter Kafka at the All Things Digital blog last month.

Chris Dale, senior manager of corporate communications at Google, explained to me how Google plays the content game. There are two types of deals: the traditional by-click relationships, used by the vast majority of creators, in which Google retains something like half the take; and the new plan, in which Google coughs up what amounts to cash advances to content producers -- who then earn back the spend as content draws more traffic.

"Kyncl saw thousands of pitches for those," Dale told me. "And he accepted, I think, 96."

But when I asked Barish about what it's really like to cut a deal with Google, he laughed.

"They start you off talking about how they do 2 billion pageviews a day, and all these things they are going to do for you," he said. "It all sounds really exciting."

Barish became nervous that by dealing with the software giant, he would be handing over control of his content without a firm sense of what exactly he would get in return.

"It was big-time creepy," he said, and ultimately Google could not address those concerns. Barish passed. "I did not see what I need them for," Barish said.

No time for content.
If Barish's experience is any indication, Google has a deeper cultural makeover ahead than passing out some cash to lure content creators, as it's doing with YouTube.

"I had worked so hard to build DeafNation," Barish said. "Honestly, I felt like I was selling my soul if I did a deal."

Google confirmed that a company representative exchanged emails with Barish and his representatives, but declined to comment on the specifics of the deal, other than to say it reviews many such opportunities and makes those that make sense for the firm.

Barish is not alone in getting the content heebie jeebies from Google, though. Rich Raddon, of the Venice, Calif-based Zefr, which offers YouTube aggregation tools to professional content creators, posted an open letter this week pleading with producers to have an open mind about joining up.

"Recognize it and embrace it, and it will open up new opportunities," he wrote.

Which means exactly this for investors: If the Joel Barishes of the world see no need to deal with Google, it should come as no surprise if others feel the same. That means turning a profit in the content game is not just some algorithm Google goes off and creates.

Content will be as tough a game for the software giant as it is for everybody else in the disaster pic that is the digital age.
This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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