Beginning in 2013 Google started talks with some big publishers about offering software to help manage content and advertising in a holistic way, multiple sources said. Among the executives involved in some of those early discussions was Richard Gingras, Google's senior director of news and social projects and formerly the CEO at Salon Media Group. However, any CMS product would likely come from Google's ads development side, not Gingras' group on the news development side, sources said.
Google's CMS plans are at a very early stage. While discussions with some publishers began last year, no one commenting for this story has seen a demo or screenshot. But according to one source, the idea is more than conceptual. "It's past the whiteboard phase," this person said.
If and when the CMS becomes reality, the product would tie in to Google's publisher-facing ad stack including its DoubleClick for Publishers ad-management tools and its yield management capabilities acquired via AdMeld, now housed within DoubleClick Ad Exchange. Other likely functions include integrated paywall support, commerce features, content recommendation links and plugins to ad sales-management tools.
The so-far-untapped opportunity that Google is chasing – articulated with greater frequency this year in ad tech circles – is to take a holistic approach to managing yield that spans multiple publisher revenue sources and screen form factors. This trend has accelerated with the rise of mobile and the resulting decline in screen real estate. With less space to serve ads and content, each decision matters more. In light of this trend, some believe content tech and ad tech systems are likely to merge over time.
But a CMS could be a tough sell for Google, especially as a number of publishers have lately staked their future on the strength of a proprietary CMS. Three prominent examples are Vox Media, whose vaunted Chorus CMS is considered its secret sauce, BuzzFeed, which has baked native advertising into its content platform, and The New York Times, where technology-powered storytelling is seen as core to its editorial and advertising mission. For such publishers, adopting a CMS from a large platform player like Google would be tantamount to outsourcing the very notion of innovation.
Additionally many established publishers have customized their content tools to integrate with legacy publishing systems. Many publishers use multiple CMSs, for instance a custom platform powered by Drupal alongside Wordpress for blogging. So there's a big technical hurdle to adopting any off-the-shelf solution Google has on offer. That's setting aside the technical and human resources barriers required to migrate away from "good enough" content systems.
But what about this idea of holistic yield management?
"There are many ways to skin that cat without building a whole content management system," said one senior executive at a major publisher. "An API into whatever yield-management system they have would be sufficient. But Google wants to own the whole stack."
Even so, for every Vox Media there may be a Meredith Corp. or a McClatchy Co., both well regarded print publishers that may lack the resources to continually invest in content distribution tools. For those that already have a solid relationship with Google, the allure of a closer partnership could be strong.
From Google's standpoint the opportunity is clear. Within the broadening programmatic arena, premium publishers are the belles at the ball, swarmed by would-be dance partners that include SSPs (PubMatic, Rubicon Project, OpenX and, yes, Google); ad networks (Criteo, Rocket Fuel and, again, Google), content recommendation vendors (Taboola, Outbrain, AOL's Gravity) and analytics and data specialists (AddThis, ShareThis, ChartBeat), to name a handful.
While development of Google's CMS has begun, its completion may not be assured. One senior publisher source said Google has been relatively silent after numerous meetings extending from summer to late fall 2013. And another person with knowledge of Google's plans suggested there's no guarantee a CMS product will come to market at all.
After all, Google has dabbled in content technology projects over the years, but those efforts have tended to fizzle. There's the Blogger platform, acquired in 2003 and still up on cinderblocks. And back in 2009, it worked with The Washington Post and the Times on a project called Living Stories, but that too never amounted to much.
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